Sterling Robinson of North County and Billy's Inn Talks Fish Tacos and Tequila

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Sterling Robinson got his first job when he was thirteen, when his older brother called on Mother’s Day to see if he could fill in for a missing dishwasher at the Denver restaurant where he worked. “My brother was the biggest influence,” he says. “He’s five years older and got me into cooking and restaurants.”

The job was a turning point for Robinson, who now laughs coyly when asked if he was a bit of a troublemaker. He’s more serious when he talks about how that job gave him reason to be proud. While still at John F. Kennedy High School in southwest Denver, he signed up for a program that allowed him to work and take culinary classes half the time. By fifteen, he was working at the Pinehurst Country Club, “doing garde-manger work and ice carving. It was my first passion,” he remembers. “It was a time of my life when I needed some direction.”
Standard high-school classes didn’t hold much interest for Robinson, and he put all his effort into excelling in his cooking classes and restaurant jobs in hopes of landing scholarship money for Johnson & Wales University in Rhode Island, because he knew he couldn’t afford it without assistance. His dedication paid off and he enrolled at the university after graduation, taking a heavy course load and earning his associate’s and bachelor’s degrees by the time he was 21. “I graduated on the dean’s list,” he adds, “but you probably don’t want to look at my high-school transcripts.”

Back in Colorado, he interned at the Brown Palace, continuing to work on mastering classic cooking techniques and also pursuing a budding interest in food-and-wine pairing. While fresh out of college, he was hired as the opening wine buyer and sommelier at Cool River Cafe, where the owner encouraged him to further his wine education. While there, he earned certifications from the International Wine Guild and the Court of Master Sommeliers. He also entered a recipe in a food-and-wine-pairing competition called the Dunnewood Dine-Off that was good enough to earn him a trip to New York City for a cook-off at the Rainbow Room, where the event was judged by Manhattan restaurant luminaries Lidia Bastianich and Mario Batali, among others. Although he didn’t win, one of the event organizers was impressed by his recipe and told him he should write a cookbook — and so he did. He named it Since Food and Wine Are Lovers..., but never took all the steps to get it published; it still sits on a shelf above his desk.

“It was definitely the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” he says. “At the time, I thought writing a cookbook, getting on television and having a restaurant with my name on it were the signs of success and how I could provide for my family. But now I take a more grown-up approach to the restaurant industry.”

Over the past two decades, Robinson has split his time between the kitchen and the front of the house, learning the ropes of running restaurants and bar programs as well as turning out food. He landed the post of general manager at Jimmy’s in Aspen, which turned out to be a great place to further his education in distilled spirits, with a particular focus on tequila. While he was there, the bar program, which was specializing in craft cocktails and tequilas years before the trend hit Denver, won national recognition from several industry publications. The possibility of an ownership role in a restaurant brought Robinson back to Denver, but when that didn’t work out, his experience on both sides of the house paid off with jobs, first as the manager of all the Hapa Sushi restaurants and later helping open the original Argyll in Cherry Creek North.

When the general-manager position opened up at Billy’s Inn, which had been purchased and renovated by Larimer Associates in 2008, Robinson jumped at the chance. It wasn’t long before he became operating partner and proprietor of Billy’s, and he was then offered the same role at North County, the Baja-style bar and grill in Lowry that Larimer Associates opened in December. The emphasis on hospitality was what initially drew Robinson to the company; it fit with his style of running restaurants. Today Robinson credits Rod Wagner and Joe Vostrejs of Larimer Associates with helping him achieve a position he’s been working toward all along: “I’m definitely in a situation I would not be in without them.”

At North County, Robinson gets to utilize all of the skills he’s accumulated over the years, from cooking (which still takes up about a quarter of his time) to working with the front of the house to selecting tequilas and designing cocktails. He and executive chef Jose Silvestre have put together a menu that employs classic technique to produce the slow-cooked meats and grilled fish that give depth to what appears to be a casual, street-food-inspired menu. Everything, even the corn and flour tortillas, is made by hand in-house. As he speaks, a spit of marinated pork topped with a whole pineapple — destined to become tacos al pastor — slowly bronzes in one corner of the kitchen, while duck and brisket cook down in low-temperature ovens. “The duck quesadilla is basically duck à l’orange,” he notes. “Duck cooked all day makes a great confit.”

He and Silvestre visited several regions in Mexico, focusing on Baja California, and ate their way through bars and taquerias in San Diego before finalizing the menu. “Joe [Vostrejs] gave me not just the ability to do research, but to travel with Jose to taste the food and tequilas,” Robinson points out. Which was important, because the restaurant scene in Denver has evolved dramatically since he first returned from school in Rhode Island, Robinson says, adding that Billy’s and North County fit the mold of a new style of dining out. “We’re definitely a more knowledgeable state than we once were,” he says of Colorado. “Places like Mel’s and Bistro Addie Brewster, those were real destinations.” Dining out used to be more of a special event, when people would dress up for — and expect — high-end service and food, he adds, but “restaurants are so much more connected to neighborhoods and culture now.” While customers still expect excellent food and service, they now have enough information that they demand other qualities, too. “The questions people ask: Is this farm-raised and local? Is this Vietnamese fish? What is the mercury level in this fish? It comes from all the cooking shows and the Internet,” he says.
Even neighborhood bars are expected to offer more than they did in the past. “Bar food is just different in San Diego,” he notes, referring to his recent trip to the West Coast to research Mexican food. “They’re all doing aguachile and oysters and fresh fish.” But Denverites are no longer content with standard bar food either, he says: “Every year at Billy’s I have to improve because of the competition. If you’re not improving, you’re getting worse.”

At North County, he also put together a bar program that features bottled, carbonated cocktails with tequila or vodka bases and ingredients including ginger, pink peppercorns, rosemary, blood oranges and mango. “We wanted to offer a handcrafted cocktail at a reasonable price,” he explains. “And we didn’t want to run the risk of the food coming out before the drinks.” Those tacos and tortas don’t take long to get from the grill to the table, and he didn’t want a list of labor-intensive mixed drinks to slow things down.
Even with great food and drinks, restaurants can fail if they’re not focused on the customers. “So many times there’s a disconnect between what we do and what they do,” Robinson says of chefs and front-of-house staff. “There are a lot of people [who are] trying to do this but aren’t successful — because they don’t understand hospitality.”

Robinson sees his job as a continuing opportunity to learn. “The exciting part is knowing how little I know and learning something new every day,” he says, adding that despite the stress of running two restaurants, he’s still able to have fun. “I’m not a doctor; I never have to tell anyone they’re dying. I get to be around fresh ingredients every day. I get to study beer and spirits...[to] taste Armagnac that nobody knows about, or 200-year-old whiskey.”

That’s an attitude that prevails even outside of work, where he spends his time cooking (although less than he used to), reading cookbooks (a favorite is Culinary Artistry by Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page), and exploring Denver’s bar-and-restaurant scene. “For a classic cocktail, if I’m going to get dressed up, it’s the Cooper Lounge,” he says. “For a cigar: Churchill’s in the Brown Palace. If I want to watch sports: Billy’s Inn.”

As for his favorite restaurants: Lon Symensma, of ChoLon, “is brilliant,” he says. “Stoic & Genuine is an amazing addition to the Denver scene. And Troy Guard is an amazing talent.” He’s looking forward to this year’s Top Taco competition, where Billy’s Inn and Los Chingones will go head to head.

There’s definitely a streak of gourmand in Robinson, who admits that he’s put on a few pounds since his younger days. But he takes as much pleasure in creating and sharing good food and drinks as he does in discovering and sampling them himself. “When you’re a kid, if you’re bad you get sent to bed and if you’re good you get the cookie,” he says with a smile. “Good food is a reward and a joy and something I love to share.” 

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