Rod Dupen Waffle Brothers 393 Corona Street; 303-733-1212 1707 Lafayette Street; 720-708-5150 1326 College Avenue, Boulder; 303-593-0510 wafflebrothers.com This is part one of my interview with Ron Dupen, exec chef of Waffle Brothers; part two of our chat will run tomorrow.
When you swish through the door of Waffle Brothers, co-owner and chef Rod Dupen, who's typically behind the counter, will likely greet you with a booming "G'Day," followed by a fleet of words and phrases that incorporate Australian slang. "Mate" is a good bet. Despite the fact that Dupen has lived in the States for nearly two decades, he's still all animated Aussie, right down to the accent, which isn't quite "crocodile hunter," but it's close.
Born in Sydney, the Australian native grew up surrounded by food -- and family, friends and neighbors who shared in the bounty. "A bunch of us would all head down to the markets and go spear-fishing, call the neighbors to let them know we had a feed, and then we'd all gather in the back yard and eat, drink, sing, play instruments and write poetry," remembers Dupen. "Everyone cooked," including him: "I loved making cakes and making up my own recipes, and when I failed, I just made another one."
When he wasn't feasting, Dupen was biding his time slinging drinks behind the stick, saving money to embark on a journey around the globe. His travels took him to England, where he worked alongside a personal chef who cooked for an English lord. "I started as a dish hand and worked my way up to being a cook, cooking for people of influence at different events, dinners and gatherings," says Dupen. "I loved the whole process of cooking, the plating and the perfection of precision. It amazed me."
But once he left England and flew across the pond to America, specifically Boston, he gave up it all up, taking gigs selling cars and working for a motion-picture film lab. After nearly five years in Beantown, he headed to Denver on the advice of a friend, who convinced him that the Mile High City offered a swell of solid business opportunities. Dupen became an options broker and then took a job as a functional-specifications writer for a securities-software company. And it was while he was there that he strayed back into the food world, starting an Internet beef company called the CrazyButcher. Not long after, he and John Power, his then-neighbor and now business partner, started bantering about waffles.
"John had just spent a few weeks in Belgium, and every day, he'd go buy a waffle or two from the waffle cart, and when he got back to Denver, he asked if I'd be interested in going into the waffle business," recalls Dupen. For more than a year, the two researched waffles and recipes, ultimately creating "a killer waffle that friends and neighbors loved." They started peddling them at charity events and festivals, farmers' markets and concession stands, and it wasn't long before the two wafflers began to enjoy the sweet smell of success. "Everywhere we went, we had lines and a constant stream of people, and we realized that we were on to something," says Dupen, who launched a cart on the 16th Street Mall in 2008.
A brick-and-mortar Waffle Brothers opened in the Alamo Placita neighborhood in 2010, followed by a Boulder store in 2012. In mid-May, a third Waffle Brothers will open in Uptown -- and this one will serve beer and wine and boast a beer garden. "We're really excited about opening another Waffle Brothers in such a great neighborhood, and the patio is going to make one helluva cool beer garden," promises Dupen, who in the following interview attacks Brussels sprouts (with a vengeance), recalls the night when his restaurant was smashed by a drunk driver, and explains how Groupon made him humble.
How do you describe your food? We're built around breakfast and lunch and incorporate an array of sweet and savory food items, from delicious, healthy sandwiches and salads to variations of wholesome waffles with sweet toppings, fruity toppings, sausage, bacon and egg toppings. And the combinations are endless from there.
Ten words to describe you: Australian, driven, eternally optimistic, friendly, outgoing, social, athletic, ambitious and lucky.
What are your ingredient obsessions? I love anything with flavor -- just give me a lot of spice like jalapeños or cayenne pepper. I also enjoy basil, olives and olive oil, and...oh, yeah, lots of fresh fruits. My favorites are strawberries, kiwis, blueberries, blackberries, pineapples and mangos.
What are your kitchen-gadget obsessions? Anything you can buy from a 1-800 number. If it's available in two-for-one and it's under $25, I'm probably going to buy it.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: Belfiore's breakfast sausage. It's lean, spicy, and you can eat it all day and never have an upset stomach. One ingredient that you won't touch: I'd normally say Spam, but we just created the Hawaiian waffle, which incorporates Spam and pineapple. It's shockingly -- and surprisingly -- good. In light of that, I guess I'd have to say lard. It's just gross.
Food trend you'd like to see in 2013: More Waffle Brothers restaurants. I'd also like to see real gluten-free and vegan-produced products.
Food trend you'd like to see disappear in 2013: Dollar menus. If you buy something for a buck, it's going to taste like it costs a buck, and while most of us are trying to advocate healthy eating, the fast-food, suck-them-in dollar menus just keep multiplying.
One food you detest: Brussels sprouts taste like vomit. There's nothing good about them. In fact, they taste like Saturday morning after a good Friday night.
One food you can't live without, and why: In general, meat. I grew up on meat and potatoes and simply can't live without it.
Favorite dish on your menu: The Tremont Special, which is an original waffle with marshmallow cream cheese, strawberries, bananas and whipped cream. I love the combination of the sweet crystalized-sugar waffle with fresh fruit and the subtle taste of the marshmallow cream cheese.
Biggest menu bomb: We were new to the waffle business and served a fresh strawberry purée with powdered sugar as opposed to freshly sliced strawberries. People seriously thought it was a waffle with marinara sauce and Parmesan cheese on top.
Weirdest customer request: Three years ago, someone asked for a waffle with meat, egg, cheese, jalapeños and Tabasco, which we thought was a weird request. Nonetheless, we decided to take a chance and then ended up adding it to our menu. Interestingly enough, now it's a staple.
Weirdest thing you've ever put in your mouth: The guts of a sea urchin.
What's the best food- or kitchen-related gift you've been given? Simply to be able to share something I love with thousands of other people.
What's your fantasy splurge? A Waffle Brothers Vegas on the Vegas strip, with fifteen large waffle irons, slot machines everywhere, fried chicken and booze. The end.
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What's in the pipeline? We're currently working on opening our newest Waffle Brothers location at 17th and Lafayette, right in the heart of Uptown. This one is a big deal, because we're branching out and adding beer and wine to our menu, and hopefully -- finally -- serving chicken and waffles. We're striving to open in May. Come say "G'day."