Staffing Up: A new concept for Mark & Isabella

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Last week, my buddy Dave Herrera over at Backbeat debuted a new bloggity thingamajig called Recast, in which he and his guys redo the soundtracks of existing movies. First one? Blade Runner -- one of the greatest movies of all time, and one with a soundtrack that already kicks some serious, artsy, Vangelis-y ass.

Despite the fact that he had Dolly Parton, the Kinks and the Electric Prunes on his new version, I still thought it was a great idea. So good, in fact, that I've decided to steal borrow it for Cafe Society.

My version: Staffing Up, in which I will take restaurants suffering from some sort of internal malady or crisis of spirit and re-staff them from the ground up, bringing in new cooks and new chefs (and maybe new servers and bartenders, too) in order to save places that I feel are operating at less than ideal capacity, to put it gently. Think of this as a thought experiment -- revisionist history for hardcore Denver foodistas with too much time on their hands. Or as a way to rescue good concepts dying under the regimes of fuck-ups, idiots and talentless hacks. And what better way to start things off than with the restaurant that disappointed me most recently: Mark & Isabella.

This place... It's got a good location, a decent (though not entirely wedded) space, a floor staff who at least know enough to keep their thumbs out of the soup. It has a chef/owner, Mark Tarbell, who has proven that he knows how to run other, better restaurants (The Oven here in Denver, Tarbell's in Arizona). The biggest problem? Mark & Isabella is cursed with kitchen staff who have simply checked the fuck out -- who don't care even a little bit about serving decent food to paying customers and show it with every plate that comes off of their line.

So for starters, everyone is fired. To a man. And the only guy welcome to re-submit an application? The one who cooked the fish on the night that I was there with my family. It was the only thing that came out of the kitchen that was even close to edible. But beyond that, we're starting with a clean slate and working back up from the bottom.

Chef: Tarbell can remain the chef here (he does own the place, after all), but on one condition: He actually comes to town and spends some time making sure that his crew is not shaming him from a distance. He has to stand a few shifts on the line and show these guys his vision of Italian-American comfort food, explain to them how to properly prep and plate it, show them (if necessary) how to work a goddamn fryer. Every restaurant needs a guiding hand and an organizing force. And even though I personally blame the cooks actually working on the nights I was disappointed by Mark & Isabella, I blame Tarbell as well. This is his place, his concept, and that makes him responsible -- no matter how far away he was at the time.

Chef de cuisine: Because I understand that Tarbell can't be in the kitchen every night, he needs a strong c-de-c to run things while he is away, to transmit the wisdom to the troops and watch their every move. It has to be a guy capable of both thinking for himself and taking orders from a distant master. You know who's really good at that? Tyler Wiard. Granted, he's got a good gig right now running the galley at Elway's in Cherry Creek, but that's what makes him perfect for this job. He was able to take a menu designed by someone else and make it his own while ensuring that the quality never slipped. Honest to god, I've never had a single plate at Elway's that has ever even come close to disappointing me the way that virtually everything did at Mark & Isabella. So he's my guy.

Garde manger/cold apps: Anyone from Osteria Marco. Jesus, even one of the dishwashers there probably knows more about presenting charcuterie and antipasti than whoever is currently rocking the lowboys at Mark & Isabella.

Saute/saucier: Whoever makes the sauerkraut at the Cheeky Monk. I don't know who does it, but he (or she) is a genius, and shows that he/she cares even about something as disposable as an unlovely side veg by making it simply the best sauerkraut ever. This is the kind of person who ought to be in charge of making sauces and sides at a place that, not for nothing, depends on sauce and sides to make everything else on the plate work. It requires someone who cares deeply about every pot of red gravy, every hash, every ratatouille and side that passes through his hands. In other words, someone who thinks like a motherfucking cook.

Fryers: A brain-damaged chimp could do better than whoever is on this station now. But if there are no brain-damaged chimps available, stick a C-school extern in this spot and let him learn from the good cooks around him.

So, do you get the idea? I'm going to run these little exercises now and then. And, of course, you are all welcome to play along. For example, Mark & Isabella could really use a good expediter -- someone who can make sure that the kind of food that made it to my table never leaves the kitchen again -- but I couldn't think of anyone appropriate for the gig.

Any and all suggestions welcome below.

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