Chef News

Chefs on Hospitality, Hiring, Sourcing and the Denver Dining Scene in 2016

This past year was frenetic — and not just in the political arena. Denver’s dining scene continued to move at a breakneck pace, as seasoned restaurateurs, rising stars and fresh transplants alike opened ambitious new restaurants. Amid all the activity, what were the Mile High City’s hospitality professionals talking about? Here’s a second taste of our 2016 Chef and Tell interviews, full of colorful first food memories, a few cooking tips and plenty of opinions.

On authenticity and regional cooking:

Thoa Nguyen, New Saigon: Every household has a different version of authenticity. Authenticity includes necessary flavors and ingredients. But even food in Vietnam has changed. Sriracha is American; in Vietnam, Thai chile peppers add the spice. But over time, Vietnam picked up sriracha, and now they have their own version.

Tian Xia, The Bronze Empire:
It takes a lot of energy and guts to open a restaurant that uses authentic recipes. Everybody already knows kung pao chicken or sesame chicken. When we first opened, people who used to come to Red Coral came in and wanted to eat sesame chicken, and when we said we don’t have it, they’d leave.
On hospitality:

Patrick Kelly, Panzano: Hotel life has...given me a very holistic approach to hospitality. Hotel life is about going the extra mile for a guest who needs a gluten-free muffin in the morning. If you don’t have one, you’re going to the store. You surround yourself with a different attitude. Kimpton is an amazing place to work. I’m surrounded by people with genuine warmth.

Sean Kenyon, Williams & Graham:
Hospitality is all about creating a relationship with every individual guest. There’s no broad blanket; it’s different for every person. It takes a unique person to identify that. When I go into a lot of places here, that personal part is what is missing. Service has gotten a lot better, and by that I mean the steps of service: greeting, giving information, affecting friendliness. But the thing that weaves service and hospitality together is intangible. Genuine-ness can’t be faked. Genuine warmth is lacking in our community.

Ben Knaus, There...: An overstaffed room doesn’t guarantee quality hospitality. It’s the people that provide a hospitable experience. [There... partner Oren] Cohen likes to say, “If you’re not hospitable, stay the @$%# out of hospitality.” This is a career built on sincerity. Our lean roster of talent allows us luxuries and opportunities that some of the more traditionally built programs simply do not. We are all about community and client cultivation. Our guys rotate throughout the room, touching each table, connecting with every guest. You’re not going to be seated and then greeted by anyone saying, “Hello, my name is ____. I’ll be your ____ this evening.”The whole room is our section.

On the importance of finding and keeping good people in this industry:

Ellen Daehnick, Post Oak Hall:
Consistency is really easy to talk about, but it’s hard to achieve. Even in small-scale specialty-food manufacturing, we want the product to be the same when people encounter it across time. That means we need standardized processes, systems, quality assurance and training, and we need to hire really well. All the things that go into big businesses are just as important when you’re small. We have a team of ten people now. They’re kind of amazing people. They take what they’re doing as seriously as I do, and they’re really good at what they do. They try to make every box of caramels as good as the last, and do it a little faster.

Juan Padro, Highland Tap and Burger: A lot of owners I talk to tell you how hard it is to hire, but owners have to shift their thinking on how to hire and develop people. One of the things we set out to do when we started working in this business was to understand why there’s this massive turnover. The thing that stood out the most was that every time someone went home to see the family, that family would say, “Hey, when will you get a real job? When are you gonna grow up?” So we worked to instill a lot of pride in the craft: This is real work, serious work, and you can have a career.
On sustainable sourcing:

Marcus Eng, The Way Back:
Revolutions happen via incremental change, so that’s how we tackle sustainability. For instance, we feature more vegetables. Their footprint on the food scene in general is far less than fish and seafood, and way less than meats, even though all our meats are pasture-raised. We also compost, and we give our compost to another purveyor that grows produce in Lakewood in people’s front yards. We like that we can use a lot of the bar’s waste and that nothing is getting thrown out in the dumpster.

Jeremy Kittelson, Edible Beats (Linger, Root Down, Vital Root): At Edible Beats, we’re mindful about what we throw away. Sustainability is a core value, so we started looking at vegetables differently. We asked, “How can we use all of this and not throw any of it away?” This has been a great experience for me and has pushed me to become a better chef, for sure.

Kristofer Lofgren, Bamboo Sushi: Sustainability must be a multifaceted approach. It’s how we treat our employees. It’s how we build the restaurants and construct them from the ground up with our development partners. It’s the fact that we want to be profitable and successful as a business and be here many generations from now. To us, we feel we have a responsibility to the environment, and to the people of this planet, to do the right thing to make the world a better place. More than just a marketing tool, it is, in fact, the ethos and culture of how we live each and every day as a company.

Bradford Heap, Colterra: When my partner, Carol, and I bought Colterra Food and Wine, I was reading The Omnivore’s Dilemma. Subsequently, we made the decision to not condone factory farming anymore. In reading Omnivore’s Dilemma, the GMO seed was planted, so to speak. I am for GMO labeling and would love to see genetic engineering applied to drought tolerance and nutrient enrichment. I do think there are ways that the technology could be used to mankind’s benefit. Right now, I don’t believe it is being used responsibly. Pesticide use is up. Cancer rates are up. California and the World Health Organization say that glyphosate (the active ingredient in Roundup) is a probable carcinogen. Also, the products that are genetically modified are also heavily subsidized by our government and are the cornerstone of the ultra-processed junk food that Big Food makes so much money on. This is exactly the food that is making people fat and sick. I have been very active in GMO labeling efforts and awareness simply because people should know what’s in the food they buy.

Matt Collier, Seeds Library Cafe: I’ve never been a fan of the term “farm to table,” as everything comes from a farm, no matter how it was grown. I believe, especially in this area, where we have so many farmers, we should begin to know the people who grow our food by name. I don’t think that people caring about what they eat is a trend that will go away. I think we need to have a broader vision of what it is we are trying to do. Are we following a trend, or are we trying to lower our gas-emission footprint by buying from the area? Are we supporting our community members who work very hard to farm great vegetables by buying what they sell? Are we asking the right questions at the restaurants that we eat at to see if they are doing the same?

Watch for part two tomorrow.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Laura Shunk was Westword's restaurant critic from 2010 to 2012; she's also been food editor at the Village Voice and a dining columnist in Beijing. Her toughest assignment had her drinking ten martinis and eating ten Caesar salads over the course of 48 hours. She still drinks martinis, but remains lukewarm on Caesar salads.
Contact: Laura Shunk