Chef Danny Espinoza walked right off a flight from New York and was shuffled to a cramped kitchen in Arvada to cook for a hundred strangers. It was his first time on the line in Colorado. "I always wanted to come here," the vivacious Chicagoan chef says of Denver. "They're like, 'Hey, you're launching in Denver.' Fuck yeah."
Espinoza is christening a new experiment: a new branch of nation-wide pop-up dinner company DinnerLab. Already running dozens of dinners per week in abandoned office building, distilleries and other unconventional places, the company hopes to make a splash in Denver with its unique business model: one part Silicon Valley industriousness and one part kitchen ingenuity. Locals got their first taste of the new concept on September 26 at Infinite Monkey Theorem in RiNo.
In the days leading up to the Infinite Monkey Theorem dinner, Espinoza and his team prepped at the Rocky Mountain Commissary, sharing space with a host of other restaurant and food-truck crews. "Most of the last minute details are going to be done tomorrow," he says. "There's a lot of cutting today, a lot of marinating and peeling." But as Ken Macias, DinnerLab's new-market development manager explains, they hope to carve out their own dedicated kitchen at the commissary soon. The message is clear: DinnerLab is serious about Denver.
"We're in Denver. This is our first event, but we're going to run in the Denver market," Macias says.
Founded in New Orleans two years ago, DinnerLab quickly went from the kind of underground supper club that was all the rage three or five years ago -- less than a hundred covers, a secret menu, dingy basement digs -- to an outfit with constant dinners going on in 20 different cities. The concept is this: all the diners fill out comment cards after the meal, scoring every dish and rating the meal overall. This data gets compiled to help the chefs tweak their menu and ultimately rank their skills. The company has learned a few things along the way, like that Chicago doesn't give a damn about Southern food. And Miami won't stand for dinners in warehouses and abandoned buildings; they want champagne and big chandeliers.
Espinoza just got off a ten city tour with DinnerLab, where he emerged as one of three finalists, based on diners' scores. "We have 50 data points per city, times ten cities, that's thousands of data points for each chef," Macias says. That data will also help DinnerLab's chefs, many of whom don't have the capital to open their own kitchen, pitch investors on their own future restaurants, with the numbers to back them up. Like Espinoza, for example, who honed his craft in France and worked as sous chef at Chicago's respected Mexique. "But for him to get an opportunity to get his own restaurant would take a lot of time -- getting investors and all that," Macias says. "So DinnerLab gave him an opportunity to cook with us, and he's toured all around the country." It's a concept that hasn't gotten much traction in the restaurant industry, but DinnerLab recently raised $2.1 million in funding, some of which could go towards opening restaurants with chefs like Espinoza.
Espinoza tugs at his chef's coat to reveal a tattooed arm; he got new ink in every town on his ten-city tour, but the most important piece is right in the middle: ANOMAR. "It means nothing to you, but a shit-ton to me," he says. It's his grandmother's name backwards, the title of his menu, and his philosophy. "I don't know if you can tell -- I'm Mexican. We grew up eating all the traditional Mexican things, and as far as experience goes, I worked in New York, I worked at Mexique, and I worked in France. So you take everything you grew up eating and refine it," Espinoza says. As we chat, his crew is patting down miniature tlayudas: corn flatbreads to be piled with chicken carnitas and mole -- his mother's recipe. "The whole vision is giving people the platform to say, 'Hey, Mexican is more than just tacos, burritos, tostadas."
Keep reading to find out how DinnerLab's Denver experiment turned out.
Now it's showtime. Lights are strung throughout the winery's production facility, tables squeezed in close to big vats of grapes. As is DinnerLab custom, Espinoza made a speech detailing where he comes from and going through each dish in detail. He'd cooked this board countless times, making small adjustments along the way based on diners' reactions. We started off with a cobia ceviche topped with a spiced chicharron -- surf and turf, followed by what the chef called his "fuck you salad": frisee, requeson cheese and gently spiced beets as a retort to the cookie-cutter beet salad.
The crowd of Denver professionals paid a hefty sum to be a Lab rat tonight: $125 a year gets you a membership in DinnerLab and access to the schedule of dinners, most of which run $55-$65 dollars apiece. Between forkfuls of tlayuda, a seatmate explained to me his reasoning: he takes his lady out for dinner once a month. When you factor in tips and alcohol (both of which are covered by admission at DinnerLab), he saves money. Still, will notoriously frugal Denver diners take to the concept? Sitting at a table with 12 strangers, you discover the other prong of DinnerLab's strategy: community. "When you're eating and sharing that kind of experience, it's just a really great conversation starter," Macias told me. "This is the secret sauce to why we're successful and people keep coming back. They come for the food and the atmosphere, but the part that no one really expects is the social aspect of it. People leave as friends." There's no telling if any lasting friendships emerged from the event, but DinnerLab is decidedly intimate: hands were shaken, backs slapped, business cards exchanged. And as we filled out our comment cards, we chatted about each dish, forming a consensus on what worked and what didn't. The centerpiece of Anomar is the deconstructed al pastor taco: pickled pork tenderloin with smears of charred pineapple, celery root al pastor and the strangest flavor/texture experience I've ever had: tortilla puree. From Tamayo to Centro, Denver is well-versed in the language of "modern Mexican," but Espinoza's style is something different, very big-city in its professionalism and its experimentation. There was a silence after the dessert course, while we were too stuffed to move, still turning the meal over in our heads.
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DinnerLab is committed to doing at least one dinner each month in Denver, and will eventually bring in local chefs to run dinners. Interested diners can sign up for a membership at DinnerLab Denver.