Chef Toby Prout and Jimmy Callahan, co-owners of Leña on Broadway, started planning the pan-Latin American menu for their new restaurant months before they even found the location, much less started construction. The two traveled to California and sampled their way through some of the state's top Mexican, Central American and South American restaurants, many of them in the Bay Area. But in some ways, the collaboration began long before that -- eighteen years before, to be exact. "We met in Boulder in 1996," recalls Prout. "We were working at a Bennigan's. Jimmy was waiting tables and I was cooking." After that, the two both moved around the country, eventually returning to Colorado, where they reunited in order to open a place together.
"Kitchen jobs are the only jobs I've ever had," Prout says, noting that he started washing dishes for money when he was thirteen in Durango. After graduating from high school in the mountain town, Prout moved to Boulder, making money as a cook while working toward a degree in architecture. After two years of college, he realized that his focus on cooking was becoming more and more important, so he enrolled in the culinary program at the Art Institute of Colorado -- but that only lasted a few months, because he was already at a point in his professional career where he was learning more on the job than in the classroom. "At the time, I thought it was kind of a waste of money," he says of his time in cooking school.
At nineteen, he got a gig at the Inverness Hotel and Golf Club, working the garde manger and learning a little about sushi for the massive weekend seafood buffets served at the Garden Terrace. "We were rolling six- or seven-foot-long sushi rolls, very non-traditional," Prout remembers. Within a year, he was given the job of butcher for the whole hotel: ordering all of the meat, breaking down primal cuts of beef and pork and working with whole fish, duck and chicken.
"It really piqued my desire to learn more," he says, and soon he was on his way to Hawaii for a job with the Ritz-Carlton hotel group. The company eventually sent him to Florida, where he had the opportunity to learn under celebrity chef Norman van Aken. "It was the first true, hard-core cooking experience I'd had," Prout continues, explaining that van Aken was one of the first chefs in the U.S. to pioneer "New World" cuisine, which brings together the many regional cooking styles and ingredients of North and South America. After several years with Ritz-Carlton, Prout eventually took a job with Fox Restaurant Concepts, working his way up to executive chef, first at Wildflower and Bistro Zin in Arizona, then returning to Denver to head the kitchen at North in Cherry Creek.
"Coming back was to Colorado was an easy thing to do," he says. "I love Denver. I feel I came back at a pretty good time -- it's good for all of us in the industry." Although he had lost touch with Callahan while he was in Hawaii and his friend was living in San Francisco, the two reconnected when Callahan also returned to Denver. After North, Prout worked as executive chef at Izakaya Den, Kevin Taylor's at the Opera House and Prima before partnering with his former Bennigan's colleague on Leña, which opened this past summer.
Although Prout harbored a longtime love for Mexican cooking and had traveled extensively in Central and South America over the years, mostly in Ecuador, Colombia and Costa Rica, building the menu for Leña was his first professional experience working with the various cuisines of the region. We talked to Prout about the wood-fired cooking at Leña and the great ingredients he's working with in the new restaurant.
Keep reading for a Q & A with chef Toby Prout of Leña.
Mark Antonation: What other cooking styles have you been passionate about as a chef? Toby Prout: I was really, really open to everything. Norm van Aken was always an idol of mine. I don't really like the word "fusion." "New World" is better -- taking things from other regions and putting them all together.
What sort of preparations did you make for the menu at Leña? A lot of reading, a lot of testing. We did go out to California and ate at a lot of Latin restaurants. But it's definitely new. If you're not learning new stuff, you're kind of done in this business.
Do you have a favorite region or country in South America? Ecuador is my favorite. One the best meals I've ever had was at Mama Clorinda's in Quito.
Did anything from that meal lead to menu items at Leña? The llapingachos -- some might consider it one of the national dishes of Ecuador. There's something about it that's very comforting. [Llapingachos are fried potato cakes stuffed with cheese.]
What ingredients are you cooking with now that you love? From Peru, chiles that just don't grow in the States: aji panca and aji amarillo. My girlfriend and I tried growing some, but we didn't get a good yield. And huacatay -- black mint. We've been able to grow some for the restaurant. We use it in pachamanca, a slow-cooked Peruvian dish.
What kitchen equipment did you have to install to do the kind of cooking you do at Leña? Of course, the wood-fired grill [Leña is Spanish for firewood]. We use white oak because we didn't want an overpowering smoky flavor.
Anything else? We bought a Nixtamatic -- it grinds wet corn into masa. One of the cooks at [Callahan's other restaurant and bar] Prohibition -- his wife lives in Mexico, so she drove it up.
So you're making your own tortillas from scratch? Yes -- it's just corn and water and slaked lime. It's the original molecular gastronomy, from like 3,500 years ago.
Do you think your customers can tell the difference? I think so. I think they're pretty spectacular; there's a certain kind of freshness to it.
Is there anything you'd love to put on the menu but that would be too difficult or wouldn't sell? Cuy -- guinea pig -- is something I'd love to give a shot. In Peru, it's definitely more of a holiday dish.
What are your plans for Leña in the coming months? We're starting brunch in February. We're making our own ham from scratch, and we'll do some non-traditional Benedicts and Latin American breakfast items: hominy and chorizo, savory Venezuelan croissants. We just changed six or seven menu items. Every town, every country has a different way of doing things.
What do you like to do when you're not at the restaurant? I like to try out different restaurants. I've hanging out with my nephew -- he's two. My family lives in Denver now.
Which Denver restaurants do you like? Fruition and Old Major. I love pork -- and I love their charcuterie program. And El Taco de Mexico -- I drive by it every day going home from work. A lot of times I'm a simplistic eater -- pizza or a hot dog. At Steve's Snappin' Dogs, I like the Denver Dog. I also like Tacos Jalisco and just ate at Tocabe recently. I like Pinche Tacos, too.
Do you get much time to cook at home? My girlfriend cooks at home more than I do. She makes great tacos and tomato sauce for pasta.
What meals stand out for you as all-time favorites? I had one of the best shawarmas I've ever had in Quito. And that dinner at Mama Clorinda's -- one of the top five of amazing meals. Eating at Norman's was also an eye-opening experience. At Nopalito in San Francisco, I experienced the first nixtamal taco in my life. Their tacos really opened my eyes.
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Do you have any favorite childhood food memories? When I was younger, I could make cinnamon toast or my mom would make it. Cinnamon toast, when it's done right -- I can't think of anything more comforting.