Smith's mother was a chef, too, and he recalls being her sous chef back when he was just four years old. And his first restaurant memory is of dining with his mom at Philadelphia's legendary Le Bec-Fin when he was six. Now Smith is channeling all that history and tradition as he puts his signature on the menu at Bigsby's Folly, where he took over in mid-June from Sarah Machado-Seltvedt, who departed to start her own business, according to winery owners Chad and Marla Yetka.
Smith has lived in Denver for the past twelve years and worked at some of the city's best restaurants, including Coperta and Beast + Bottle, owned by Paul and Aileen Reilly, whom he still occasionally helps out. Most recently, Smith was executive chef at the JW Marriott Denver Cherry Creek when the coronavirus pandemic hit, and like many others in the hospitality industry, he was laid off when restaurants were forced to close their dining rooms in mid-March. "The hotel industry has taken such a hard hit," Smith says, adding that the layoffs were "definitely scary, and still are for many people in Colorado."
When Smith learned of the opening at Bigsby's Folly, he was intrigued because of the focus on wine. After a conversation about the future of the RiNo hot spot with the owners, he knew it was a good fit, and liked that the restaurant side of the business "was a little under the radar" on the Denver dining scene, he recalls. The winery has been known primarily as a place for small plates and charcuterie boards to go with wine flights, but Smith and the Yetkas agreed that expanding the menu was an excellent idea to draw customers looking for a complete dinner experience.
The move, Smith explains, makes sense in a time when there are far fewer private events such as weddings and showers, once a mainstay at Bigsby's Folly. A shift toward larger plates — "bigger than tapas but not as big as traditional steakhouse entrees," the chef says — could help draw a new range of customers.
Smith's creativity will also be influenced by his past, as well as by Colorado's small farms. "When I'm creating food, there's an emotional response behind what I'm tasting — that's what really makes the food what it is," he explains. Those emotional responses could come from childhood memories or from making a connection with a farmer while buying produce. "Whenever I can connect with the food and the farmer who grew it, I do, even if I have to drive a couple of hours to pick it up," he notes.
Wine dinners were surprisingly rare at Bigsby's Folly before Smith was hired, as the Yetkas put more of their energy into private events. But since joining the team, Smith has already organized a few, and he's not just doing the cooking. The chef also chooses all the wines to go with his dishes, allowing the best of the Yetkas' bottles to shine alongside Colorado elk, Palisade peaches, sweet summer corn and all manner of greens and herbs. "It has been harder to find stuff this year because a lot of farms aren't operating at full capacity because of the pandemic or can't transport their products to urban markets," the chef points out. "So you just have to put your thinking cap on and drive that extra mile."
The pandemic created uncertainty and instability for Smith, but it also led him to a new executive-chef position where he can share his culinary history and creativity with a new audience. He thinks the hospitality industry will recover in unexpected ways, too. "The passion and drive for great cuisine and the entrepreneurship are still there," he concludes, "so it will bounce back."
Bigsby's Folly Craft Winery is located at 3563 Wazee Street and is open from 4 to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 4 to 11 p.m. Friday, noon to 11 p.m. Saturday and noon to 7 p.m. Sunday. Call 720-485-3158 or visit bigsbysfolly.com for details and reservations.