Ex-Barolo Grill chef Brian Laird tapped to be the new exec chef of Russo's Kitchen + Tavern

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Six months ago, Mark Dym, the owner of Marco's Coal-Fired Pizza, 2129 Larimer Street, was interviewing potential chefs to oversee a new temple of gastronomy at Vallagio at Inverness, an urbanized, retail, restaurant and residence development spearheaded by Peter Kudla, the COO of Metropolitan Homes. The Vallagio, which already showcases the unassailable kitchen talents of Parallel 17 owner/chef Mary Nguyen, who opened Street Kitchen Asian Bistro last month, will soon be swelled with several more restaurants, including a second Marco's Coal-Fired Pizza, a Biker Jim's outpost and Russo's Kitchen + Tavern, which, Dym told me last Thursday night, would be ruled by Brian Laird, the former executive chef of Barolo Grill, who spent nearly thirteen years presiding over that line. When I chatted with Dym, Kudla's partner in the Vallagio enterprise, last year for a Chef and Tell interview, I asked him to name Denver's current culinary genius; his answer was Brian Laird. "The guy is completely off the charts and yet so underrated," he told me. "What's so cool about Brian is that he's actually in the kitchen cooking. I love his creativity, passion, quirkiness and energy, and he always has something new he's working on. Every time I go in for dinner, he just cooks for me. Last time it was cantaloupe soup with sour cream gelato, and I gotta tell you, it's the most memorable dish I've had in Denver. When you let him loose, he's just fantastic."

That dinner -- and many others at Barolo -- were never far from Dym's mind, so when he started thinking about a chef to power the kitchen at Russo's, Laird was front and center. "He's one of my favorite chefs in Denver, and while I talked to a lot of chefs about Russo's, they weren't the right fit, so I approached Brian, who, at the time, declined, but we continued to talk and started exploring a consulting opportunity," says Dym.

And then, last month, Laird left his post at Barolo Grill. "I got a call from Brian out of the blue right after he left Barolo, and we started to talk again about the opportunity at Russo's. I mean, who's better than Brian? Nobody," insists Dym. Laird said he'd think about it while sunning and surfing in Hawaii, where he's been spending the last few weeks decompressing.

Soon after he arrived, Laird texted a Hawaiian landscape photo -- the kind that makes us all wish like hell we were in Hawaii right now -- to Dym, along with his decision. "Hey, Mark," it read. "This is where I was when I decided, what the fuck? Let's do business!"

Laird is hanging in Hawaii for a few more days, but when he gets back, he'll begin working on his menu, which he's calling "unexpected Italian." Authenticity, says Kudla, a New Yorker, is hard to find, but with Laird at the helm, he's not worried. "We're giving Brian the ability and opportunity to do whatever he wants here, and the opportunity to feel the passion -- the juice -- and he can get get as creative as he wants," promises Kudla, who does admit that he'd like to see stuffed peppers on the menu, as well as big bottles of Italian beers.

The ultimate goal, continues Dym, is to make Laird a partner in the operation. "He definitely has an offer where he could become a potential partner. I want to be with Brian for a long time," says Dym, adding that the restaurants at Vallagio are owner-operated, giving chefs the freedom to "do their own thing and make their kitchen their own."

The partnership between him, Laird and Kudla, says Dym, is not only a "great situation," but an opportunity for Laird to become a "real operator, where he'll be involved in everything" -- a business part of the restaurant equation that Dym understands well. "I've been doing this for more than twenty years, and I want to be a mentor to Brian," he adds.

"It's a unique dimension down here," says Kudla, who's positioning Vallagio at Inverness, which is located just off Dry Creek Road and I-25, as Midtown -- not the suburbs. "We have a daytime business population in excess of 20,000, but there aren't a lot of restaurant choices, with the exception of Park Meadows and Arapahoe Road, and we feel like we have a distinctive opportunity, especially at dinner, to draw crowds from the Tech Center, and as far away as Highlands Ranch." At Russo's, stresses Kudla, "Brian will be connected to our value system -- heart, soul, integrity and passion."

And Laird will likely also be involved, note Dym and Kudla, in current and future endeavors, including District 475, a 10,000-square-foot, high-ceilinged, contemporary arts and event center, also located in the Vallagio. The space, which trumpets locally-designed art mounted on movable walls, is also the brainchild of Kudla, who unveiled the setting last September. "It's a tremendous place for parties and celebrations, and, in the future, we'll develop a catering facility there," he notes, which would obviously benefit from Laird's own work in the kitchen, as well as Nguyen's.

And if Kudla has his way, DC Stax, a 4,000-square-foot pod, just a few storefronts west of Street Kitchen Asian Bistro, will unlock its doors by the end of the year, serving breakfast and lunch and offering a full-blown catering kitchen, giving Laird, Nguyen, and the chef who eventually nabs the top dog position there, additional occasions to wow Midtowners.

Meanwhile, Russo's is scheduled to open in mid-March, while Marco's is poised to start tossing pizzas on February 21.

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