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Twelve years is a long time to hold down the same job; in the restaurant industry, it's nearly a lifetime. When chefs manage to stick around for more than a decade, it's usually a sign that they've found a home where they can grow and build on their success. That's what Matt Mine thought, at least. He's been cooking for more than twenty years, and a dozen of those years were spent with one company. He started at Oceanaire in Seattle and stuck with the small chain, moving to Indiana and eventually to Denver, where he was executive chef and managing partner at the downtown Oceanaire Seafood Room for six years.
Even while Oceanaire was going through bankruptcy proceedings and was eventually bought by national seafood giant Landry's Restaurants Inc., Mine stuck with the Denver outpost, known as much for his famously indulgent bacon steaks (which won a Westword Best of Denver award in 2008) and good humor as for its raw bar. "Landry's likes what we do and does not wish to change us," Mine told Westword soon after the sale. "So we should be safe as far as being a great seafood restaurant."
Mine stayed on there for another three years, but eventually found himself out of a job and burned out on the restaurant scene in mid-2013. He says he feels no ill will toward Landry's and loved working for Oceanaire, but that it was definitely time for a change. "It's hard to find that spark after so long," he says. So rather than rush into another job and make himself miserable, Mine took some time off. "I just needed to regroup, recharge the batteries," he explains.
That time off stretched into months as he found himself enjoying his quiet and contemplative time away from professional kitchens. "I was doing some fishing," he recalls. "A lot of fishing. Mostly trout." But a chef with his experience and reputation couldn't slip below the radar for long. Mine eventually found his way back into the kitchen at Harman's in Cherry Creek North, working with chef John Little and getting reacquainted with the ingredients and dishes not seen in seafood restaurants. "I got my sense of urgency back," he recalls. "I was working with a group of guys who not only pushed you, but inspired you to do better."
That led to a position at Humboldt, a restaurant that emphasizes seafood but that also delves into more eclectic New American cooking -- the kind of food that's driving the current Denver restaurant explosion. "Everybody's palates are so different," notes Mine. "The important thing is to make simple food really good -- a few ingredients cooked properly."
And that's what attracted him to Atticus, where he landed late this fall. "We know how food is supposed to taste," he says of his new kitchen and its owners (Table to Tavern, which also owns Boone's, next door to Atticus, and the new Blackbird). Since it opened in the University of Denver area, Boone's has had a smoker out back and emphasized barbecue, though with more upscale offerings than you'd expect at a sports bar, like smoked pot roast. Mine is now running the menus for both Atticus and Boone's. "We're a little more smokehouse, with Low Country sides and Southern influences," he says of Atticus, whose revised menu is eclectic without being overcomplicated. "It's food like you cook at home, only nicer."
At the moment, Mine is focusing on seasonality and researching small farms in the region so that he can begin sourcing more meat and produce locally (a move that Table to Tavern is definitely on board with). He's having fun with dishes like pork terrine made from cheek and neck meat, Brussels sprouts with truffle-chile vinaigrette, and a butternut squash-noodle winter salad with sweet-potato gnocchi croutons. Despite that smoker, Atticus has always reserved a fair amount of menu space for vegetarian items, and Mine plans to continue that. "Even if they're not 100 percent vegetarian," he says of Denver diners and Atticus customers, "people are conscious of healthy eating. So much for the days of Denver as a cowtown."
Mine hails from western Pennsylvania, where he grew up knowing that food was a big part of his life. "Food brings people together," he says. He was always in the kitchen for family gatherings and special occasions and had a healthy appetite for the meals that his family cooked. "I used to love liver and onions, Brussels sprouts, peas," he remembers. "All the things you're supposed to hate as a kid." After graduating from high school, Mine went directly into culinary school in Pittsburgh. A desire for change took him to Seattle, where his interest in cooking seafood blossomed. He worked at Sazerac, an influential restaurant in the city that combines the aquatic bounty of the Pacific Northwest with the flavors of New Orleans. That experience helped him land a job at Oceanaire, which ultimately brought him to the Mile High City. "Denver's a special place," he says. After spending almost eleven years here, he considers himself a near-native of our landlocked city and is ready to focus on things beyond fish.
"Seafood is very near and dear to my heart," Mine admits, but he also loves what Denver chefs are doing these days. Although he's shy about naming favorites because "it wouldn't be fair to all the great places," he says -- and also because he hasn't had time to do much lately beyond walk his dogs, sleep and work -- he's willing to dish out a few examples of restaurants that are shaping how the city eats.
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