Why Are So Many Chefs Moving to Denver?

Mile High City dining culture is hitting a peak
June 26, 2017
by Ruth Tobias

Back in November, Zagat named Denver the nation’s third hottest food city on the grounds that its dynamic growth, noteworthy in itself, was also beginning to attract interest from NY-based restaurants and bars like Death & CompanyShake Shack and Quality Italian. In March, news broke that Top Chef would produce season 15 in Colorado (filming is now underway). In April, Slow Food USA unveiled the details of its plans to launch its first Terra Madre–style conference stateside, Slow Food Nations, here (it’s set for July 14–16). In May, Tyson Cole revealed Denver would be home to the first branch of his celebrated Japanese restaurant Uchi beyond Texas, and Sous Chef author Michael Gibney announced in June that he'd be opening Emmerson Restaurant in Boulder. Add all the other acclaimed chefs flocking here over the past year or so — from Portland's Gregory Gourdet to Atlanta's Jeffrey Wall to San Diego's Christian Graves — and there’s no denying that the Mile High City has become one of the most exciting places to eat in America.

It’s not alone, of course. Thanks to rising rents in coastal cities, the United States is experiencing a renaissance in regional cuisine, or what Slow Food USA executive director Richard McCarthy calls “the revenge of the flyover community.” As he sees it, cities like Nashville, Detroit, Austin and “the smaller, inland places that have always been told their food culture doesn’t matter — that have been told to follow what’s happening on the coasts — are reclaiming their sense of place and taste.” In Denver’s case, that has meant upending the old adage that your attitude, not your aptitude, determines your altitude: Here at 5,280 feet, all three work in tandem.

Tyson Cole of Uchi. Photo by Logan Crable

Part of what’s attracting so many people to Denver now (in 2015 alone, it saw the largest population increase of any large city in the nation) is what has always attracted them: the landscape. Take Tyson Cole (pictured above), who says that when he decided to expand Uchi outside of Texas, “We lined up 20 members of our staff and said, ‘OK, where would you want to live?’ And when we got to Denver, everybody raised their hands.” Given the mountains for a backyard and plenty of sunshine courtesy of a high-desert climate, the James Beard awardee explains, “People just love the idea of the city.” Indeed, in the capital of a state ranked number one for physical activity in 2016, the great outdoors seems to inspire a healthy work-life balance even among members of an industry notorious for workaholism: Start following area chefs and restaurateurs on social media, and you’ll see as many posts about hiking, biking and skiing as you will about food and drink. (To name just one prominent example, Bobby Stuckey — a former pro cyclist, current marathoner and the Beard Award–winning master sommelier behind Frasca Food and Wine — tweets about work and workouts alternately.)

And such physical adventurousness (not to mention stamina) has a way of getting channeled into creative endeavors. “Maybe it’s the lack of the oxygen in the air,” McCarthy jokes, “but there’s a big-sky optimism, a youthful energy and collaborative spirit that excites me here,” fueling the development of "animated public spaces." That mix of nature, culture and civic engagement was a deciding factor in Death & Company’s expansion too, says co-founder David Kaplan: “I grew up in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, and have always had a love for Denver. It’s the perfect-sized city with all the mountain-sport trappings that I love” on the one hand, and a robust “maker community — from brewing, distilling and coffee roasting to multi-function food halls and markets” — on the other.

The Source, a groundbreaking marketplace in Denver's RiNo neighborhood. Photo by Timothy Hursley

Of course, it’s not lost on the New Yorkers eyeing Denver that decreased costs of living increase the quality of life. As Quality Branded president Michael Stillman observes, the “access point of affordability” here has fostered a “Renaissance spirit of entrepreneurship,” so “you’ve got a guy doing a butchery next to a guy with a gallery next to a tech start-up — not to mention the marijuana industry and the smart and interesting finance people behind that.” (You didn’t think we’d get through a whole article on Denver without mentioning weed, right?) It all adds up, he says, to “an accessible, forward-thinking city” where “more creative, more interesting, more evolved restaurants” can flourish. In fact, Stillman admits that in the course of staff training for Quality Italian, “We were baffled by how many questions the staff asked — where the cheese came from, where was this being harvested and how was that being harvested. They’re really into product because so many people here are doing hands-on things. The worst thing you could do, coming from New York or San Francisco, is think you know what’s best.”

From the ranchers that made Colorado beef, lamb and bison famous to the brewers that turned that Rocky Mountain spring water into liquid gold, the fact that outsiders appreciate the foundations of what make our dining scene great is heartening. After all, as none other than Tom Colicchio points out, therein lies the difference between a merely hot dining town and a great one: “You need to have a local food culture, not just a restaurant culture. You need to have farmers, you need to have producers. Here, you see chefs making cheese and brewers making great craft beer and distillers doing great whiskey.”

Colorado lamb as presented at Concourse Restaurant Moderne, a new restaurant from Lon Symensma and Luke Bergman, a Colicchio protégé. Photo by Adam Larkey Photography

Padma Lakshmi notes a few other criteria for a major food town we can’t argue with, including “a diverse community and a location where you have a lot of produce from different seasons, as well as access to fresh seafood.” In that sense, Denver’s geography is destiny: land-locked, high-plains Colorado has a short growing season and no coastline (yet), and its demographics can’t compare to those of an international hub like New York or Los Angeles. Still, making do with what you have is the foundation of any authentic local cuisine, and both Top Chef stars point out the city’s “distinctive food footprint,” says Lakshmi — be it the “sustainable use of elk and all these other game meats that invoke a larger conversation about food than what’s trendy” or the prevalence of quirky neighborhood places like Goed Zuur, a bar dedicated to sour and wild ales, and immigrant-run Comal Heritage Food Incubator, as Colicchio discovered. “There’s always going to be fancy restaurants where you can spend $100 per person,” he says, “but it’s those small restaurants that really make a city interesting.”

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