Word of Mouth

Pizzeria Basta rolling out entrees and sous vide

Pizzeria Basta is not the kind of place you stumble upon.

You'd never find it if you weren't looking, unless you happened to be perusing property in one of Boulder's still half-empty upscale eco-housing complexes. The small restaurant is tucked into an invisible courtyard, flanked by colorful industrial jigsaw puzzle condominiums, and visible from neither of its cross streets, 33rd and Arapahoe.

But even at odd hours like 2 p.m., the place is often at least half full, with solo diners at the bar gazing into the 900-degree wood-fired oven, and lazy reunion lunches commandeering the dark tables in the stark dining room.

And now chef-owner Kelly Whitaker is giving people even more reason to find him: starting Monday, July 12, he'll expand his menu to incorporate entrees.

The pizzaiolo has had main courses in mind since he opened the doors of his spot. Whitaker has done time in some renowned restaurants, cutting his teeth in Los Angeles at Hatfield's and as a fish cook at Providence, the Michelin-starred seafood restaurant. As the Front Range dining scene started to explode, ushering in chefs from the coasts and diners with higher standards, he came to Boulder with something beyond fine dining in mind.

"I wanted to prove that I could make really good, authentic pizza by drawing on cultural inspiration and paying homage to location," the chef says. "I didn't want to import. We've got good enough ingredients around here to make great food."

Whitaker's pizza mission started in Naples, where he worked with a pizza maker on the Mediterranean coast and became interested in the Italian philosophy of cooking, which draws from what's available and fresh in the immediate vicinity, and then applying it in a close-knit restaurant community in the United States. His restaurant uses techniques and principles of old world cooking, but you won't find a San Marzano tomato on premise. You also won't find imported meats on the salumi platter, Italian flour in the crusts or Italian language on the menu.

You might find a market pizza that showcases Cure Farms arugula or Hazel Dell mushrooms or local eggs, though. Or soft, creamy ricotta made in-house and served with delicate house-made crackers. Or crisp house-pickled seasonal vegetables. Or ginger "molded cream" (not panna cotta) that's made with local chai.

Over the past six months, he's perfected his pies, turning out hand-crushed raw tomato sauce and house-stretched mozzarella atop airy crusts with crisp black bubbles. Now he's ready to take the next step, using his pizzeria as a vehicle to bring a fine dining cooking technique called sous vide firmly to the Front Range.

Right now, using sous vide in Colorado is kind of like being a member of Fight Club: it's awesome, but unless you've got a health department-approved plan, which is nearly impossible to obtain, the first rule is that you do not talk about it.

French for "under vacuum," this technique brought to life in the 1970s involves cryovacking food and then cooking it in a circulated temperature-controlled water bath for an extended period of time. The idea is that by bringing an ingredient to temperature slowly and uniformly, a chef can more closely control exactly how that ingredient is cooked. Instead of a hunk of beef that's charred on the outside and practically still mooing within, sous vide makes sure the tenderloin is uniformly medium-rare, every single time.

Science aside, it's what sous vide means for dinner that's ultimately important: filets cooked precisely a point every time, supple perfectly-prepared lobster, plump, juicy and begging for a bath of butter, and poached eggs with yolks hovering so flawlessly between runny and firm you could weep. For crowds of hundreds, if you've got enough circulators on-hand. I'm not going to declare that sous vide is the end of the era of badly-cooked meals--this is merely one cooking technique, after all--but I'd certainly be excited knowing there's a little more 72-hour short rib in my future, tenderly braised morsels of pig that fall off the bone into my watering mouth.

There are chefs that have built empires on that. Thomas Keller, for instance, cryovacks quite a bit of protein at Napa's French Laundry and New York City's per se. Wylie Dufresne's WD-50 fame revolves around the circulator. And Michele Richard, of Washington DC's Citronelle, uses sous vide for entrees and garnishes alike.

It's prevalent enough in Colorado, too, even if it's just under the radar. A couple of local kitchens have code words that alert the staff of unwanted inspectors, sending white-coated cooks running down some back hallway with a handful of cryovacked bags meant to be hidden until the coast is clear. It's rumored that one local chef hides his sous vide gear in his office. And during a recent trip to a nearby restaurant, a chef served me a strip of meat with a side of disclaimer. "So, this steak was cooked using sous vide," he whispered expectantly. "But" --and he looked around then--"don't tell anyone."

Until now, this has mostly been a game of get caught first, then deal with the consequences, but Whitaker has taken it upon himself to crack the code of the health department-approved sous vide plan, which requires extensive details about how a restaurant will prevent food-borne illness, making it possible for chefs all over the state to use this technique legally.

His success is important for the evolution of his menu. "When I opened my restaurant, I had a choice between a wood-fired oven and a gas oven, because I could only have one exhaust," he says. "I chose wood-fired. So now, if I want to do anything besides pizza, I basically have to do it sous vide."

Whitaker has been fighting this battle since he opened his doors in January. His first plan was rejected the same month by the health department, who'd consulted with the FDA and determined the extensive description of temperature control and safety measures wasn't enough.

Rather than give up, though, Whitaker decided to get smart. He got in touch with Bruno Goussault, a food scientist and sous vide expert that has trained top-name chefs all over the world to use the technique. Goussault invited him to class in the Bouley test kitchen in New York City, a trip that was funded in part by another area chef-owner eagerly awaiting the opportunity to legally use sous vide, the Kitchen's Hugo Matheson.

"Three days with Bruno is life-changing," said Whitaker upon his return. "I've studied sous vide for four years, and I was blown away in the first five minutes."

During those 72 hours, Whitaker and seven chefs from restaurants around the country cooked a slew of steaks and salmon and ribs, mastering the temperatures and receiving a contextual lesson in what's necessary to ensure sous vide is done safely.

"I understand now why my plan got rejected the first time," says Whitaker. "But after working with Bruno, I know more details. I'm confident I won't get rejected again."

When they roll out a week from now, Whitaker's new entrees will incorporate some of those techniques, particularly slow-cooked cuts of meat finished in the wood-fired oven. And some of the new entrees will focus just on that oven, like a steak for two and a run of pastas. Once his HAACP plan is approved, which seems imminent, look for even more diversity in his offerings.

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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