When chef Robert Grant accepted an offer from restaurateur Dory Ford to help open Baur’s Restaurant & Listening Lounge in a historic downtown space, it marked Grant’s return to Denver after a decade. He had grown up in Aurora and attended culinary school at Johnson & Wales University before heading to Las Vegas in 2005 for an internship. Over the past ten years, he trained in the kitchen of one of the country’s culinary masters, honed his craft as a butcher and traveled around Europe, learning from traditional food producers and restaurants. For Baur’s, which opened in April, he and chef-owner Ford have crafted a menu that draws from that decade of disparate experiences.
Grant’s parents weren’t exactly foodies, but they never discouraged him from cooking; his mom told him he could do whatever he wanted with his life, as long as it was work that made him happy. Food — learning how to cook it and exploring restaurants in Denver and other spots on family vacations — made him happy. A great-aunt who noticed his early penchant for cooking pointed out that it was something he could do for a living, so as soon as he turned sixteen and got his driver’s license, Grant headed straight for Cook’s Fresh Market (which was located in the Denver Tech Center at the time).“I don’t know anything, but I’ll work really hard,” he told owner Edward Janos, one of the only Certified Master Chefs currently working in Colorado. Grant also enrolled in ProStart, a food-service and hospitality-management curriculum for high-school juniors and seniors.
“Once I realized what was out there, I was addicted to learning,” Grant recalls. While he was still a teenager, he entered national culinary competitions, and in 2003 he earned the ProStart Student of the Year honor, which came with enough scholarship money to pay for most of his education at Johnson & Wales.
The final step in earning a JWU culinary degree is a three-month internship; Grant was able to land his at the Las Vegas branch of Bouchon, one of the restaurants run by world-renowned chef Thomas Keller, owner of the French Laundry in California and Per Se in New York City. His work so impressed his chef that Grant was given a paying job and worked at Bouchon for three years, working nearly every station and embracing Keller’s philosophy. “Those were the most important years of my career,” Grant says. “The thing that he did that I try to live my life by is that he instills his values and culture into everything he does, and for every restaurant. I try to cook and to lead by those values as well as live my life that way.” Among those values is the notion that everything can always be done just a little bit better.
Grant says he would have been a “lifer” at Keller’s restaurants but for his growing desire to travel — spurred by reading about the original bouchons Lyonnais, traditional French restaurants serving rustic fare centered on charcuterie that inspired Keller himself to open the first Bouchon in Yountville, California (the Vegas branch is the second). So Grant traveled to France and Spain, WWOOFing for room and board. (WWOOF originally stood for Working Weekends on Organic Farms, but has since expanded its mission and now goes mostly by the acronym.) “Cooking in Normandy was one of the huge experiences,” he says of his experience working for a man who “ran an auberge — and his brother had a bakery and grew his own wheat and milled wheat for flour every day. In the morning we would feed the pigs, pull weeds, work in the garden, take a break — and then begin to prep in the restaurant.”
On Majorca, he hunted wild goat with a shepherd who used nothing but two dogs and a rope to capture an animal on the mountainous western slopes of the island. “You run after the dogs,” he explains, and the dogs eventually corner the goat, giving the shepherd a chance to lasso the beast and carry it over his shoulders back to town, where it is butchered. Grant assisted with that, too, and learned to properly cook the lean, aromatic meat. “If you’re going to take that life, you’d better respect that life,” he notes.
After four months in Europe, Grant returned to the U.S. and took a job at the Butcher Shop, a Boston restaurant with a retail meat counter, where he worked for three years as head butcher and chef de cuisine under chef-owner Barbara Lynch, a top East Coast restaurateur. “I completely learned inside and out how to butcher,” he says. “I also met my wife there, and two of my best friends.”
When the travel bug hit again, Grant and his wife bought one-way tickets to Genoa and WWOOFed their way through Italy, working at wineries, a hazelnut farm and a cashmere sheep farm. In the Emiglia-Romana region, Grant perfected his pasta technique and picked up Italian in addition to his self-taught Spanish and French. “They basically had to kick me out,” he jokes. “I did not want to leave.”
But the two did return to Massachusetts, where they had a son — and soon realized that they wanted to raise him in Colorado. “I thought it would be nice for our son to grow up near family,” he says.
An online job ad connected Grant with Ford. During a December trip to Denver to interview, Grant hit several new restaurants and was impressed by how the scene had progressed since he left. “I thought, ‘I can’t believe this is happening in my home town,’” he recalls. “That’s when I realized it was time to come back and be part of this community.” He landed the job after “36 straight hours of cooking” for Ford and his partners in California, moved his family to Denver and immediately began working with Baur’s.
At the restaurant, he’s married his love of butchering with Ford’s Monterey Bay style to build a menu that balances seafood flown in almost daily with preserving techniques that help extend the life of seasonal meats and produce. For the charcuterie program, he says, “We’re starting off with very classic things to introduce people — and then we’ll get more whimsical.” Those classic products include pâté de campagne with a very traditional quatre-epice spice blend, pork rillette, chicken-liver mousse and a sturdy headcheese; he’s also planning to start a house-cured salumi program. Grant talks passionately about getting the emulsion just right — not only when making more exotic items like lamb merguez, but also with something as seemingly simple as housemade hot dogs. He’s been hawking sausages and hot dogs at the Cherry Creek farmers’ market on the weekends to spread the word about Baur’s, and has also introduced a “15 in 15” special that promises a $15 lunch with a main, a side and a dessert in fifteen minutes. That deal will hit its stride later this summer, once the dining-room chef’s island is completed so that customers can order lunch cooked à la minute by a chef at the station.
For much of the seafood, Grant relies on Ford’s California connections. “The majority of the fish comes from Dory’s fisherman buddy in Monterey Bay,” he notes. “I talk to Jerry almost every day. It’s as fresh as I was used to working with on the East Coast.” Another one of Ford’s business partners picks and shucks abalone, “and he’ll sneak in a few octopus for me,” Grant adds.
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Where food comes from — and how it changes as people move from one region to another — is important to Grant. “The environment influences the traditions. That’s what makes American food so unique,” he says. “The only thing that unites us is our ability to cook over fire. I love to share traditions through the food and the ceremony of eating together. It’s healing, transformative and transporting.”
And then he adds: “I didn’t know that when I started — I just thought it was cool.”