Chef News

Michael Gibney and Jeb Breakell on Boulder, Dessert and Emmerson

Collaboration is key for Emmerson chefs Michael Gibney (left) and Jeb Breakell.
Collaboration is key for Emmerson chefs Michael Gibney (left) and Jeb Breakell. Laura Shunk
Before moving to Boulder to open Emmerson, Michael Gibney and Jeb Breakell amassed star-studded New York résumés: Gibney, the author of Sous Chef: 24 Hours on the Line, worked the burners at Ten Downing, Governor and Le Turtle, while Breakell did time in pastry at Eleven Madison Park, Per Se, Atera and Blanca. The pair also fomented a collaborative relationship that formed the foundation of their current venture, the first restaurant in which they’re owners. Together they write the menus for Emmerson and help each other workshop dishes, putting out an inventive lineup rife with global ingredients and local inspiration. In this interview, they discuss their goals for the restaurant, what’s challenged them in their relocation to Boulder, and why you should always order dessert when you’re dining at Emmerson.

Westword: You guys come to Boulder from some pretty serious New York kitchens. How did you end up in the Rockies?

Michael Gibney: I got a chef de cuisine position in Manhattan, and during the hiring process, one of the applicants was [Jeb Breakell], and we fell in love with each other right out of the gate. It became apparent that our outlook on food and approach to cooking and operating a kitchen vibes well. Jeb was focused entirely on pastry at that point, and I entirely on savory, and we complemented one another well. It’s a tricky thing to find the right pastry chef, from my perspective, for your restaurant, and I’d found my match. We were at that restaurant for less than a year and then parted ways and did some of our own things. Then one day Jeb called me up and said, “Hey, you want to move to Colorado and open a restaurant?” At first I was very reluctant — I imagined living in New York until the day I died.

Jeb Breakell: And it was like, Colorado — is that a new part of Brooklyn?

Michael: Yeah, is that near Sunset Park? But at the time, I was in a relationship and opening a restaurant. My circumstances changed a couple of months later, and Jeb pawed at me again, so I said sure. I came out, met our founder, Ben Kaplan, fell in love with the project, idea, town, community and upgrade in quality of life, and just decided to do it. So we packed up our stuff and moved out here.

Jeb: I randomly met Ben Kaplan in New York City when I was seeking shelter from a storm. I ducked into a bar and befriended Ben. I started talking to his sister — she’s a pastry chef, I’m a pastry chef — he overheard I worked at Atera, and he chimes in, “Oh, that’s one of my favorite restaurants.” He pulls up pictures of me that he took at Atera from three years earlier.

Michael: It was pictures of the food with Jeb in the background, just to clarify.

Jeb: And I got a call four or five months later expressing an interest in this job opportunity out here. That started that courtship, and after we got Michael on, it was a sure thing for myself. And having [beverage director] Ben Foote, who I’d worked with at Atera, also helped.

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Squash from Emmerson's fall menu.
Laura Shunk
What are you trying to accomplish here?

Michael: We’re trying to make the best food in the world. We’re not delusional, and we know our limitations and capabilities, but we’re trying to make the best food — whether that means being first on the block to do things a certain way, making food that’s interesting to us and interesting and delicious to our guests, or trying to make a really awesome dining experience the way we know how. That’s our real driving force. We have a forager on staff, and that’s been fun. We used to spend a lot of time hiking in Chautauqua; the terroir of Boulder has been an inspiration to me in the sense that it exists. In New York you don’t have that; it’s very difficult to define what the earth is telling you, because it’s telling you to get the fuck out of there. Here you have things that are guiding your decisions. As the weather is beginning to change, that’s inspiring in terms of what we make with the food; we’re learning as we go.

How about a couple of dish highlights?

Michael: The menu changes a lot. One good one right now is the dry-aged lamb tartare with furikake [seasoning], togarashi, XO mayonnaise and tapioca chips. This was a good example of our collaboration: Jeb was like, you need to do a lamb tartare with furikake, and I went and made it, and it turned out good. XO sauce has dried scallops and shrimp and spices, and there’s seaweed in the furikake, [and] lamb has this weird affinity for seafood, in particular shrimp and shellfish. So it’s basically a surf and turf, but it’s peculiar to the normal palate, and it tastes really, really delicious. I’m excited about the sweet-potato gnocchi with the uni and blue cheese. I think that has enough weird factor, but sweet potatoes are wherever on the glycemic index, so it appeals to health nuts. And the gnocchi is familiar — we’re also using mushrooms and celery root — but uni and blue cheese are weird. Weird but delicious.

Jeb: One of the newer pastry items comes originally from a dinner I did years ago at Star Chefs for Charlie Trotter. We had to choose a dish he did before he passed away and do an ode. I looked through his cookbooks, and I didn’t feel comfortable taking his ideas. But there was a section in the back of one of the books on smoothies, and there was one with fennel, grapefruit, apple and celery. I took that smoothie and turned it into dessert. For that event, it was a small taste, but I reworked it into a composed dessert. It’s a fun, exciting, little more healthy take on a dessert.

Michael: And it looks like birthday confetti on the plate.

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Lamb tartare with furikake, togarashi, XO mayonnaise, and tapioca chips.
Laura Shunk
Talk to me a bit about your individual cooking styles.

Michael: For me, it’s not a particular cuisine. I describe the food I make as thoughtful. I don’t know if that’s appropriate, but I think really hard about what’s going on the plate, in what proportions, how people will read it on the menu and what will entice people to order it. I need a weird and intriguing factor to make a dish sort of sing for me. When I go out to eat, I bring a notebook, and I write things that were surprises. I’m ordering the weirdest thing on the menu to understand the thought process and whether it works. I don’t cook with the impetus of shock value — I like discovery to happen. I want people to say, oh my God, I didn’t know oysters, Brie and raw beef go nicely together, but sure enough, when done right, they do. We just retired our strawberry dish — it was strawberries with black-olive shortbread, which looks like chocolate chip. It’s surprising but not offensive, and the flavors complement each other really nicely.

Jeb: I don’t know if I have a cooking style. I spent most of my career in fine-dining tasting-menu formats, so my biggest challenge is to create a complete thought of a composed dish that you’d want to eat ten bites of. In a tasting menu, I’m thinking about what the guest has had before, what they’ll have after, and how I can make two or three bites — that’s where I’m comfortable executing. So taking something that I can see in my head as a delicious bite and turning it into a plate of food that someone likes to eat is part of the challenge. I like keeping it light and delicious and not filling people up too much, not making people feel gross.

Thinking about how a dish fits into the broader spectrum of a meal strikes me as a huge asset when you’re talking about collaboration. Aren’t pastry and savory kitchens usually pretty siloed?

Jeb: Yes, and we’re also cross-utilizing techniques. We want a culture where cooks are excited to learn both savory and pastry. We’re cross-training for a stronger team. If the pasta section is in the weeds and the pastry team is twiddling their thumbs, we want everyone to work together for a common goal.

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The desserts are as unusual as the dinner options. Ingredients include buckwheat, matcha tea powder, bonito caramel and cucumber sorbet.
Mark Antonation
Anything that’s been particularly challenging about moving to Boulder?

Jeb: Pastry has been a big challenge. Every recipe I thought I had in my back pocket, that I’d made for years and years at sea level, does not work here. Every formula has to be adjusted and rewritten. That’s exciting and terrifying at the same time. I’m getting happier and happier about what’s coming out of the kitchen. Even something as simple as a chocolate chip cookie recipe: I have a favorite recipe I’ve been making for years, and it doesn’t work here.

Pastry in general seems like a big opportunity in this market.

Michael: That’s a little bit of a challenge. Living in a health-conscious town, people think, ‘Dessert is going to be a heavy cake that’s going to make me gain ten pounds tonight.’ In an unexpected way, it affects the savory side. We designed the menu for a different season than we opened in, and so that you could eat multiple courses and still have room for dessert. On my end, that means making things lighter and smaller, so you can get a few tastes and still sample some of the desserts. When there’s not a lot of people geared to ordering desserts, it makes my portions look small and light. Jeb does a really good job at balancing the sweetness and heaviness of desserts. It’s not Japanese food, but it’s a Japanese approach to cooking — making you feel good, not weighing you down, giving you energy. [Dessert at Emmerson] is a light and delicious way to end your meal, by design. So hopefully people understand that and order pastries at the end of the meal.

Jeb: That’s how you get the full Emmerson experience.

1600 Pearl Street, Boulder
Hours: 5 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday

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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