Chef News

Kyle Mendenhall on Salanova Roots, Open Creativity and Arcana

Kyle Mendenhall’s menu at Arcana is innovative, liberating, and deeply local.
Kyle Mendenhall’s menu at Arcana is innovative, liberating, and deeply local. Peter McEwen
Kyle Mendenhall spent nearly a decade helming the burners at the Kitchen, expanding the restaurant’s farm-to-table mission from one dining room in Boulder to cities across the country. “And then that came to an end,” he says, which sent the chef into an abrupt spiral of self-reflection. He decided to home in on what was important to him, and look for an opportunity that would allow him to play to his values. Mendenhall was in the midst of pulling together his own concept when the team at Arcana came knocking, and wooed him into accepting the executive chef position there.

In his new home, Mendenhall is doing some of his most creative cooking to date, turning out a dinner menu built around strange and underutilized local ingredients (salanova roots and leek powder), imaginative constructions (masa dumplings dressed like tamales and potatoes with cod roe) and arresting precision in execution (perfect lamb T-bones). The kitchen cans produce, bakes its own bread and makes pastrami in-house, and supports its local farmers by creating dishes out of whatever the providers have as surplus.

We sat down with Mendenhall to talk about why playing music and cooking are similar, why open creativity is paralyzing, and what it means to pursue a new kind of American cuisine.

Westword: Your name is now rather synonymous with local, farm-oriented cooking. Is that what you set out to do?

Kyle Mendenhall: Like most people who end up cooking, I started out doing something else. My first profession was classical music. That’s originally what brought me to Boulder in 2000: I went to the University of Colorado to work on my master’s degree. I played the oboe, and I had a nice teaching assistantship. My wife is a musician also, and she got a position to complete her doctorate. It was a freer, poorer, artistic life. I really loved music, but the gigs were few and far between. Some months we made lots of money, some we didn’t make any, and I needed something stable, so I started cooking part-time. My first job was at Twisted Vine on Pearl Street a long time ago. I had no idea what I was doing, but I slowly progressed from there. I worked at the Boulder Cork for a while, and then the Boulder Country Club — I grew up in that setting. Then we found out my wife was pregnant with our first son. So I said, “Okay, we each made $25,000 last year, so if I find something that pays $50,000, you can stay home and I’ll just work.” I tried everything from used-car salesman to you name it; I’d do anything that would fill that gap. It turned out that a friend I’d worked with at the Boulder Country Club took a director position in Steamboat at Catamount Ranch and Club. He called me shortly after and said, “Hey, we need a chef up here — someone who can gel front and back, not cook anything fancy, and make sure the food’s good.” I said, “How much?” He said, “$50,000,” and I said, “Sweet, I’ll take it.” I went from being a part-time banquet cook to executive chef. At this point, I took all the passion, time, energy and practice I’d put into music and channeled it right into food.

click to enlarge At Arcana, Kyle Mendenhall is playing with local ingredients and American roots to beget dishes like the masa dumplings. - LAURA SHUNK
At Arcana, Kyle Mendenhall is playing with local ingredients and American roots to beget dishes like the masa dumplings.
Laura Shunk
And how did that transition from music to food go?

There are a lot of parallels between music and food — the same pressures and passions lined up. You’re doing something that some people have to make a choice to go to, whether that’s to a concert or your restaurant to eat. There’s an immediate response: If something tasted bad you can see it; on stage, if you play a wrong note, people know it doesn’t fit right. If someone likes a dish, they might come up to the window and say, “That was great.” With a performance, they clap at the end. Also, in music, you might play every note perfectly, but if you miss the very last note, it sticks out like a sore thumb. It’s the same in a restaurant. You can serve people great meals or courses over and over, but if one isn’t on par, it sticks out. I was set up for the pressure, for the repetition, for being consistent. It aligned with me well.

Okay, so you’re at your first exec-chef job. How did you transition from Steamboat to Boulder, and from country clubs to fine dining?

[In Steamboat], we couldn’t really afford a home. We thought, all our friends are in Boulder, and that’s where we love to be. So we decided to come back. I took a job in Evergreen through a headhunter at the Hiwan Golf Club. It was more money than I’d ever made, but it was fairly awful. I was there for nine months, and I can remember taking two days off: my son’s second birthday and my wife’s graduation. It was eye-opening: I realized money is important only to a certain point. I came to this odd agreement with the managers there...and they gave me three months’ severance. I realized what I didn’t want to do, and that was hot dogs and to-go lunches — not that there’s anything wrong with that! I took those three months, and I staged at twelve different restaurants — basically, wherever I could drive in a day. I went to the Broadmoor. I spent a week at Frasca, which was the only place that I’d really read a lot about in Bon Appétit and Gourmet. I realized there that if I worked hard and put my head down, I could do this. Before, I thought working in a restaurant like that was unattainable — I thought you had to be super-trained and know the right people. I spent some time at the Kitchen. I was Fruition’s first stage. But the jobs were $400 a week and no health insurance. I got to the game late — I had a family, and my wife was a stay-at-home mom. It was really good motivation. Without it, I might be off in Europe trying to figure out my life.

click to enlarge Arcana is turning out one of the best lamb t-bones we've ever had. - LAURA SHUNK
Arcana is turning out one of the best lamb t-bones we've ever had.
Laura Shunk
Somehow it worked out, though, because soon after, you were in a leadership role at the Kitchen, right?

I staged at the Kitchen under Dakota Soifer, and I really liked it, but they didn’t have anything that fit my deal. I got a handful of phone calls from Dakota to do some mercenary work — like, I have no guy Friday, could you come fill in? But there was no job for me. So I took the executive-chef job at Dushanbe Teahouse. During the working-cooking interview, I just knew it wasn’t going to last. But I had a family to support and kid number two on the way. Nine months later, I got a call from the Kitchen. They had a management position opening. The job was to run the line five nights a week. And it was blissful. I didn’t have to order or write a schedule. I just ran service five nights a week.

How did that role develop your style?

I remember getting there, and it was community night, and there was just roasted chicken with carrots and potatoes. I remember eating and being like, what is this? It’s so good. How are they doing this? It’s so simple. That’s what I wanted to capture. I purposely did not try to create anything until I’d been there a year. I didn’t know how to cook like that. I didn’t know how to simply use those ingredients. When I did start creating things, I referenced only things [the Kitchen] had done in the past. That really rooted me. I’d only been there for two months when I became the chef. And it was great. It was amazing. I was super-fortunate to love my job, and to do good, fulfilling work. And then when the time came to grow, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to grow, as well, opening all those places [in Denver, Nashville and Chicago]. Growth is a form of change, and it brings good things and challenging things. So the whole thing was a constant struggle, but it was never bad. And then that came to an end.

I still remember how shocking that was. How did you reorganize yourself after eight years with one restaurant?
I went into last year thinking, okay, what do I want to do? Open my own place? Go the corporate route? All that stuff went through my head.... At the end of the day, I enjoy serving people and making them happy, and food is the medium that I use to do that. The number of people who reached out was amazing. I’d never gotten that many text messages in my life. The first person to really contact me was Dave Query — how cool is that guy? He asked, “What are you doing?” I said, “I don’t know, I don’t have any money. I might open my own place, but I’m sort of tainted, because I know all the bad stuff, only now it’s my money.” He was great. He said, “Money is not an issue for you. With your reputation, you’ve gotta not think that way.” He was really encouraging from a mentor perspective. So I thought, maybe I should do something on my own and solve all the problems. I would never have made a lot of money, but I would have probably been able to survive financially. I talked to realtors, had a business plan and lawyers and people in mind that I thought I would do things with.

click to enlarge Arcana is baking bread in house. - LAURA SHUNK
Arcana is baking bread in house.
Laura Shunk
Yet somehow you ended up at Arcana.

I had come into Arcana before it opened and thought, “Oh, wow, this place is awesome.” Arcana had its own initial struggles — typical new restaurant kinds of things. Mike [El More, Arcana’s general manager] and I are good friends. He reached out to me and said, “I think we want to bring you on; what does that mean?” I said, “I have a couple small irons in the fire,” like Meadowlark farm dinners, which were a blissful world away. But it worked out, and I found a new home here.

Arcana bills itself as a restaurant looking to define or redefine American cuisine in some way. How did you come into that and push it forward?

It was initially hard to understand — what is this whole American thing? Arcana has three major pillars. The first is heritage, and for that, I’m looking to American history. It might be the thirteen colonies, Native American history, or the history of our server whose grandmother came over from Germany and made schnitzel. That’s all part of our history. Everything comes from somewhere else. But more specifically, I’m looking at Colorado heritage — I’m going to the History Colorado Center to dig up all those old menus. I’m not trying to be like Sean Brock [a chef credited with revitalizing Southern cuisine], but I’m trying to define Colorado. The next pillar is seasonal and regional. I have always loved that we reprint the menu every day. Good things and bad things that come with that. Consistency is hard, but variety is easy. I always look to Boulder first, then Denver, then the state of Colorado, then maybe the Southwest or the middle part of the States, then domestically, and after that, then we’ll get some imported stuff. I don’t know of anyone who produces black peppercorns in America. But I know someone who produces olive oil in California. That’s our guide. You’re not going to find fresh tomato here in December. We’ll have potatoes, cabbage, carrots and onions. The third pillar is relationships. Farm-to-table is dead. People finally realized that everything comes from a farm; it’s about knowing who that person is who’s providing. We ask, how can we help people who we work with? There’s a radish tart on the menu right now because Anne [Cure, of Cure Farms] has 300 pounds of radishes that no one is making a dent in. That’s the kind of stuff I really believe in. The really cool thing about the three pillars is they intersect at preservation — we’re preserving American food heritage, Colorado food heritage, my grandmother’s food heritage. We’re preserving the region in regard to the people who we work with. We’re preserving relationships outside and inside the restaurant.

click to enlarge Kyle Mendenhall turned salanova roots into crudite at Arcana. - LAURA SHUNK
Kyle Mendenhall turned salanova roots into crudite at Arcana.
Laura Shunk
That’s a fairly defined framework, but the dishes I see on your menu are some of the most creative things I’ve ever known you to cook. How do those plates come together?

Open creativity is like the universe: You’re likely to just stand there, paralyzed. I like to build frameworks; I like to be restricted. It allows me to focus my creativity.

Could you give me a few examples?

We ended up with this potatoes-and-roe dish on the menu — potatoes were available, and we got a harvest of dulse [a flat, red seaweed] from our purveyor in Maine, which is fun, because it’s not something people know about and use. Striped mullet is in season, so we brought in the whole fish and filleted them, and they’re full of roe. So we served the fish, and then we used the roe to make our own bottarga. It’s a unique dish, served on parsley buttered bread with dulse on top. We do things like trying to use the whole animal, to make sure our waste is super-minimized. We have this troutchovy: We take the filets off the trout and serve them as an entree, then we take everything off the bones and preserve them like you would an anchovy. It makes good financial sense, and it’s something cool and unique.

Christian Toohey at Toohey and Sons had a bed of salanova [lettuce]. He brought me the salanova roots — cleaned and prepared, they’re delicious. They have this flavor of sweetness and bitterness. Now we have this dish on the menu: salanova hearts, black garlic dressing (which is basically a bagna cauda), and Cure Farm duck egg yolk. It makes this awesome little salad bite. That’s the sort of thing that gets me really excited.

909 Walnut Street, Boulder
Hours: 11:30 a.m. — 2:30 p.m. and 5-10 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 5-10 p.m. Saturday, 10 a.m.-2:30 p.m. and 5-9 p.m. Sunday

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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