Colorado History

My First Restaurant Job: Rocky Mountain Diner

The Ghost Building, where Rocky Mountain Diner was once located, is currently vacant.
The Ghost Building, where Rocky Mountain Diner was once located, is currently vacant. Molly Martin
The Rocky Mountain Diner, which closed in 2011 after twenty years in business in downtown Denver, was owned in part by Brad Anderson, who recently opened Benzina in an old gas station on East Colfax Avenue. While the Rocky Mountain Diner was not technically Eric Elkins's first-ever restaurant job, it was his first in Denver.

Job: Line Supervisor

Where: Rocky Mountain Diner, 800 18th Street

When: 1991-1994

About the place: The Rocky Mountain Diner in the Ghost Building was ahead of its time, serving up comfort food with a high-end twist in an Old West-style dining room. Duck enchiladas with Havarti cheese; vaquero cheesesteak sandwiches with marinated flank steak and jalapeño cream cheese; roast chicken with spicy cherry sauce. I loved the food!

How I got the job: I’d worked my way through college in university food service and then at a busy surf diner in Santa Cruz, so I was competent at prep and pretty okay on the line. When my very short career as a scientist in pediatric hematology didn’t work out after three months in a lab (so much for that bachelor’s in biochemistry and molecular biology), I did the sensible thing and went back to work in restaurants.

The kitchen manager hired me part-time as a prep cook while I worked another job six days a week as a “management trainee” at a downtown bagel deli for $250/week. Eventually I moved to full time at the RMD and worked as a line cook until I was promoted to daytime line supervisor.

What I did: Every morning, I’d ride my bike to the restaurant by 7 a.m. and change into my chef’s whites before stepping into the walk-in and assessing our prep needs for the day. By the time the crew arrived around 7:30 a.m., I’d have prep assignments and would be getting the line set for lunch. While one person would ready the salad/pantry station, someone else would start par-frying fries, and another cook would get the grill station in shape. The daytime sous chef would handle high-touch items like the roast chicken and flank steak, while I’d set up the steam tables and back up the prep crew if they got behind.

By 10:30 a.m., we’d have just about everything in place and would be working with the front of the house to coordinate specials and other details. And then it would be a full-on sprint from the moment we opened the doors at 11 a.m. until sometime after 2 p.m., when the lunch rush subsided. Between the US West office down the street and the Federal building across from us, the place was a hot spot for business lunches and meetings. Our goal was to get orders turned around within six minutes so people would have time to eat before getting back to work.

The occasional celebrity or pro athlete sighting (Scott Baio loved the place!) would cause the whole staff to buzz and jostle for a chance to look out into the dining room. Once we’d slung our last pot roast or ridiculously delicious pineapple upside-down cake, we’d clean and reset and get to work on prepping for the dinner crew.

It was a very fun, fast-paced job with a lot of responsibility for a 24-year-old kid. The team was a hilarious crew of stoners, druggies, ex-cons and miscreants, and I’d often have trouble breathing during the lunch rush because I was laughing so hard.

What I learned: Although I became a strong cook in my time there (I have mad veggie-slicing skills) — and still take inspiration from the dishes I learned how to prepare, the real lesson was in leadership and kindness.

Most of us were pretty young, and we were constantly trying to one-up each other for advancement. When I was given the manager role, some of the “old-timers” were annoyed, and I learned that treating them with respect and deference was the only way to get them to trust me and support the cause. The sous chefs could be nasty and critical one day and then kind and instructive the next; mostly it depended on how late they’d been out the night before and what kinds of trouble they’d gotten themselves into.

Learning to just be in my own zone and work without letting external stuff rattle me helped me become a better worker and leader. I watched how the cooks would become unproductive when the sous chefs lost their shit and realized how well a calm demeanor could keep a team on point.

Also, I met a kid who was totally into opera, and he and I caught a performance of Faust one time in the cheapest seats available. That experience inspired me to work with a voice coach and then sing with Opera Colorado for several seasons!

Most memorable experience: Besides being laughed out of the office by the owners when I presented an Excel database and a design for a loyalty card to increase repeat visits, the long days and nights around Labor Day weekend’s Taste of Colorado probably stay with me the most.

We’d get to the kitchen early on Saturday morning, working between sister restaurant Trinity Grill and our own to par-roast hundreds of turkey legs before transporting them to our booth in Civic Center Park. Then I’d spend the next eight to ten hours on constant watch over the grills, turning and basting legs until they were ready to sell, while cycling in the next batch.

I’d go home redolent of charred meat and barbecue sauce, my hair sticky and caked with grease, shower it all off before bed and then get up the next morning to do it again. Management plied us with cold beer and bottles of water, and I remember just sweating both out all day over the grills. But it was also weirdly satisfying to work at such a volume under the sun, smiling and engaging with people walking by, while just turning and burning those turkey legs all damn day for three days straight.

Do you have a great story about your first restaurant job in Denver? Let us know at [email protected].
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Eric Elkins is the CEO of Social Media, an occasional food and travel writer, author of a couple of young adult novels and unabashed champion of Denver’s dining and cocktails scene.