Tuesday, January 7, 2020

A Colorado Springs Chef's Guild has formed to elevate our scene

Posted By on Tue, Jan 7, 2020 at 4:41 PM

click to enlarge The Colorado Springs Chef's Guild organizers: Chris Lerdall (left, chef, TAPAteria), Justin Castor (executive chef, Urban Egg) and Hannah Cupples (former chef de cuisine at Four by Brother Luck, current chef at Wobbly Olive, and restaurant consultant). - MATTHEW SCHNIPER
  • Matthew Schniper
  • The Colorado Springs Chef's Guild organizers: Chris Lerdall (left, chef, TAPAteria), Justin Castor (executive chef, Urban Egg) and Hannah Cupples (former chef de cuisine at Four by Brother Luck, current chef at Wobbly Olive, and restaurant consultant).

This is going to be a fairly informal post, as I'm not going to directly quote from my meeting on January 7 with the organizers of the recently formed Colorado Springs Chef's Guild (best connected with publicly for now via their Instagram page). Rather, I'm going to pluck the best bits from our two-hour sit-down and paraphrase the gist of what we talked about.

They called the meeting to get me up to speed on their goals, and have invited me to speak at their next meeting in late January (not open to the public; it's more of a networking, tip-sharing, productively shoot-the-shit kinda thing).

The chefs (19 so far, representing places ranging from Cheyenne Mountain Zoo to Lucky Dumpling to the Broadmoor) describe themselves on their private Facebook group page as: "A group of determined professionals coming together to bridge the gap in the service industry of collaboration versus competition, with the aim to grow ourselves personally, professionally, and as a community." 

Relatedly, the Springs already has a bartender's guild, actually a nonprofit with membership fees, with some events open to the community by donation. Presently, the Chef's Guild costs nothing to join.

Anyway, pretty much the first thing the Chef's Guild organizers — see names and titles in the photo caption above — said to me upon sitting down with them over coffee was that they'd taken note of my recent review of the The Roswell and the broader questioning inside it about the direction of the Colorado Springs food scene at-large. Thematically, it's something they've been discussing also, as they look to elevate our scene. They say they're hungry for more criticism in the wider interest of inspiring chefs to be their better selves. (I confess this sounded good to hear, that they understand and respect the role of critical writing, which in part offers chefs honest feedback and a chance to improve, while also guiding readers to worthwhile spots as a utilitarian public service.)

They too are noticing regional expansions and/or chain places coming in from Denver and beyond (see: Denver Biscuit Company, Dos Santos, Snooze, Jax Fish House & Oyster Bar) and have a gut feeling those types of openings locally will continue if the Springs doesn't bolster itself with enough really quality home-grow stuff. To be clear, many of these expansions are awesome, welcome and certainly have a place in our scene as options that may not be a mom-and-pop one-off, but are still keeping money relatively local compared to mass-market chain places. And they're showing a level of excellence proved in bigger and more persnickety marketplaces like Boulder. We're better with them. 

Our Guild's not looking to cut chefs from those places out of the discussion, or talk shit about anyone, they tell me; in fact, quite the opposite, they say one of the discussions in their first meetings centered around everyone's favorite spots in town, and why, basically championing what the Springs is doing well at present. The meetings are town halls for the industry, they say.

To me, they sounded genuinely constructive and well-intended, grasping broadly at how to figure out things like employee retention and best wage practices, best-educating the line cooks coming up, and communicating well between restaurants to share knowledge and tips such as great purveyors of items like locally grown microgreens.

Simply put, they want to see better food all around, to place the Springs as a destination market, not secondary place. To further clarify this point, they talk about how real foodies regularly drive to Denver to eat at top spots, but not enough traffic's going the other direction. Yet we have deserving eateries here, now. (We digressed briefly to point out how Urban Egg has actually grown northward into Denver, and how Bingo Burger was popular enough to hop from small-market Pueblo to the Springs.)

These chefs feel they don't need to be in competition with one another, that the town's easily big enough for everyone, and growing to support even more spots. So ahead of that growth is the vital time to have these discussions, while a supportive framework can be laid to set the table, so to speak.

My takeaway: With enough chefs on board (they're spreading the word now to gain new members) and active participation, this guild should be a force for good. Though their effectiveness might largely be hidden behind closed kitchen doors as day-to-day matters go, a span of years will ultimately determine the Springs' path toward (or...groan...away from) greatness as destination spots go. The word "middling" came up in various contexts in our discussion (yeah, I guess that counts as a direct quote after all, damn), and that's not a place where any chef or scene wants to linger. So, let's not.

—— UPDATE: 8:17 P.M. TUESDAY JAN. 7 ——

Shortly after posting this blog, I heard from area grower Dan Hobbs of the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union, who saw the post and offered a mini history lesson about another earlier attempt to unite chefs in some capacity.

From his Facebook comment:
"We started doing this with the chef's collaborative in 1999 and it seems that, at least with respect to local food procurement, Springs has been in culinary decline for some time...
I may not know the whole story, but here is what I remember from 1999-early 2000s: Chris Adrian at La Petite Maison was the driving force, working closely with Carrie Carter Balkcom from Denver, who I think was with Chef's Collaborative at the time. I think Brent [Beavers] was cutting his teeth at La Petite at the time, and there was a fellow named Marcus at Walter's Bistro who was getting some notoriety, maybe for working with Bison meat. He left the area early on and the main chef group that was working with the farmers and seemed to have higher culinary standards and appetite for innovation were John Broening of Primativo, Chip [Johnson] of Briarhurst, James Africano at the Warehouse, and of course David [McDonough] at Adams [Mountain Cafe], but I don't remember him engaging much with that chef's collaborative/Club 9 group."

If I hear from some of the other chefs from that era with more info, I'll update this post again. Credit where it's due, and all. Clearly these new Guild members aren't the first to be examining our scene (it's done over beers between a few chefs here and there all the time) but perhaps they'll prove to be the most organized — and, if they meet their mission, the most effective. 

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