This is part one of my interview with Lucas Forgy, exec chef of Freshcaft; part two of our chat will run in this space tomorrow.
It's crazy. It's always crazy," says Lucas Forgy, describing the Great American Beer Festival, which hits Denver this week. And Freshcraft, the suds-centric watering hole and restaurant that the chef and his two brothers, Aaron and Jason, opened in 2010 in LoDo, is one of Denver's most celebrated hangouts for craft beer geeks. "This place is going to be packed," he predicts.
And it's no wonder, considering that Freshcraft pimps one of the most coveted craft beer programs in the city, complemented by an ambitious menu that Forgy says has evolved considerably since he and his brothers made the decision to leave their Midwestern roots in Iowa, where they were born and raised, to make a go of it in Denver. "I originally came out here in 2009 for a wedding and then checked the place out, since it was on our short list of markets. I really liked what I saw, but the initial concept was a sandwich shop with beer," he recalls. "Instead, we opened with a full-scale menu that keeps evolving."
And so has Forgy's career, which wasn't always focused on cooking. "I got my first kitchen job," he remembers, "because I crashed my car. My mom told me I needed to make some money in order to fix it, so I ended up at a local steakhouse that just happened to have a scratch kitchen, a drive-thru and really good fried chicken. I kinda liked it, enough that I stuck around for three years."
But his home town of Vinton, Iowa, was tiny, so he left for a larger city -- Grand Rapids, Michigan -- where he worked as a "detail boy" at a car dealership and went to community college before eventually moving to Orlando, Florida. He planned to go to a school for recording arts there, but the dean of admissions killed that dream. "I was really into music, but the dean told us that we'd probably graduate hugely in debt and likely never find a job in the field, which was an interesting sales pitch," he says.
Instead, he became a porter at the pharmacy where his brother worked. "After about a year, I walked in one day and told him that I couldn't do it anymore," says Forgy, who then hopped in his car and drove straight to the Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts. "I wanted to get back into cooking, I wanted to be in a kitchen, and I wanted to figure out a way to maintain a sustainable life and have a career," he explains. "The atmosphere of the kitchen is completely different from any other job out there, and I loved it. I knew that's where I belonged."
He got accepted and had a part-time job cooking at Carrabba's throughout the duration of his culinary program; then he and his wife loaded up their car and headed for Evanston, Illinois, her home town. He got hired at a Cameron Mitchell fish restaurant (Mitchell also owns Ocean Prime), where he started as a prep cook, was promoted to the sous position and then transferred to Milwaukee, where he stayed for three years before departing "because I wanted more responsibility and opportunity, and they couldn't offer those to me," he says.
But his brother, Jason, had an idea. "He called me one day out of the blue and said, 'Hey, you wanna open a restaurant?'" remembers Forgy, who was hesitant at first. "I wasn't sure how I felt about working with my family," he confesses, but after several conversations and brainstorming sessions, the three brothers agreed they'd go to Denver, a city that was already immersed in the craft beer movement. "We definitely wanted a place with a solid beer scene, and while we looked at over 100 locations, we knew we'd essentially be living in the restaurant, and we loved this space," he says. Today he not only works with family, but likens the town's beer landscape to "a giant family."
And within the next five years, he predicts, every beer program in Denver will be at least 50 percent dedicated to craft beers. "That's what people here want," he insists. "I don't think that beers like Coors Light and Bud Light are going away, but the macrobreweries have the money and research departments to change with the times, and I think they will." In the following interview, Forgy rattles off his own favorite beers, predicts what will happen if McDonald's starts hawking chicken wings, and shares the struggle of building a restaurant in the face of naysayers who repeatedly claimed that he and brothers didn't have a chance in hell.
How would you describe your food? Creative, comforting and unframed. My brothers and I built this kitchen to offer creative freedom. I've worked at some places that only allow you to cook one style of food, offer one level of presentation, and only use one type of protein -- fish, for example -- as the main option on the plate. I didn't hate working at those places, but I thought it would be nice to work in a restaurant where you could cook whatever you wanted, and I have that luxury here.
Ten words to describe you: Quirky, funny, annoying, to the point, hard to reach and happy.
Describe the biggest challenges facing today's chefs: Lack of rain, crop shortages, livestock and the price and demand of chicken wings. I've heard rumors that McDonald's is going to start putting chicken wings on their menu, and if that happens, they'll be virtually impossible for anyone else to get.
What are your ingredient obsessions? Smoked paprika, all sorts of half sauces, like demi-glace and reductions, and, of course, bacon. Who doesn't love bacon? And beer -- we cook with beer a lot, especially the G'Knight Imperial Red Ale from Oskar Blues. It has a great malty backbone, and I love drinking it and cooking with it; it's great in barbecue sauces, gastriques and slow braises.
What are your kitchen-tool obsessions? Chinese chef knives are the most versatile tools in the kitchen: They smash things and slice things, you can use them as a spatula, and, even better, they work as a beer-bottle opener.
One food you can't live without: Consommé. I love broth. I love to cook it, look at it and eat it. I also love Chicago-style pizza with just cheese. The pizzas at Lucky Pie are really good.
One food you detest: Tilapia. The farming practices make it taste like shit.
Favorite junk food: Italian four-cheese Cheez-It crackers.
Favorite childhood food memory: Hot Pocket burritos or egg-noodle casseroles.
Most memorable meal you've ever had: Surimi with margarine. I'm from a little town in Iowa, and this was fish for me in the early '80s, plus it was my birthday meal every year as a child.
What are your favorite wines and/or beers? I love beer, and I lean toward maltier reds or ambers, depending on the day. I love G'Knight, Marble IPA, Tank Seven Farmhouse Ale from Boulevard Brewing Company, Decadent Imperial IPA from Ska, and Odell's Myrcenary. It's so hard to pick just one, mainly because there's so much availability. We have 24 beers on draft and close to 120 in the bottle at the restaurant, so there's an incredible amount to choose from.
Favorite dish on your menu: I love our bass dish right now. It's a chile-and-garlic-glazed striped bass on a bed of broccoli, red peppers and stir-fry noodles tossed in a pineapple ponzu. And then we top it with an Asian-style slaw. It's delicious.
Biggest menu bomb: Our barbecued meatloaf glazed in whiskey barbecue sauce. I think the presentation is a bit unfamiliar to people; we top it with tempura onion rings and serve it with cornmeal johnnycakes with bacon. It's actually still on the menu, but it's coming off after GABF, although we'll put a different version on the new menu. Our meatloaf rocks.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef: Opening Freshcraft. Three dudes from nowhere were able to make a successful business in LoDo, even while no one -- and I mean no one -- thought we were going to make it, our families being the sole exception. People kept telling us that if we could figure out our concept that we might have a chance. There was a lot of negativity to start with. In the beginning, everyone thought they had better ideas than us to make it successful. The opinion of most people -- industry folks, guests and vendors -- was that they didn't think we knew what we were doing. I think we do.
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Check back tomorrow to read the rest of my interview with Forgy.