In part one of our interview with Jensen Cummings, the chef tells us about his attempt to launch a Colorado movement by combining food and beer in a novel way. When he’s not working on that, though, he also does a fair amount of consulting for local restaurants, including Voicebox Karaoke, a private-room karaoke studio that opened in RiNo two weeks ago.
Cummings says consulting has been an eye-opening change from working in a full-time kitchen, and lessons he’s learned apply across the industry. Here he weighs in on why he got into the business, how it’s pushed his cooking, and how it feels to have a menu that he’s created be totally out of his hands.
Westword: I know quite a few culinary professionals who think moving into consulting is living the dream. Is that how it’s been for you?
Jensen Cummings: Living the dream — or you’re irrelevant now. This was a long process for me.
I’m the fifth consecutive generation of chef or restaurateur in my family. I’ve never been asked, “When are you going to get a real job?” We’ve always done this. I’ve always wanted to be entrepreneurial. Everyone in my family owns their own businesses, and I always wanted to do it better. Row14 [Cummings’s last full-service chef job] was the worst cooking I’ve done in my entire career. I spent too much time reading my own press. The food I was doing was so contrived; it was forced, not organic. I spent so much time trying to make it what it had to be and not what it could be. Slotted Spoon was a good opportunity to reset. It was a fast-casual concept, and 54 percent of our food dollar went to local products — some farm-to-table restaurants don’t even do that. It was important to me. I built it so that high-school kids could work there, and after three months, I didn’t need to be there. It really humbled me doing a sandwich joint in a strip mall. That was really the catalyst for thinking I just want to be doing that — creating concepts that speak to an audience, and think about that audience first.
How does that affect the way you design a menu for a consulting client?
We don’t even talk about food until we figure out who we’re trying to serve. We build the concept and who we want to be, and that drives the food that we serve. So we’re building the continuity from the word go.
Do you see continuity as an issue here?
In Denver, service and food don’t always match, so concepts seem fragmented. Places that do well have people leading them on both sides of the house, that get both sides of the house. Bryan [Dayton] and Steve [Redzikowski] at Acorn are an example — they both get both sides of the house and work together really well. This is also why Frasca is Frasca. Chef-driven restaurants drive us into a corner sometimes. Good service can save a bad meal, and bad service can ruin a good meal.
Has consulting changed the way you cook?
I look at things so differently. Food has to be price-appropriate, executable, and true to the client. It’s not about me; it’s about having the best possible concept. The Lobby was the first concept I did that wasn’t just me. I asked Christian and Megan [Batizy, operating partners]: "What gets you going? What are you excited about?" They’re young — they like to go to Phish and SDS9 shows and party. They like a rowdy place. So I said, okay, let’s go all in on that. Let’s create this crazy brunch culture. Let’s lean in and go all the way. The menu is decadent and unapologetic. It wasn’t the ultimate reflection of how good of a cook Jensen Cummings is; it was the ultimate reflection of Megan and Christian and the community they want.
How did you approach food over at Voicebox?
What a cool thing that is, right? Some people really geek out. I’m always looking at how to create an environment. And at Voicebox, that’s amazing but challenging. What’s the food? How does that translate between the private rooms and being in the common area with the bar? Food needed to be sharable, handheld, things you could eat quickly while you were standing. You needed to be able to put things on banquettes while you sing a song. And then we had to have food that would serve bachelorette parties, corporate events and kids’ birthdays.
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One drawback to consulting is that when you finish a job, the execution is out of your hands. Has that been an adjustment?
It’s really challenging. I’m very picky with clients. I have this service that’s called “Why the hell do you want to open a restaurant?” It’s a questionnaire, and it asks, have you thought about all of this? I spend more time on character analysis when I take on a client. Are these people going to stick with it?
Seems like this puts you in a good position to open your own venture again.
It’s not off the table. But when I was doing Slotted Spoon, I realized I wanted to write my own ticket. I didn’t want to be stuck with a situation where I’m so passionate about this idea, so I do all these stupid things, and I rationalize all the reasons I’m making poor decisions. I know how the cards are stacked against you. But even if I’m good at telling someone else what to do when I’m consulting, it’s really hard to do that to yourself.