Steve Halliday, managing partner of Ambria, weighs in on firing chef Jeremy Kittelson

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Last week, I broke the news that Jeremy Kittelson, the opening chef of Ambria, had been fired during the height of Denver Restaurant week -- one of the busiest weeks of the year and an incredibly risky (some would say incredibly stupid) time to boot your executive chef off the line. When I spoke with Kittelson, he stressed -- emphatically -- that he had been axed, and that his comrade of chefs, many of whom had cooked alongside Kittelson in the past, at Restaurant Avondale, in Vail, had subsequently walked out the door, not because Kittelson coaxed them, but of their own accord. "I was fired, and my staff, all of whom have worked with me in the past, left because they wanted to," he told me.

But while Steve Halliday, the managing partner of Ambria, where Kittelson is also a minority owner, agrees that Kittelson was terminated, he insists that the chef knew that his time at Ambria was limited.

"Four weeks ago, we had a conversation with Jeremy about the environment at Ambria, which was extremely toxic, and we told him that things needed to improve and change -- that we'd put a whole lot of press behind Jeremy Kittelson, and that things weren't going the way we'd envisioned," says Halliday. "Let's just say that, among other things, I've never been involved in a restaurant where the back of the house wouldn't talk to the front of the house -- there were too many walls up and too much tension -- and we just couldn't connect. The teamwork wasn't there," Halliday asserts.

A week later, maintains Halliday, he, Kittelson and another managing partner sat down once again to discuss Kittlelson's tenure at Ambria, and, according to Halliday, it was clear to both parties that the honeymoon was over. "Somewhere in that conversation, Jeremy made the decision to leave, and we let him know, flat out, that we were interviewing for another executive chef -- that we'd put an advertisement on Craigslist," says Halliday, adding that he and Kittelson mutually agreed that when he when he exited, his cooks -- those who had previously worked with him -- would be leaving, too. "He said that when he left, he was going to take the cooks who had followed him down the mountain from Vail, and we agreed to that," contends Halliday.

Within days of placing the ad on Craigslist, Halliday had found a new chef: Gabe Balenzuela, the former sous chef of Oceanaire. "Jeremy is a great guy and a great chef, but not all great chefs are great businesspeople or leaders, and that's what we need in this restaurant" -- and Balenzuela, claims Halliday, is the right guy. "He came in and things changed almost immediately. Morale shot up, we had an extremely busy weekend -- our busiest one yet -- and everything went really smoothly."

Along with Balenzuela, Halliday also hired John Wilson, whose last cooking stint was the sous chef job at Ototo, along with Anthony Smith, who worked at the Broadmoor, the Greenbriar in West Virginia, Table 6 and, most recently, the Med, in Boulder, where he was the executive sous chef. "This is a great, fun group of chefs, and it's a joy working with them," says Halliday.

Kittelson's original menu, he notes, will stay the same throughout Denver Restaurant Week, but tweaks are forthcoming. "We're still going to be an American restaurant with Mediterranean inspirations, but Gabe and his crew will make some changes down the line," says Halliday, namely more sandwiches and salads during the lunch hour -- at lower prices. He notes, too, that seafood will take on a larger role and that the kitchen staff plans to put a larger emphasis on locally sourced products and proteins, including Colorado lamb. "That's the direction we're heading, and judging from the great food they put out this weekend, I'm confident that we'll just keep getting better."

As for Kittelson's departure, Halliday admits it was a "tough decision, especially during Denver Restaurant week," but, he adds, "it had to happen." Still, he insists that "Jeremy is a good kid, and I wish him all the success in the world."

And so does the rest of the Denver chef community, as evidenced by the comments of support from last week's post on his departure. Things obviously didn't work out at Ambria, but make no mistake: Kittelson can cook.

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