Much as a garment or auto factory floor is nothing like a department store or car dealership, restaurant dining rooms are nothing like their kitchens. The crisply clothed tables and hushed conversations give way to a back-room scene much more like a construction site, with all the attendant clamor, confusion, danger and bravado. It's hard, sweaty, demanding work.
All this effort takes a toll, especially on independent restaurateurs, who face added tasks from menu design to marketing to keep their businesses going. To fight back, some area restaurants and chefs have formed two overlapping organizations, the Independent Restaurant Cooperative (IRC) and Club 9. Both aim to improve the quality of their products and to play an active role in the community.
Club 9 is essentially a chefs' guild dedicated to the culinary craft and local philanthropy. Its membership boasts five chefs from IRC restaurants, and four others, including Jason Gust of the Ritz Grill and Chris Bowie, an accomplished chef who now owns Zing Specialty Foods.
Pati Burleson, who runs The Margarita at PineCreek, helped establish the IRC so that she and her peers could share information, strategies and marketing costs. Members hope to increase their venues' visibility without sacrificing the small-scale feel that makes them great. They've since added monthly dinners and a spate of charitable events, including last fall's tsunami relief dinner and the recent IRC chefs' competition at The Warehouse Restaurant.
This culinary clash reflected both the benefits and challenges of owning an independent restaurant. The Warehouse's James Africano explains that although participating in the Springs' annual Chef's Gala had become untenable for most members, the chefs missed competing. So they staged their own battle on their own terms, and plan to make it an annual event.
Top honors went to the Margarita (spare ribs) and chef Eric Viedt, who celebrated both victory and birthday. The Warehouse took second (tiny taco trio), and the Craftwood Inn took third (wild boar). La Petite Maison, Paravicini's, Marigold, Edelweiss, the Briarhurst and Sencha also brought out their best. The real winners, of course, were the 120 lucky judges who got to gorge on the goodies while raising nearly $6,000 for charity.
Beyond talking shop and plotting their next culinary coup, Club 9's members spend time supporting the Rock Ledge Ranch Historical Site and Living History Association.
Although staying afloat and putting good food on the table is challenge enough, these owners and chefs have risen above their daily struggles to build relationships with each other and the community. Both the IRC and Club 9 are to be commended for their efforts, and they deserve our support.
David Torres-Rouff capsule
Marigold Caf and Bakery, 4605 Centennial Blvd.
Tuesday, May 9, 5 p.m.
Cost: $50 per person; call 599-4776 for reservations and more information.
Club 9's Rock Ledge Ranch Historic Site and Living History Association Benefit Dinner
Craftwood Inn, 404 El Paso Blvd., Manitou Springs
Monday, April 24
Cost: $60 per person; call 689-9000 for start time and reservations.