Word of Mouth

Remembering Matthew Lackey, Arcana's Opening Chef

Chef Matthew Lackey points out the unique patterns of the handmade serviceware that was part of Arcana's opening.
Chef Matthew Lackey points out the unique patterns of the handmade serviceware that was part of Arcana's opening. Danielle Lirette
Matthew Lackey was the opening executive chef at Arcana, the subject of this week's restaurant review by Gretchen Kurtz. Lackey passed away on April 10, 2017, after a rock-climbing accident at Mount Princeton. He was no longer with Arcana, having parted ways only weeks after the Boulder restaurant's February 2016 opening.

I only met Lackey once, a few days before he helped launch Arcana, bringing what he had learned from his time in Sean Brock's South Carolina restaurants, McCrady's and Husk, to the kitchen, along with his experience as an executive chef in Nashville. Lackey's fire and inspiration were clearly evident at the time: He didn't want to simply replicate Southern cooking in a new environment. He hoped to spearhead the same sort of regional culinary rediscovery in Colorado that Brock and other Southern chefs had orchestrated back east: emphasizing indigenous Rocky Mountain ingredients, bringing back forgotten heirloom varieties of fruits and vegetables, and taking advantage of Colorado's farms and ranches that are raising heritage livestock breeds.

Everything from the serviceware to the vinegar was important to him — the former was handmade by a potter in northern California, and the latter came from bubbling jugs in the kitchen — and he described in detail how an onion could be roasted overnight in hot embers and then peeled apart to reveal different layers with different flavors and different applications on the plate. Coaxing myriad uses out of a single ingredient was one of many ways Lackey envisioned keeping the menu vibrant and fresh through the region's long winters. His intensity and drive to create something new from Colorado's roots were obvious, even in a brief, one-hour interview.

After leaving Arcana, Lackey regrouped and was in the planning stages of a fried chicken and wine restaurant called CANDR (for chicken and rosé) that he hoped to launch in the RiNo neighborhood later this year.

Denver's kitchens are full of talented young cooks hoping to shape the restaurant scene or simply turn out good food on a daily basis. Take a moment next time you're dining out to see who's back there grilling your steak or laboriously plating the artistic dish that will be gone mere minutes after it hits your table; we often forget about the men and women working hard in the restaurant industry who add a little nourishing beauty to each day.

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Mark Antonation is the former Westword Food & Drink Editor. In 2018, he was named Outstanding Media Professional by the Colorado Restaurant Association; he's now with the Colorado Restaurant Foundation.
Contact: Mark Antonation