What started out as a simple farm dinner for Vesta executive chef Nicholas Kayser turned into an invitation to present an alcohol-free dinner at the James Beard House in New York City.
Kayser says he began planning a summer dinner to celebrate the produce of Altius Farms, a rooftop greenhouse at 2500 Lawrence Street that sells its hydroponically grown greens and other veggies to Denver restaurants. But then a colleague at Vesta died by suicide, changing the chef's perspective and goals. "It made me think about the connection between mental health and drinking in the industry," he recalls.
So the dinner became the first of the Zero Proof Dinner Series, showcasing food from Denver chefs and alcohol-free cocktails made by some of the city's top bartenders. Kayser, along with Secret Sauce restaurant group cohorts Emily Biederman (COO of Secret Sauce) and Connor Green (bar manager for Ace Eat Serve), formed Zero Proof in part to "change the perception that no alcohol means no fun," the chef explains, and to "promote booze-free cocktails beyond the standards."
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That first dinner at Altius featured dishes by Brandon Foster of Project Angel Heart, Christian Graves of Citizen Rail, Steven Cox of Vesta, Paul Reilly of Beast + Bottle, Paul Warthen of Potager, Sheila Lucero of Jax Fish House, and Nadine Donovan, executive pastry chef for Secret Sauce. That caliber of cooking required some substantial beverages, which came courtesy of Jake Nederhauser of Tavernetta, Ky Belk of Edible Beats, Emily Schrader of Bar Zero, Maggie Tomasi of Steuben's, Kari Cummings of Vesta, Ryan Conklin of Southern Spirits, and Chris Dunsmoore. Proceeds were donated to CHOW (Culinary Hospitality Outreach and Wellness), an organization founded by Alexandra Palmerton and John Hinman to help industry employees talk about mental health and promote work/life balance.
Because of the growing concern about stress and mental health in the restaurant industry (which Kayser says has rippled out following the death of Anthony Bourdain), word quickly spread about Zero Proof...all the way to New York City. "The James Beard Foundation reached out to us," Kayser notes. "They wanted us to bring Zero Proof to the James Beard House; it's going to be the first of its kind there."
Zero Proof has partnered with several beverage and ingredient companies to add flavor and complexity to the cocktails Green will create at the dinner, which will be held on January 17. Among them are Fever Tree, a tonic and soda company; Seedlip, which makes herb-infused blends that can be used in place of alcoholic spirits in cocktails; and Gruvi, which makes non-alcoholic prosecco and craft-style beers. Green also uses Caviaroli products made by Michelin-starred chef Albert Adrià in Spain. So diners will experience the likes of A5 wagyu beef with blue cheese and veal demi pearls paired with a dirty "martini" complete with an olive sphere, and Colorado rack of lamb served with Gruvi prosecco infused with rosemary and pomegranate. (See the complete menu on the James Beard Foundation website.)
Kayser says that he's aiming to gain full 501(c)(3) nonprofit status for Zero Proof next year and plans to coordinate three or four dinners a year in various cities around the U.S. to benefit other organizations similar to CHOW. The chef adds he has a secondary mission, to promote longer cooking processes and better practices as chefs to ensure that as much thought goes into the menu ingredients and techniques as Green is putting into his beverages.