Chewing the Bones with Frank Bonanno

Frank Bonanno called me last Wednesday night, about ten-thirty. The first words out of his mouth: "So, how'd you like your lunch?"

"How'd I like my lunch?"

"Yeah, on Monday? How'd you like it?"

It wasn't Bonanno who'd picked me out of the crowd during my final meal at Bones, but someone else entirely — someone I'd thought long gone from the scene. Funny thing was, I'd recognized him behind the counter, working the steamed-bun end. I just hadn't been able to put a name to the face. Not until Bonanno called.

Seth Black.

Name sound familiar? It should to anyone who, like me, tracks chefs the way normal people do Hollywood starlets or baseball trades. Black was Sean Kelly's roundsman at Clair de Lune and his chef de cuisine when Clair morphed into Somethin' Else — basically the only other guy in the kitchen with Kelly when he was doing his best work there, and part of Kelly's posse as far back as Aubergine, which occupied the space that's now Bonanno's Mizuna. But when Somethin' Else pulled up stakes at 1313 East Sixth Avenue to make room for Fruition, Black up and disappeared. Slipped completely off the radar.

Only to reappear about a month ago on Bonanno's doorstep, looking for some honest work. And to hear Bonanno tell it, he hired Black on the spot: "I was like, 'Can you start on Tuesday?' And he said yeah, so I said, 'All right, I'll see you at eleven.' Simple as that."

Black recognized me because Kelly's kitchen at Clair and Somethin' Else was one of the only Denver kitchens I've ever spent time in, and Kelly one of the few chefs in town who's met me face-to-face. And apparently Black has a good memory for such things. because he picked me out right away. Good thing my previous meals at Bones had been just as good or better than my final one.

"So, have you actually written the review yet?" Bonanno asked. I told him yeah, I had. He seemed disappointed, so I asked what was up.

"I wanted to talk about this guy Chris Gregory who never gets any credit," Bonanno told me. "I mean, if it was a good review, I wanted to talk about him. See that he gets his name in there. If it was a bad one, I wouldn't have said anything. But this guy Chris, he's really like the heart and soul of this restaurant."

So we talked more about Chris Gregory, heart and soul of Bones, the guy Bonanno says never gets the credit he deserves.

"He's been with me for five years," Bonanno explained — maybe two years working the front of the house at Mizuna, then three years as Bonanno's director of operations at all of his restaurants. The two of them worked together at Mel's back in the day. Then Gregory had gone on to work at Barolo, to help open Adega. He's a veteran. He's earned his stripes. And when Doug Fleischman, Bonanno's friend and partner, died, "Chris was just there," Bonanno remembered. "I don't think I'd be where I am today without him helping me out."

Gregory handles everything, puts out all the fires. "All four restaurants, the managers report to him, chefs report to me," Bonanno said. He'd offered Gregory a partnership before, at Osteria Marco, but Gregory said no. But when the opportunity came around again last year to get a piece of something — to take a share in the ownership of Bones — Gregory jumped. "Honestly, I think it's because he saw I had a passion for it," Bonanno said. Gregory believed in the place, knew it could work. And so did Bonanno. And all that stuff he'd told me back in October about losing money and being okay with that? He has a new reality now.

"We're not losing money," he said. "We're breaking even. I mean, we're dealing with some pretty expensive product there, right?" Lobster and good pork and imported ingredients and labor-intensive preparations. "We want to serve the best. We want to be the best. So we're just focusing on technique, man. Of course, we could just use thinned fucking chicken stock or something, but we don't. It's just about time, you know? The time you're willing to put into it."

Time and money, I reminded him, which got us off on a long digression about lazy cooks and stupid owners and the kind of dumb shit that guys pull when they start feeling the pinch. One of the reasons I like Bonanno is that he thinks like a chef. What do you do when times are good? You work hard. What do you do when times are tough? You work harder.

But at Bones, the work is fun.

"We can do whatever the fuck we want in there," Bonanno told me, sounding almost gleeful about the freedom that represents. He's looking toward the future, of course. He'd like to see another turn at lunch, a little more volume at night that would give him cause to extend the hours. But he's happy with the place. Truly happy. "The cooks really love it, I think," he said. "It's going better than I thought it would. Paying the bills and having fun. That's what it's about, right? That's what it is for me."

Leftovers: In the days leading up to the release of the Best of Denver 2009 on March 26, I'll be posting stories about some of the more contentious categories on the Cafe Society blog, where you and I and everyone else who cares can slug it out in public.

Hope to see you all there.

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan