Can Denver Ever Be a Top-Tier Food Town?

We asked; industry heavyweights answered
August 29, 2016
by Ruth Tobias

Two years ago, in an op-ed titled “Is Denver Dining a Ferrari Without a Steering Wheel?” we explored how the Mile High dining scene had come so far, so fast – and how far it still had to go in terms of establishing a culinary identity and finding its place on the national stage. The topic seems all the more pressing today, in the midst of the buzz surrounding the recent arrivals of Nobu Matsuhisa, Top Chef star Gregory Gourdet of Departure and Hugh Acheson – now a culinary partner in Robert Thompson’s nascent Punch Bowl Social empire – as well as the news of Death & Co.’s plans to open a satellite here in 2017 (pictured below). Certainly the sudden influx of all these VIPs indicates we’re finally on the nation’s radar as a place to build brands. But does it prove we’re becoming a culinary mecca in our own right?

Not quite, says veteran restaurant publicist John Imbergamo. “Everybody’s talking about all these chefs moving to town. It’s a few. And the fact is that it doesn’t do much for us as a great food city.” In his view, our reputation ultimately rests on the “homegrown talent” that laid the groundwork for growth in the first place.

So the question remains: How are locals building on that foundation?

Courtesy Death & Co.

The franchise factor

Consider, for starters, the fact that we export at least as many concepts as we’re importing. Denver’s influence as a laboratory for fast-casual entrepreneurs has been spreading for years – from the old guard of Chipotle, Noodles & Co. and others to emerging chains like Modmarket and Pizzeria Locale, Chipotle’s project with the owners of FrascaBut we’re also spawning full-service successes that serve as ambassadors to Colorado culture. Take Snooze, which is introducing markets across the Southwest to local products like Tender Belly and The Real Dill. Or The Kitchen: From the seed of its groundbreaking farm-to-table restaurant in Boulder, Kimbal Musk, Hugo Matheson and Jen Lewin have sprouted a multistate network of not only eateries but also nonprofit community gardens and, now, an investment company for urban farmers. Or the aforementioned Punch Bowl Social. As he travels cross-country building outposts of his dining-and-gaming complex, Thompson hears “a lot about the development creativity in Colorado,” he says. “What’s really extraordinary are the real estate developers doing clever deals – think The Source, Avanti, The Stanley and others – driving opportunities for restaurateurs.” It’s the culinary equivalent of the pioneer spirit: “Go west, young entrepreneur!”

Courtesy The Kitchen

The movement toward Colorado cuisine

No wonder Thompson has come to think that Colorado "as a brand itself" is exportable – hence the elements of mountain-chic in Punch Bowl’s design. And while its menu skews Southern, even Acheson notes that “in an age where we’re starting to reaffirm culinary heritage,” the potential for Denverites to shape and promote Rocky Mountain cuisine as their own is stronger than ever.

For instance, “People here are proud of local meats, which they should be,” says Acheson (pictured top with Thompson). “They’re great.” Using lamb, bison, elk and other game to create native styles of barbecue and Mexican food would be one way to honor and cultivate our American Indian, Old West and Hispanic roots (more on that idea here). Experimentation with cannabis would be another, obviously.

Gourdet, for his part, gives us more credit for “a strong sense of local produce” than we ourselves often do, citing Alex Seidel of Fruition and Mercantile as a prime example: “Alex approaches things from the back end, from the root up. His farm and his restaurants built around the farm offer diners a true look into the Colorado landscape.”

And then there’s beer. As the founder of Brewed Food, chef-cicerone Jensen Cummings has spent the past several months touring the country to present his research on fermenting foods with beer yeasts. Along the way, he’s conducted market surveys to determine what outsiders know about Denver and Colorado cuisine. The answer is not much, he says, with one exception: “People have a high expectation of our craft beer.” Going far beyond merely including beer and beer ingredients in recipes to the point of actually brewing foods would be yet another way to distinguish “Colorado’s culinary identity,” Cummings believes. In the long run, “We want more established food cities to look to Denver for inspiration.”

Courtesy Adam Larkey Photography

The family tree and the melting pot

Meanwhile, in the here and now, outsiders like Acheson have “seen a real break toward quality” that conveys Denver’s “maturity as a city.” His observation corresponds to Imbergamo’s definition of a first-class food town: “To use a baseball analogy, it has depth on the bench – not one superstar, but many.” And that, he argues, is precisely what “the maturation of our market” is yielding. “Frank Bonanno begets Alex Seidel, Royce Oliveira [To the Wind], Jon Robbins [Bistro Barbès]. Jen Jasinski begets Dana Rodriguez [Work & Class] and Jorel Pierce [Stoic & Genuine]. There’s a lot to be said for the fact that people are graduating to their own places and making their mark. I do think great food cities are where superstars create new superstars.”

Of course, “breadth on the bench” is key to a well-rounded dining scene too, Imbergamo admits – you need “not one piece of the ethnic puzzle, but many.” On that score, Denver may always suffer by comparison to cities that, by virtue of geography and immigration history, have the demographics to support the widest possible range of international cuisine. “In New York, you can open up a kosher Chinese restaurant and have 200,000 potential guests. In Denver, there might be eight people who come.”

Then again, many Denverites would be astonished to discover, after just a little digging, how diverse their city really is. And as transplants with their own traditions continue to arrive here in record droves, it’s only going to get better. Which brings us to the final component of a top-tier food town: you. As Gourdet (pictured above) puts it, “Savvy diners and travelers who are excited about and in tune with what’s happening” around them are crucial to growth – “and it’s happening in Denver.”

So here’s to the next two years. 

nobu matsuhisa
hugh acheson
alex seidel
jennifer jasinski
frank bonanno
gregory gourdet
colorado cuisine
rocky mountain cuisine