Chef News

Denver Chefs on Beer, Marketplace Dining, High-Altitude Baking and Never Retiring

What were Denver's restaurant industry pros talking about in 2016? We provided some answers in part one of our second taste of this year's chef interviews. Here the reflection continues with more observations on what dining in Denver this year was all about.

On how Denver’s changing demographics and the pace of development are changing the restaurant industry:

Jeff Osaka, Denver Central Market, Sushi-Rama, [email protected] and Osaka Ramen: Younger people are a little more carefree, with more disposable income; they’re enjoying the moment, and a lot of that is dining out. So the casual level is on the rise because of that. You see people like Troy Guard going from fine dining to tacos and burritos. People have a short attention span. But also, there are a lot of transplants here. I only have one guy who works for me now that’s from Denver. People are more traveled. So they have different expectations: They want things that are not here that are the norm elsewhere.

Casey Berry, Bread Bar and Two Parts: I wish everyone would take a breath before jumping into every new project. I have no problem with people coming from the outside and launching new things. But are you doing that because you want to, or because it’s a land grab? Do it the right way. It’s tough to see a landscape change overnight when it really doesn’t need to.

On beer as Denver’s culinary cornerstone:

Jensen Cummings, Brewed Food:
I think we will always be beer-first, and I think that’s okay. I think we can embrace that and create a scene around that. Just like Napa Valley: The French Laundry is there, but it’s still in the shadow of Napa Valley, even if it’s also in the shadow of nobody, if that makes sense. We’re the Napa Valley of beer, as much as I hate that categorization, and that’s okay. We need to embrace and rally around that.

On ambitious bar-centric restaurants:

William Tuggle, then of Black Eye/White Lies:
Food is a commitment. With a cocktail, you’re getting something valuable, but you didn’t have to spend more than you would on a value meal at McDonald’s.

On owning a restaurant in a marketplace:

Rayme Rossello, Comida:
I like playing well in the sandbox with others. I like supporting other merchants. I look forward to doing that at the Stanley. I know there are people who enjoy that less than I do, but I liken that attitude to [deciding] you want to live downtown, so you buy a condo over a restaurant and complain about the noise. You signed up for this. This is what this is. I like the creativity and energy that happens when people come together. I see it as a great opportunity, so I put my energy into it. It works for me.

On never retiring:

Nobu Matsuhisa, Matsuhisa:
I chose my job because there’s no retirement. I’m not thinking about retirement. But one day, I cannot take a plane. I cannot walk. I cannot talk. That means it’s time to retire. This is my passion. If I’m thinking about retirement, maybe my energy will decrease. [Now I’m] still able to walk, to stay at the restaurant. I can talk to people, still can create dishes, still can talk to chefs. I don’t want to give up and retire, so I will continue to work as long as I possibly can.

On their earliest food memories:

Ryan Witcher, Sugarmill:
Picking out sprinkles for my ice cream scoop at my grandparents’ house. They had over forty different choices, and I remember it always being a hard decision!

Hosea Rosenberg, Blackbelly: Picking peas with my grandfather in our garden. He used to call me his “pea-pickin’ pal.” I would eat most of the peas before we brought them into the house.

Brian Wilson, Telegraph: My dad makes these things called gumbo burgers, and they’re actually pretty good. He was cooking them for me and my first best friend, and he decided he was going to fancy them up and add something new to them. To this day, I don’t know what that something was, but it made them literally inedible. It’s not exactly shelling peas or rolling pasta with my nonna, but [the memory is] mine, and I love it the same.

Max MacKissock, Bar Dough: When I was pretty young, maybe four or five, we were at Newick’s, a giant fish house on the coast of New Hampshire, having dinner after a day at the beach. I was starving, and no sooner had a bucket of fried smelts hit the table [than] I popped one in my mouth. These babies must have come directly out of the fryer and to our table, because they were the temperature of the sun. I reached for the first cup I could grab and took a huge sip to stop the burning. The funny part is that it was beer, Miller Lite, and I knocked back enough to give a toddler a nice little buzz — or fall asleep.

Tips for home cooks and bakers:

Sam Slade, Valhalla:
If you’re new to Denver, definitely go low and slow with the oven. The altitude is a real thing, and I had to learn the hard way.

Dan Kane, Del Frisco’s: Wear a shirt when cooking bacon.
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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