Early this morning, I got word that the Squeaky Bean, easily one of the most talked about -- and vaunted -- restaurants in Denver, would soon become a restaurant that was about to undergo some changes. And these weren't small, insignificant changes; they were major changes.
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The fluctuations, however, actually started several months ago, when Crickett Burns, who had cooked alongside executive chef Max MacKissock for eight years, most of them at the former Squeaky Bean, was leaving her post to command the kitchen at the Truffle Table; in late July, barman and Westword's regular Ask a Bartender columnist Sean Kenyon, who also co-owns Williams & Graham, stepped away from his stick behind the Squeaky Bean's bar, he says, "to devote more time to Williams & Graham," which has been the recipient of too many awards to count. And just a few weeks ago, Nick Touch, Squeaky Bean's bar manager, left, too.
And now MacKissock, a brilliant chef, along with general manager Stephen Gallic -- one of the best front-of-the-house professionals in Denver -- are ending their tenure at the Squeaky Bean. "I gave my initial notice four or five months ago," says MacKissock, recalling that he told Johnny Ballen, who owns the Squeaky Bean, that "this isn't going to be my life; I don't want to be here forever." MacKissock didn't give Ballen a specific departure date -- and he's still not sure how much longer he'll be behind the burners -- but, he says, he made it clear to him that he was, in fact, leaving.
Then, two weeks ago, MacKissock reiterated that sentiment, telling Ballen that the time had come for him to hire another chef. "My job was never in jeopardy, nor was my performance," stresses MacKissock, who insists, in no uncertain terms, that his imminent departure is "1,000 percent my decision."
Not that it's an easy decision. "The hardest part is leaving behind a crew that's been the best crew, bar none, that I've ever worked with; they're all incredibly talented," says MacKissock. "From the time we opened this location to now, it's really come together, and I can't even begin to tell you how much I've learned from everyone."
Nonetheless, MacKissock isn't afraid to point out the truth behind his departure: "I'm just not happy," he admits. "I want to get out and pursue other ventures with a partner that has the same vision as I do -- a clear vision that makes me feel more comfortable."
MacKissock divulges that he wants to open his own restaurant -- and that he's got a concrete vision for that restaurant -- but at the moment, he's contemplating several immediate propositions that, not surprisingly, are flooding in. "I have several offers to think about, and right now, I'm going to explore them and see what else comes to the table," he says.
Ballen, with whom I spoke earlier today, is in the midst of hiring a new chef -- and that chef could potentially be Theo Adley, the former kitchen magician of the Pinyon, in Boulder, which closed in 2012. When I talked to Adley this morning, he was optimistic. "It's a great opportunity, and we have a meeting this afternoon to talk about everything," he told me. But while Ballen admits that Adley is on the short list, he says, too, that he's looking at his own line. "I haven't made any decisions, but I'm considering all of my options, including hiring someone to take Max's place who's already in the kitchen," he says.
As for MacKissock, he's leaving behind, he hopes, a kitchen and a restaurant that continues to thrive. "I think we've done some really special things here, and we've gone from the first incarnation of cooking on butane burners to the second incarnation of creating a terrific fine-dining restaurant, and I'm sure the third incarnation will be really cool and different," he adds.
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"I'll continue to cook and operate on a high level," concludes MacKissock, "and I'm really proud of what I've done at the Squeaky Bean -- and I'll be just as proud of what I do in the future."