Michael Wright describes his first glimpse of Fire, the restaurant at the Art hotel, as a revelation: “The elevators opened, and I thought, ‘What is this? This is insane!’” The focus of the kitchen was a big shift, too, from that of the Brown Palace, where he’d spent the previous twelve years cooking: Fire’s more modern sensibility allows Wright to push beyond his classic French roots and explore other flavors and techniques. His goal? To make Fire the top restaurant in town, to match the Art’s stellar reputation. In this interview, he talks about the evolution of hotel restaurants, how to get picky kids to be more adventurous, and the secret to making good chili.
Westword: You cut your teeth at the Brown Palace, where you cooked fairly traditional hotel fare. Now you’ve taken over a kitchen with a more modern vibe. How’s the transition going?
Michael Wright: The Brown Palace taught me fundamentals; all my chefs over there were of so many different styles. One was into modern gastronomy, another was farm-to-table cooking. I’ve been doing classic French for so long, and it’s still my favorite to do, but [the Art] is where I can fully use everything I’ve learned. To take the farm-to-table and modern gastronomy and meld them is the most exciting thing in the world. We have no limits here. I’m like a kid in a candy store — there are no set concepts here yet. I think we’re developing that now.
Hotel restaurants are no longer just for hotel guests; they’re now competing with other restaurants to build local clientele. How does that evolution shift your approach to the menu?
There’s a balance here: The breakfast and lunch clientele are the same clientele I’ve been serving for twelve years, which is business types coming through Denver and staying at the hotel. But once you hit social hour, a young millennial crowd starts coming in, and the same goes for dinner. That’s really when you can go no-holds-barred. Mornings and lunch will be a little more reserved. Dinner, you have to start making new and different stuff. Also, banquet work has always been an interest for me — our new catering menu isn’t your traditional buffets. I want to do a plate-up for 250 that looks like something that you’d get at a five-person dinner.
Any dishes that you want to highlight?
Our salmon dish is probably our number-one seller right now. It’s Skuna Bay salmon from Vancouver in a brown-butter beurre blanc with pumpkin gnocchi and Brussels sprouts. Smoked trout for appetizers is always a good mover.
How did you get into this industry?
Growing up, we never really cooked. My parents were nine-to-fivers who came home and cooked something simple. When I was thirteen, I got a part-time job at a steakhouse. I would come in and clean the whole kitchen on Saturday morning. The owner also owned a cattle ranch in Wyoming, and he would raise the cattle and bring it to the restaurant. One day I caught him [breaking down] meat. That was kind of cool; I’d never seen that before. So I helped out with that after I finished my cleaning duties. Over time, I started doing some of the small prep. One day, one of the cooks called out sick. It happened to be the broiler guy. So they took me, a fourteen-year-old kid, and threw me on the line on a Saturday night. I fell in love with it. I worked through high school with them, then worked at a couple other mom-and-pop restaurants. I got more and more interested, but when I graduated from high school, I did a complete 180 and decided I was going to go into computers. I graduated with three associate’s degrees in computer science and got a job, but I was always toying around at home, practicing recipes. Pretty soon I decided to scrap my computer career and go back to cooking school. When it came time to find an internship, it was a good time to leave Minneapolis, so I thought, why not head to Denver?
Any food memories you hold particularly dear?
My grandma was Polish, and for Christmas Eve, we used to do Polish night. Most people would be having ham; we’d be having kielbasa and sauerkraut and pierogies. My mom has that pierogi recipe locked up right now; eventually I’ll have it. I’ve tried to mimic it, but it’s tough. She had little tricks.
What’s the biggest threat to the Denver restaurant industry?
The lack of staff. You have to hire whatever comes to you, and that’s where a lot of people start getting in trouble, because they get people who aren’t qualified. That threatens safety and service, and that’s the downside. Or you simplify food so you can cook faster, which I don’t believe in; certain things have to be a certain way. Cutting corners is a bad way to go about it. You’re seeing more management-type chefs who are cooking on the line. I haven’t worked this much in twelve years. I think it’s a good thing to brush up on our skills — some of us haven’t done this in a while. But in the long run, clientele are going to suffer; at some point, you get too busy and you can’t serve everyone.
What’s always in your fridge or pantry?
Salt, which is my favorite ingredient — what don’t you put salt on? Some kind of pasta, fresh or dried. Freddy’s sauce, from Freddy’s [Frozen Custard and Steakburgers]. Right now, I have Royal Crest eggnog — can’t live without that during the holiday season. A pound of hamburger.
What do you cook at home?
I always do pancake Sundays for my kid. My boy and I will get up and decide on a new pancake. During the summer, a piece of meat and vegetables on the grill. In the winter, stews, pot roasts. I go back to my Minnesota roots and throw anything in a crockpot or roasting pan and let it go. And chili — if you sign me up for a chili competition, I’ll be there.
Chili! What kind?
Green, white, red, it doesn’t matter. When I was at the Brown Palace, I took first place [in a local competition] every year. I’m still waiting to punch my ticket for Fort Worth. But even if there are little chili competitions, I’ll probably enter them.
What’s the key to making great chili?
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Cook slow. It’s all about layering flavors, just like making sauce. And taste, taste, taste.
You mentioned cooking with your kid — any tips for parents of picky eaters?
Let them make it. Let them cook, and see how picky they are after.
How about a shift drink?
A Bud Light, then I hit the sack and get ready for the next morning. Unless it’s a weekend night, then maybe a whiskey on the rocks. A little Jameson.
Hours: 6:30 a.m. through 11 p.m. daily