Denver Rocks the Culinary Casbah

Our contributor takes a food tour of Denver
Denver has a surprising food scene.

It has been two months, three days, and 16 hours since I took part in a Culinary Connectors tour in Denver, and I still wake up in a fevered sweat dreaming about Max MacKissock’s smoked beets with grain, sorrel, and yogurt. He’s the chef (or Cuisine Bean, as the Bean Team calls him) at The Squeaky Bean, one of three restaurants featured the night I took Culinary Connector’s "Top Restaurant" tour.

I have Becky Creighton to thank (or perhaps to curse, since, as I said, I’ve been unable to think of much else) for introducing me to Max, currently on a Food & Wine list of the country’s top new chefs.

Creighton is the owner/creator of this three-hour tour, one of several she offers through the company she started five years ago, and not only did I get the opportunity to swoon over MacKissock’s fresh, innovative dishes that treat plants (Squeaky Bean owns six garden beds and an organic farm called the Bean Acre) like movie stars, but I got to meet him and his crazy partner, Johnny Ballen, who produced a hilarious video spoof of what they called "the bionic restaurant" that sprang back to life in June 2012.

The Squeaky Bean, which took root in 2009 in Denver’s Highland neighborhood in a ridiculously tiny space, was never hurting for fans or customers. But it occurred to the partners that if MacKissock was able to work that kind of magic in that handkerchief-sized kitchen, just think what might be possible in a former saddlery building in LoDo with three times the space.

Let’s just say Annie Sullivan (she’s the miracle-worker who taught Helen Keller to read and write) has nothing on MacKissock. And getting to meet him and the other star chefs on Creighton’s culinary tours was a highlight of my trip to Denver, like meeting the reclusive artist who painted your favorite painting. Or running into Brad Pitt in an elevator.

Creighton, who worked in tech for 10 years before shooting off in a completely different tangent, was burnt out, fed up, and "hated going to my job every morning." She went to Sedona with a journal (don’t we all?) and with a glass of wine in hand, set out to design a job she would love.

"Ninety-nine percent of what I wrote related to food, wine, and people," she says which is exactly what Culinary Connectors is all about — connecting people with the chefs and the food they’re experiencing.

The fact that the food scene in Denver was about to explode, something she was told by Lon Symensma, the lemongrass-loving superstar who ran the kitchen at New York’s Buddakan before choosing Denver as the spot for his own restaurant, didn’t hurt the success of her pioneer entrepreneurial effort.

"Denver has long been known as a craft beer town," Creighton said. "But its adventurous, young population is now being recognized as well for pushing the culinary envelope. There’s so much creativity here. Denver wouldn’t dream of becoming another Portland or another New York. The food scene here definitely calls its own shots."

Besides the Squeaky Bean, which I’m happy to report still maintains its Farrah Fawcett memorial (wasn’t fair, Ballen said, that she died the same day as Michael Jackson) and added a Roger Ebert memorial (with two candles up), we visited Symensma’s ChoLon, a contemporary Asian (well, duh?) bistro that showcases the culinary luminary’s rampant imagination, and The Kitchen, the Denver version, that like its Boulder elder sibling, believes in creating community through food. I particularly loved their commitment to the environment including composting, wind power and the recycling of used cooking oil to power one of the server’s cars.

I could go on and on about Denver’s provocative and inventive food scene, but hey, my stomach will only stretch so far.

Although Creighton didn’t play matchmaker at these restaurants (she does, but not on the particular night I imbibed), I also loved, loved, loved TAG and Root Down.

Details:

The Squeaky Bean, still dedicated to irreverence and fun with its vintage cookbook menus, bills clipped to seed packets, wine poured from lab beakers, cocktails categorized by movie titles, and a lit-up bingo board, is at 15th and Wynkoop.

ChoLon, named after the largest Chinese market in Saigon, is at 1555 Blake St.

The Kitchen, a spinoff of the popular Boulder concept that was started nearly 10 years ago when Kimbal Musk and Jen Lewin’s black lab jumped in Hugo Matheson’s lap, is at 1530 16th St. (entrance on Wazee Street).

TAG, created by chef Troy Guard who says he goes to bed thinking about food and wakes up thinking about it, is 1441 Larimer St.

Root Down, whose bottomless blood orange mimosas during Sunday brunch will leave you grinningly blissful, is at 600 W. 33rd.

Culinary Connectors, whose Becky Creighton grew up with loud Lebanese family members eating lots of food, can be reached at Box 271441, Littleton, Colo.,

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