At the Boulder Farmers' Market a couple of summers back, John Long — round, garrulous, deeply knowledgeable about Colorado agriculture and the quintessential pig farmer — put his arm around my shoulders and led me to a booth where chefs from The Kitchen were serving his product: pulled pork on rolls from Udi's, topped with a bright, sweet-sour apple-cabbage dressing. I don't know if it was the ambience of the market, the scintillating freshness of the ingredients, the skill of the cooks, the presence of John beaming beside me or the fact that the handsome Italian brothers who staff the Udi's stand had been flirting with me only minutes earlier (it's their penchant for flirting with old ladies, I'm pretty sure, that keeps their spot hopping all day), but at that moment, in that place, that pork sandwich tasted better than any sandwich I'd ever had in my life.
When they opened the Kitchen in 2004, chefs and co-owners Hugo Matheson and Kimbal Musk were driven by a desire to create community. On any evening, customers can sit at a long community table in the restaurant; on Mondays, there's also a family table: Matheson's re-creation for the public and any food provider who happens to drop by of the informal meals enjoyed by his staff. This commitment to community is not the sentimental impulse of your typical Boulder yuppie. It's less showy and much deeper, connected to the kind of food Matheson wants his kitchen to turn out: low-key and unpretentious, food that brings back memories of childhood — if, that is, you happened to grow up in rural France, or your mother cooked the way Matheson's mother did, cooking what was fresh and available every day, from kale from the garden to a leg of lamb. Matheson's kind of home cooking is about using everything — beef marrow, the carcass of a roasted chicken, "respecting the food that you have, and eating what's in your fridge rather than running out all the time to buy new stuff."
Matheson's background is both homely and cosmopolitan. As a kid, he wanted to be a farmer; growing up in England, he spent time working at an uncle's dairy farm and for a sheep-farmer friend. He doesn't romanticize farming unduly, but he does use as much local product as possible, and when he has to go further afield, he works with a web of small and artisanal producers. In 1996 he was working with Jamie Oliver at London's River Cafe when Oliver was discovered during the filming of a television show. "He was making a risotto," Matheson remembered when I met with him at the Kitchen one afternoon, "and they said, 'You could be a personality.' This was an amazing community with a rawness you don't find here — more people then doing their own thing in small dining rooms and pubs, people with their own kitchens. You didn't get labeled with the term 'fine dining.' They were just passionate. It was an intense place, London in the 1990s, a phenomenal place to be for food. King's Road — that whole street was energy. Now it's just the Gap and Banana Republic. Gordon Ramsay used to be at the restaurant every day."
The Kitchen has been much lauded for environmentalism — wind-powered energy, compostable containers, the staffer who uses spent cooking oil to power his car and gets mentioned in every article about the place — but I got the impression that Matheson is a little tired of that particular trope. That's what the publicists wanted to stress, he said, and of course he does those things because one should, but really it's about the food.
I return to the Kitchen to eat with two friends — brothers — on a bitter Thursday night. The place is so unpretentious, so apparently casual, that it takes a while before you absorb all the knowledge and thought that's gone into the decor. Take the requisite chalkboard on the exposed brick wall, for example: Unlike boards I've seen in other bistros, the writing on this one is neat block print. You can watch the chefs work in the kitchen through a window in the back wall — again, a common practice. But someone has framed the scene with great artfulness: The window is smallish and edged by a bright metal strip, which throws back the light from the ceiling and the candles on each wooden tabletop; a pile of loaves intrudes into the scene from the bottom, a row of kitchen implements dangles from the top. Artful synthesis is everywhere. Sure, there are metallic touches, including synthetic-looking gray chairs and the huge, brutal gray pipe that seems to dissect the ceiling of almost every hip eatery these days. But the effect is mitigated by wood, brick and candlelight, and though the dining room is noisy, the noise is muted by baffles. The space is a clever combination of contemporary and old-fashioned, cool and warm, noisy and intimate. Even the servers' outfits — gray but non-shiny shirts, jeans — take up the theme.