Chris MacGillivray just started as executive chef at the Squeaky Bean in May, but he’s already an old hand in the LoDo kitchen. That’s because he’d been there before, having worked under Max MacKissock before the opening chef departed two years ago. MacGillivray stayed for a short time under MacKissock’s successor, Theo Adley, but then left to explore other options for the next year and a half. When Adley left this spring, Squeaky Bean partners Johnny Ballen and Josh Olsen turned to MacGillivray as a known quantity with the culinary philosophy they were looking for.
“Johnny and Josh called me about the job,” MacGillivray recalls, “and I already knew the kitchen and the crew that were here were pretty awesome.”
His mission is to create “clean, simple flavors and dishes based on the best seasonal ingredients. Our focus is ingredient quality,” he explains. “We were looking to make the menu a little more approachable — with flavors and products that people identify with.”
Since the Bean maintains several acres of farm and garden, overseen by Olsen in three separate locations, many of those seasonal ingredients come straight from the earth to MacGillivray’s kitchen. As a current example, he points to a dish in the “seasonal” section of the menu that combines beets, raspberries, hazelnuts and sorrel — with everything but the hazelnuts sourced from Bean Acres in Lakewood, the Squeaky Beds near the restaurant’s original location in lower Highland, or the land that Olsen manages in conjunction with Warren Tech High School (also in Lakewood). “We grow red-vein sorrel, and wild wood sorrel grows around the borders of the farm,” the chef notes.
“We’re leaning toward a vegetable-driven menu,” he adds. “Not vegetarian, by any means, but proteins are used almost as flavor enhancers. Yes, we have a steak dish, but it’s a six-ounce cut, and it’s balanced on the plate with other ingredients.”
That focus on ingredients is only half the reason MacGillivray chose to return to the Squeaky Bean. The other half is the creative environment that Ballen and Olsen foster. “All of the cooks when I was here the first time are now chefs,” he says. Bean alumni that he worked with include Blake Edmunds and Chris Schmidt, now both at Sweet Basil in Vail, Darren Pusateri of Guard and Grace, and Josh Bitz, who recently opened Meadowlark Kitchen in RiNo.
Before his first stint at the Squeaky Bean, MacGillivray’s career took him from New Mexico to New York City and then Colorado. He grew up in Santa Fe, in a household that wasn’t exactly a culinary haven. “My parents were two of the worst cooks I’ve ever been around,” he remembers. “There was a lot of microwave cooking — and the occasional decent Crock-pot of green chile.”
But he still appreciated good food, even before he started working in restaurant kitchens at seventeen, explaining that “part of it is growing up in New Mexico, which has a really great food culture.”
His first kitchen job was just that — simply a job. But after the first few months, he realized it could be something more. “At first I fell into that Anthony Bourdain cliché — smoking and drinking and that whole pirate mentality,” he says. But he realized that moving up and learning more meant concentrating on what his chefs were trying to teach him. After gigs at a couple of casual restaurants, he worked in several high-end Santa Fe hotel restaurants, including Luminaria in the Inn at Loretto. “Once you get into that high technique and a certain level of restaurant, it’s hard to go back,” he says.
Eventually, he felt he had learned everything he could in Santa Fe and moved to Vail, then on to New York City, where he worked for restaurateur David Burke at davidburke & donatella. “For the first three months, it was probably the hottest restaurant in the city,” he remembers. “There was intense pressure. The level of cooks and chefs are all elevated. You get your butt kicked and see what you’re made of, and hopefully come out better for it.”
Although he stayed in New York for just over a year, he left with more than just cooking experience: “I met my wife in New York,” he says. The new couple moved to Vail for a short time before they decided to be closer to her family in North Carolina. “We moved to Durham for a while and said, ‘No, we can’t live here,’” MacGillivray remembers.
The coastal town of Charleston, South Carolina, proved a little more to their liking, and he was able to find more interesting work. He learned about Low Country cooking, doing a three-day stage at McCrady’s (the restaurant of Southern Foodways expert Sean Brock) and working at the Glass Onion, another acclaimed Southern eatery. “I learned a ton about Southern food in a really short amount of time,” he notes.
But Southern food wasn’t enough to keep MacGillivray in South Carolina, so he and his wife decided to return to Colorado — this time to Denver instead of Vail, because of the opportunity to buy a home and the “up-and-coming food scene,” MacGillivray says. He quickly got a feel for that scene, working for some of the city’s best chefs — as chef de cuisine for John Broening at Olivea in 2010 and as sous-chef for Justin Cucci and Daniel Asher during the opening of Linger in 2011 — before hiring on when the Squeaky Bean opened in LoDo in 2012, after closing the year before following two years in LoHi.
Now at the helm, MacGillivray says he “wants to make sure people are enjoying the food and enjoying themselves.” In addition to plenty of produce from the Bean’s farms, his menu will include Pacific-focused seafood, lamb from Clint Buckner’s Boulder Lamb, and foraged produce like chanterelle mushrooms (he says Washington chanterelles are excellent right now). In the coming months, harvest season will mean lots of canning and preserving to get through the winter season with summer flavors still on the plate. And although there was an immediate comfort level with the kitchen, he also admits he’s just settling in: “It’s honestly a much different restaurant than it was two years ago.”
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As a New Mexico native, MacGillivray isn’t afraid to jump into the chile debate. Although he loves green chile, he claims that the true differentiator is red chile. He’s found good examples of green in Denver — “The hottest real-deal green chile is at Burrito Giant” — but insists that you have to head to New Mexico, places like the Shed or Horseman’s Haven, for the best. As with the food at the Squeaky Bean, sourcing is the most important thing when it comes to making red chile, because New Mexico Chimayo chiles are what make it special — and those chiles can be hard to come by in Denver. “If you’re a restaurant owner in Denver and you ask for Chimayo, you may not get it, [or] it may have been sitting in a warehouse for months,” he explains. “It’s all about sourcing the proper ingredients.”
Which is why he won’t be incorporating Chimayo chiles into the menu at the Bean. “I don’t want to do it just to do it,” he says.
Along with Burrito Giant, MacGillivray is a fan of New Saigon, Pho Duy and Tacos Jalisco, which isn’t far from the Regis neighborhood where he and his wife bought a house. For a high-end splurge, they’ll hit Sushi Sasa or Domo, the restaurant where they’ve gone the most in Denver.
At home during the summer, you’ll find MacGillivray grilling outside or eating tomato sandwiches using tomatoes from his garden. He maintains about 800 square feet in eight separate beds and is growing peppers, eggplant, fennel, borage, tarragon and seven varieties of tomatoes, some of which even make it onto the plates of the Squeaky Bean. (Those little blue borage flowers add a distinct flavor in addition to color.) The Squeaky Bean may be an established restaurant, but there’s always room to grow.