Chef News

Thomas Wright Is Cooking Up Some Changes at Racines, Including Happy Hour

Thomas Wright has been tasked with tweaking the menu at a Denver institution.
Thomas Wright has been tasked with tweaking the menu at a Denver institution. Laura Shunk
Restaurants are popping up so quickly in Denver, it’s easy to forget what this scene was like two years ago, let alone three decades ago. Racines has been a witness to the incredibly evolving dining scene, all the while serving its hearty breakfasts, fish and chips, and nutty cheese salads to scores of regulars who fill the dining room, eager for their favorite dishes. The longtime menu at Racines is currently getting an update, but that’s not all: For the first time in its 35-year history, the restaurant is rolling out a happy hour. Behind the changes is executive chef Thomas Wright, who took over the kitchen almost a year ago. We recently sat down with Wright to talk about what it’s like to move into a Denver institution, how to cook for regulars who ask for dishes that haven’t been on the menu for years, and the time he successfully used a defibrillator on a guest who still comes in for breakfast.

Thomas Wright: I got into cooking when I was young because it was kind of a method of survival. My mother was kind of a horrible cook, to put it mildly. She was very resourceful — she proved that anything could be put in the oven, baked to the point of refusal, topped with potato chips and served to the family. The first thing I ever made was a spaghetti dinner when my mom was out of town, and it plugged up the garbage disposal when we got rid of it. But practice makes perfect, and cooking is something I’ve always enjoyed.

I worked in tech for about six years, then did a bit of civil engineering for ten years. I was out in D.C,, and I’d been living there for a while when the American History Museum started redoing Julia Child’s kitchen. I thought, that’s really cool. Two months later, I was on my way back to Colorado, where I enrolled in culinary school at Cook Street and never looked back. That was fourteen or fifteen years ago.

After school, I got in with Ted’s Montana Grill when they were relatively new. I helped open a location, then worked at three locations in the Denver area. The last one was out by the airport, and we grew the business massively because we were the only restaurant out there. It was good experience with high-volume dining. After that, I became the kitchen manager/banquet chef at the Denver Aquarium. I got some really good experience dealing with incredibly high-volume large buffets, holiday parties and a catering-type atmosphere.

I saw a few disasters in those days. My first week at Ted’s Montana Grill, I learned how to clean up the restaurant after someone sets off the ancillary system by accident. An employee saw a fryer bubbling, thought it was going to explode, and pulled it. If that happens, I learned you don’t bother calling the fire department, because they’re already on the way; you call the health department. Luckily, this system was just the water instead of the powder — there was an oil slick of antifreeze all over the floor. We got it cleaned up and opened for dinner. Then there was the night the dishwasher pushed the panic button in the walk-in and had the SWAT team surround the restaurant. We had a few guests greeted with shotguns as they left. I had a flash flood roll down the staircase into the kitchen one night at the Aquarium — one of the big bio towers had a stuck valve and the water was just free-flowing. But the one I get the most shit for is the time I’d just gotten done making a huge batch of Hollandaise. I set it down on the corner of the table and turned around, and I heard this thud. Suddenly, I could feel the warm egg running down my back. I’d spilled the whole thing.
click to enlarge Guacamole and chips, $3 on the new happy hour menu. - RACINES
Guacamole and chips, $3 on the new happy hour menu.
When I decided it was time to move on from the Aquarium, I knew it was time to become an executive chef. I looked for a year and interviewed with several concepts, but I realized being in a chain concept wasn’t going to work for me. Out of the blue, a recruiter called and sent me here, to Racines. I came in open-minded, but I didn’t expect the gift that was waiting for me. Lee [Goodfriend, co-owner of Racines] and I clicked right off the bat. She took me for a quick tour, then told me to give my notice and come work here. I’ve been here going on one year.
It’s kind of daunting coming into a restaurant like Racines, where a good portion of the clientele is regulars. You want to try something and put your spin on it, but they’re either going to let you or they’re not. We had a couple of regulars who were upset recently because I made lasagna as a special one night. One of them said, “Racine’s isn’t a lasagna place.” The server nicely said, “It’s great, you should try it,” and luckily, he loved it. We try not to say no to anyone; the answer is always yes. If a guest has been coming to Racines for thirty years and they order something that hasn’t been on the menu for ten years, we’ll make it for them if we have the ability. I’ve got people in the kitchen who’ve been here almost since day one. They know how to take care of people. And if they’re off that day, I can dig up old recipes on the computer, though our computer is from thirty years ago, too. Sometimes I go out and talk to them, and say, “Hey, I’m the new guy. I want to help you, so tell me about the dish you’re asking for.” They might get my twist, but I try to do it pretty close.

We’re working on changing the menu, and for the first time, we’re adding a happy hour. For happy hour, we’re starting small: We’re looking at signature items that sell and cutting them down in size. Once we’re rolling, we’ll start doing a weekly happy-hour special — shrimp cocktail or bacon-wrapped shrimp — to make this more of a destination. As for the rest of the menu, we have almost 100 items on the menu, and the ’80s did call, and they want some of their food back. A lot of our staple items will never go away. Like the farmer’s breakfast: We sell more of that than anything in here. There are so many staple breakfast items. We have a pretty good following for our Mexican food; we make a good-quality green chile. Our burritos and our enchiladas are all made from scratch, and people love it, so you can’t take that away. The nutty cheese salad — I would never think to mix bananas and chicken, but once you try it, it’s fantastic, so that will never go anywhere.

But we’re going to cut the menu down a bit: We’ve come to the realization that the things we do incredibly well, we’ll keep, but other things that don’t sell as well, we’ll trim them. When you have such a big menu, ultimately, the guest has to pay for that, and we want to keep quality high and prices low. So the chicken marsala is probably going to go. I’d really like to see the breakfast skillets go, too, but guests love them, so we’re going to jazz them up a bit.

I like doing big, exciting food. That’s what this place is about — you don’t walk out of here hungry. So it’s not really about changing things; it’s about refining and updating and refining the bar and giving our guests what they deserve. Like, the fish and chips are really good, but I’d like to make them better by using a darker beer and upping the seasoning on the french fries. Our eggs Benedict sell like crazy on Sunday, but we’re not getting the good-quality crab we used to, so I want to switch it up. I’d like to incorporate some quinoa, a little more avocado and fresh fruit. We’re going to bring out a little more seafood. We’re using a wild-caught Argentinian red shrimp that eats like lobster, and I’m using it to make shrimp enchiladas, shrimp tostadas, pastas. I’m trying to take away some of the heavy, thick cream sauces and let the fish and vegetables come into their own. We have a new beef short ribs with a cheese polenta — it’s heavy, stick-to-your bones kind of stuff. We’re updating, making little changes here and there. We don’t have a huge child clientele here, but I’d like to do more fish and protein on the kids’ menu instead of fried food. Change is not always easy in this restaurant. If you give something as opposed to taking it away, people are more apt to say, cool, let’s try it.
click to enlarge A heaping helping of chile cheese fries...for $3! - WESTWORD
A heaping helping of chile cheese fries...for $3!
I try to keep the flash out of what I do and make food that’s honest, straightforward and tasty. Tweezer food is great, but I’m almost fifty, so I leave that to the kids. I see a lot of small plates and delivery services and takeout services out there. I think that’s what millennials are into, picking up food and sitting at the computer and eating it. I’d like to see dinner being a two- or three-hour event again. I think we need to reconnect; I think we’ve really lost that in general. And I think we need to start putting a little more importance on spending our hard-earned money on good food — I would like to see that. You don’t always have to be focused on your paleo diet. Go enjoy your meal. Make wise choices most of the time, but indulge a little. I would like to see the little small bites go away or end up on a happy-hour menu, and people enjoying reasonable meals. Start with a salad, have an entree and eat dessert — that’s what makes it special.

And stop saying you have a food allergy if you don’t have a food allergy. Everyone has a food allergy these days. When you alert the staff that you have an allergy, we have to use certain protocols. We use different cookware. We go to a lot of lengths to keep people safe, and it throws a kink into the service because we kind of get thrown into panic mode. If you don’t really have an allergy, be honest — just say you’re not eating bread. We’ll still accommodate you. We’re professionals, and we’ll take care of you.

I’d like to retire here. It’s a great fit. I want to see it stay with the times. Let the kids have fun with their $50 steaks and microgreens salads, and we’re going to keep doing what we do but add a little edge to it. We do between 500 and 1,100 covers per day. The weekends are crazy between brunch and dinner. The kitchen is insanely hot. You just put your head down and get it done, and there’s a lot of yelling and foul language. But Racines is the Denver culture; it’s part of the community. We don’t have to write down our brand. If you have on a shirt and shoes, we’ll take care of you.

I’ve cooked for a lot of people over the years. We’ve had some celebrities in to the restaurant. Dennis Hopper and Ted Nugent in Ted’s; Rob Lowe. I’ve met some really cool people. But my proudest moment was when I used an AED [defibrillator] on one of our guests here and he lived. He still comes in here and has breakfast with his wife; they’re longtime patrons of this restaurant. He told us he’s going to endorse us as the best restaurant in Denver in which to have a heart attack. That made me feel really good for a few days.

Racines, 650 Sherman Street, 303-595-0418,
Hours: 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday, 8 a.m. to 11 p.m. Saturday, 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday.

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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