Cafe Society

The Fame Game

It must be weird when fame pays off, when you're not just recognized for what you do well, but when that recognition translates into the kind of fast return that usually only comes in movies. There's that scene of the Beatles in their hotel room, tumbling all over each other like a sack full of kittens when they hear one of their songs played on American radio for the first time. And then there's the nobody, the SAG-scale plugger, the character actor who, after giving the performance of his life, wins the Academy Award and is on the phone with his agent before he's even back in his seat, howling for twenty million on his next picture.

But those are the rare examples. For most of us -- for the employees of the month, winners of the company talent show, all the World's Greatest Grandmas -- the recognition must be its own reward. And that's fine, but haven't we all dreamed of the truly big score? Of collecting some trinket of appreciation for that one thing we do really well, standing at the podium blinded by the glare of the spotlights, thanking mom and Jesus, then stepping down into a life wholly changed?

Late in my marathon dinner at Table 6, there's a moment when chef Aaron Whitcomb -- buried in tickets, juggling fire orders, sweating under the backward Southie snap-brim he wears in place of a chef's toque -- stops moving for just a minute. He stands in his wide-open kitchen, looking out over the sea of customers, at the jammed-up door, the packed sidebar. He's the center of a kitchen firing on all cylinders, motionless but for his head, which swivels like a turret on the stump of his neck, and the flickering of a thin smile. Maybe he's thinking about his back stock. Maybe he's thinking about the Broncos. Maybe he's dropped a ticket and is wondering where the fried oyster Cobb in front of him is supposed to go. But I doubt it. I know that look and can almost see the blood banging in his temples. He's having a moment of divine payoff, thinking it's good to be the king.

Just a few weeks ago, Whitcomb appeared in Esquire's annual restaurant issue, where Table 6 placed on John Mariani's list of the 21 best new restaurants in the United States. Making Mariani's list is huge. You only get one shot -- in your restaurant's first year of business -- and usually only one meal to give it all you've got. If you're a chef at a joint on Mariani's itinerary, you know he's coming -- so imagine the pressure. You know he's booked a flight, gotten a room, come to town specifically to eat dinner at your restaurant. You know he's out there, judging you, deciding your fate. And while not being mentioned by Esquire's legendary palate-at-large has never killed a place, being included on that annual list brings more fame than a half-dozen Beard House dinners, more notoriety than a hundred good reviews. It makes a restaurant famous overnight and on a national scale, makes the chef a recognizable commodity and brings the crowds like you wouldn't believe.

Potentially crushing crowds for a small place like Table 6, which opened in the nicely broken-in Beehive space eight months ago, and a heavy burden for a guy like Whitcomb who, until he got his legs under him here, was known as just a member of Bryan Moscatello's brigade in the kitchen at Adega. He worked there in virtual anonymity, sous to the guy who was winning all the awards and kudos last year.

Now Whitcomb's the celebrity. The Big Name. And on this Saturday night, he's swamped, hammered by a crowd two, maybe three times too large for the space. The trouble with fame is that after you've been recognized for doing good once, you've got to keep doing good every day after. There's no going back.

I've arrived early for a quick commando strike, a fast visit under the radar. I'm curious to see how a place like Table 6 -- a simple, casual-swank neighborhood bistro -- handles the sudden boost of fame. It's a solo scouting mission. I plan to stay an hour, tops.

But at 5:15, every table is filled, save one -- a six-top by the windows, pressed up against the bare, exposed brick. Table 6 has a sidebar area, though -- a corner by the waitress service station that's been set with two rows of bar seating, one facing out toward the sidewalk, and another, shorter bar with comfy sling-back chairs running along both sides. It's set up rather like an elementary-school cafeteria table, in a communal environment that's my nightmare dining arrangement. Like Gulbenkian once said, my ideal number for dinner is two: myself and a damn good waiter. At a shared table, I'm crammed in all higgledy-piggledy with anyone who walks through the door. I never know who I'll be having dinner with, but it's almost inevitably someone awful, an accidental companion so disagreeable that by dessert I want to shank him with a sharpened demitasse spoon.

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan

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