The Way Back opened in the Tennyson neighborhood just six months ago and quickly became a local landmark. Much has been made of its bar — partner and bartender Chad Michael George is president of the Colorado Bartenders’ Guild and did a long stint at Williams & Graham, and he brought his A-game to the beverage list at this new spot. But owners George, Kade Gianinetti (co-owner of Method Coffee Roasters) and Jared Schwartz (owner of the American Grind food truck) never intended for their spot to be just a drinks den. After tasting their food at a pop-up, they brought on Marcus Eng and Sam Charles, a pair of chefs who’d worked together at Acorn, to run the kitchen.
Eng and Charles have been cooking out of a Way Back food truck since May, and they just launched Tuesday’s Test Table, a weekly specials menu that showcases their experiments and allows them to bring their lofty philosophy on sustainability to life. We recently chatted with George, Schwartz, Eng and Charles about the pros and cons of sourcing locally, why the sustainable revolution will happen incrementally, and what it means to be a community player in the Denver restaurant industry.
Westword: The Way Back has been largely billed as a bar in media coverage, and most of the attention has focused on your cocktail program. But I’m sitting here with a culinary team that suggests you’re serious about being a restaurant. So what are you? A bar with a deeper-than-usual focus on food, or a restaurant?
Chad Michael George: A restaurant. For the first few weeks, it was just a bar, and I don’t want to say we shot ourselves in the foot, but we’ve definitely been battling that mentality ever since. In May, we did 30 percent food and 70 percent booze. Right now, every night, we’re about fifty-fifty. The media focus on the bar was more than we were comfortable with. Restaurants make their money at the bar, so that’s great, but the food was what this concept was about.
Jared Schwartz: And it’s been cool to see people show up for drinks and have food and get blown away.
So what was the original vision here, and how did it come together?
Schwartz: We had an opportunity on this building, and everything fell into place. We started out thinking we were going to do a burger concept here; I’d run the American Grind food truck for two years. But we were meeting with Marcus and Sam, and they sent us an e-mail and said this is not what we think we should do here. They started to come up with this concept of what we thought the food should be, and Chad came on as another partner in the business to help with the bar stuff.
Marcus Eng: We’re very sustainability-focused, and we feature what’s available from our local farmers. It’s about turning the game on its head and sourcing a lot better — more responsibly and locally. We wanted to demonstrate the true value of food — including things like carbon emissions and ethical ramifications — and do it better than everyone else. We’re not really adhering to a definite cuisine. It’s playful, tongue-in-cheek and responsible.
Sam Charles: It’s about trying to look at the little things. For instance, we made the move to using 100 percent local sunflower oil for cooking. We were using all these sustainable products, but we had bad oil.
Is local the be-all, end-all? Do you think it’s the answer to creating sustainable menus?
George: Our sourcing guide is on the back of the menu, and it lays out how far away each of those sources is. Before we opened, we kept thinking regional and hyper-local, but that’s not realistic. So we focus on responsible. For instance, we were sourcing local bass, but we found out that bass was being cleaned and broken down by penitentiary labor. Slave labor, basically. So we said, okay, we’re done with that. It’s a discipline like yoga, or going to the gym. We’re doing things we all believe is the humane way.
Eng: Revolutions happen via incremental change, so that’s how we tackle sustainability. For instance, we feature more vegetables. Their footprint on the food scene in general is far less than fish and seafood, and way less than meats, even though all our meats are pasture-raised. We also compost, and we give our compost to another purveyor that grows produce in Lakewood in people’s front yards. We like that we can use a lot of the bar’s waste and that nothing is getting thrown out in the dumpster.
Charles: We’re trying to build relationships with people. We support people who are working to make this system a little better.
Chad, you’ve carried that into the bar program?
George: Ninety to 95 percent of the cocktail menu features at least one local, quality-made spirit. As a bartender by trade, I’m sensitive to the fact that local doesn’t mean good. A lot of spirits made here aren’t up to par. And then I’ve been able to integrate other local ingredients: Fruition Farms yogurt, local beets, Palisade peaches. The bar reflects the kitchen, and that’s been a challenge — I’ve never had to approach drinks that way before. The cocktail menu changes as things come in and out of season, like the kitchen.
You guys are rolling out a special Tuesday night prix fixe menu meant to showcase some of this philosophy, right? Tell me a little about that.
Schwartz: It’ll be both à la carte and prix fixe, and this is a chance for the kitchen to get really playful, and to do that for a kind of fair price.
Eng: We want to push the envelope. It gets boring cooking the same thing over and over. We get some deep cuts, off cuts, and this is our chance to play around and push our diners. And we want feedback from our guests to dial in what we want to put on our menu.
Charles: For instance, we just got a bunch of Colorado yak in, and it’ll find its way into a dish on that tasting menu. Instead of having to commit to something that may be on for a week or two, we can bring something in that’s really special. Another example is Washington snails that we used in a snail stroganoff earlier this year. It was a very special dish, but it was lost a little bit. In a tasting setting, we can bring focus onto why that’s a cool ingredient.
This is pretty ambitious food we’re talking about, yet you’re cooking all of this out of a food truck?
George: It’s a kitchen that used to be on wheels. It was easier than adding an extension on the building and dealing with six months of city nonsense and six figures. It makes Marcus’s and Sam’s plates that much more special.
Eng: We started with two induction burners and a half-sheet tray oven. We used to swap propane tanks out mid-service. Now we have ten burners. We’re at a point now that we can pretty much cook what we want to.
When other restaurateurs talk about you guys, they often point to your heightened sense of being a strong community player. How do you think about the idea of community?
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George: Community is a big part of the philosophy. We’ve done a few charity events. I want to consider the restaurant community our contemporaries, and to consider our community as a whole, and think about how we can all grow and get better together rather than act as competitors. If you’re in the business to make a million dollars, you’re going to lose, anyway — so we may as well enrich our own lives.
Eng: We’re trying to be a good neighbor, to highlight what’s going on in our community and to share this community.
I’ve heard some rumors that you’re looking at expansion. Any truth to those?
George: There will be an American Grind in early 2017. That’s all we can say right now.
The Way Back is located at 4132 West 38th Avenue; it's open from 4 to 10 p.m. Monday through Thursday, and 4 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. For more information, call 720-728-8156 or go to thewaybackdenver.com.