If there’s a single story from my last 16 years of critical food-and-drink writing that has garnered the most attention — caused the largest kerfuffle, continued to this day to be mentioned to me regularly by community members — it’s my Dec. 3, 2019, review of The Roswell.
That’s because I used the Lincoln Center eatery in my critique as a springboard to discuss the city’s wider food and drink scene. I questioned where we were headed creatively and culturally. I was disappointed that our town (yes, I essentially blamed the dining populace) couldn’t make The Roswell’s predecessor — our first Scandinavian spot in an era when Nordic food was red-hot globally — stick around in favor of another place for familiar fare found all over the Springs. Also, I wasn’t enamored with their offerings at the time, so I pulled no punches.
Many people felt I was unfair to have targeted them in that way, making them emblematic of a larger culinary concern. I stood my ground — it was just my professional opinion; it always is, folks — but I do understand why they contemptuously called me out. The Roswell (who DM’d me on social media around their one-year anniversary to say “Still in business, JERK!”) didn’t deserve to take the full brunt of a citywide commentary when they were hardly the sole offender for what I felt was an uninspired dining experience. Agreed, I could have isolated my criticisms to what I tasted there, and penned a separate state-of-the-scene piece.
Well, all this time later, here it is. And I’ve opted not just to bite off this cover story you’re reading but also create a five-episode podcast named State of Plate. (Find it wherever you listen to podcasts or visit our landing page.) On the show, I briefly address the Roswell fallout and even speak with said Scandinavian spot’s chef/owner as part of my guest panel in Episode 2.
If you eat food, you’ll want to listen. But first, hang with me here so I can set the table for that auditory meal with exclusive-to-print content. I’ll feed you some teasers from the show while explaining its framework, by way of its inspiration. In some ways, I’ve been mulling something like it over in my head for years, but I recently received a correspondence from someone who inadvertently convinced me that the time is now.
Order up. I need hands! (Or, well, eyes and ears.)
The inspirational email came from Springs native Jarod Boyer. He’d helped found the Colorado Springs Bartenders’ Guild several years ago after serving for a stint as head bartender at Principal’s Office. And he later served as a sommelier at The Broadmoor’s Summit and Penrose Room, pretty much our town’s hoity-toitiest places. (On the podcast, we often refer to Philip Anschutz’s Forbes Five-Star and AAA Five-Diamond resort as “the city on the hill” — you’ll love it.) I was amused to hear that Boyer got his humble start in the industry as a barista at Kangaroo Coffee. Especially when I learned he’s now a sommelier at Alinea in Chicago. If you don’t know the spot, famous for its lengthy tasting menus of molecular gastronomy, just know that it is one of only 13 places in America to hold three Michelin stars, and more than one respected media publication has called it the best restaurant in the world.
Holy shit, right? We’ve got a homegrown kid on the inside of one of the most exciting eateries in existence. With all the knowledge that comes with serving at the highest level in the industry, what does he think of little old Colorado Springs now?
Listen to State of Plate’s first episode to find out. (Hook meet cheek.)
… OK, I can’t totally leave you hangin’ like that. What Jarod wrote that really got my attention was this: “I believe, and have for some time, that Colorado Springs is one of the most underrated cities in the country… I believe this place is growing into a world-class city.”
Now, repeat after me if you will: What in the actual fuck did he just say?
I needed to hear more. I read the email twice, making sure I wasn’t missing something. I wasn’t. “Throughout my time working in Colorado Springs,” he wrote, “I saw so many amazing establishments open their doors… One thing I was worried about then, and continue to harbor curiosity about from afar, is whether the regional standard is rising as more places open? ...
“I’ve thought for some time that the best thing that could help the city, specifically in the context of the service industry, is a group of people holding establishments to account. Food critics are the ones who lead, inform, and contextualize the conversation about regional service. With food and beverage being the cultural epicenter it is, having knowledgeable writers give everyone tools to analyze, understand and (hopefully) appreciate the work that is being done in their city can be a catalyst for growth.”
Well, my job’s done here, folks. Jarod from fucking Alinea just called me important and justified my last decade-plus of bloodshot eyes at the keyboard covering the Springs’ culinary scene. I can retire (someday) happy. But until then, there’s more work to be done. Especially because, deep down, I can’t say I agree with him.
And neither can another person with roots in both our town and culinary scene: Shane Lyons, best known to locals from his time as Nosh’s head chef in its early days around 2010. He was the guy who ruffled feathers and challenged diners with crispy fried trout heads as one of several audacious menu items. The Springs wasn’t ready for him; so he bounced to NYC, where he went on to earn a favorable writeup in The New York Times in 2013 for his and his partners’ venture Distilled New York. He’s since moved into a consulting role across the country, spending a good amount of time in L.A., where he once was a child actor and appeared on the fourth season of Food Network’s The Next Food Network Star.
Shane and I have been friends since we met 20 years ago at Sencha. That was a fine dining spot that’s sadly now an Arby’s location Downtown. We both worked for chef Brent Beavers (also a guest in the podcast’s second episode). Shane was a teenager learning the ropes in the back of the house, while I was waiting tables just out of college. We stayed in touch over the years and had many adventures together; most of them in and around kitchens, though there were some campfires, too.
Anyway, I thought Shane would be the perfect person to pair with Jarod for State of Plate’s inaugural episode. In many respects, he’s at the top of his game, too, and has executed at some of the highest levels of the industry. Plus, he fit the same mold for my storytelling: local boy who done good. He too has a perspective on the Springs’ food scene informed by elevated experiences elsewhere. I intended to playfully pit him as the antagonist to Jarod’s protagonist.
Though he gives credit to the scene, saying for example that the city he still loves and considers home is “filled with artisans and craftspeople and passionate folks who are on the whole doing their best every day” — that he doesn’t want any criticism to be misconstrued as not appreciating that effort and energy — he’s not shy in also saying “Colorado Springs has made it very clear outside the pockets of artisans and craftspeople what they want to eat. And I think you saw that with fistfights for the 14-hour wait for an In-N-Out hamburger.”
Yes, friends, we tell it like it is on this podcast. Because I do agree with Jarod on one point: Until we’re brave enough to be constructively honest and “hold establishments to account,” as he says, I don’t believe we’ll advance to the next levels as a culinary community. Call me an asshole if you want, but boosterism and false cheerleading won’t get us as far as the blunt conversation started by my Roswell review, and continued in State of Plate. I want you to be part of it.
There’s a set of core questions about our food and drink scene that I ask all the guest chefs, restaurateurs and industry insiders on each podcast episode: Where are we now? Where do we want to go? What are we doing right and wrong? And how do we advance?
I won’t give you a full play-by-play (since you’re of course going to listen, ahem), but I will give you my roadmap. In Episode 2, Jay Gust (Tapateria, Pizzeria Rustica, Homa Café Bar) and James Africano (The Warehouse) join Brent Beavers (Immerse Cuisine, BFD) to tell us about a chefs’ collaborative they co-founded more than two decades ago, called Club 9, and give us an old-guard view of today’s food and drink scene. “Colorado Springs’ food scene has a very ‘it’s-good-enough-for-us culture.’ It’s not good enough,” says Africano at one point, throwing down the gauntlet.
In Episode 3, we flash forward to the aspirations of some new-guard chefs, who’ve grown up in a different culture than their predecessors. The industry has faced several reckonings in recent years, including the Me Too movement and many lifestyle considerations brought to light in part by the COVID pandemic and current labor crisis restaurants are facing. Chantal Lucas (Luchal’s Soulful Seafood), Hannah Cupples (now a private chef) and Ian Dedrickson (Ephemera) weigh in on everything from sexism behind the scenes and being a Black-owned business, to low pay and high expectations. “I shouldn’t have to work the hours of a doctor and still wonder what I’m going to eat tonight,” says Cupples in one segment. “I shouldn’t not be able to make my rent. If that culture is going to die, let it die.”
Next up: Yes, of course I got Brother Luck (Four, Lucky Dumpling, Top Chef Season 15-16, Beat Bobby Flay, Chopped) to come on the podcast, shortly before his appearance on the Rachael Ray Show to promote his new book. He’s joined in Episode 4 by Eric Brenner (Red Gravy) and Noah Siebenaller (Cheyenne Mountain Resort) to riff on more present-day realities inside the industry. We dish on mental health in the industry; culinary paths for military veterans; the importance of mentorship and leadership; and the double-edged chef’s knife that is third-party delivery services, among many other micro topics. “I think the city is going to have a culinary awakening — it’s long overdue,” says Brenner on a hopeful note.
To wrap it all up in Episode 5, I focus on the premise that good ingredients make good food. We can’t achieve a top-tier culinary culture here if Big Ag alone stocks restaurants’ fridges and pantries. I talk with Colorado-area food producers and purveyors about the importance of sustainable agriculture systems and supporting local growers and ranchers. My guests are Mike Callicrate (Ranch Foods Direct), Jennifer Gomez (Sawatch Artisan Dairy), Dan Hobbs (Rocky Mountain Farmer’s Union) and David Cook (Gather Food Studio). We discuss a better path forward not just for supporting small businesses and preserving farmlands, but for creating better flavors on the plate via superior products. “We’ve got to start thinking about the costs that go into high-quality products and resiliency and sustainability,” says Callicrate. ”Otherwise we’re just going to be without here in the country. We are going to consume our resources until there is nothing left.”
Getting back to what Lyons said about In-N-Out’s absurd opening: I wrote a column in the spring of 2021 titled “What about Whataburger?” in which I took aim at chain outfits destroying local culture and identity wherever they proliferate (read: right fucking here). Despite creating local jobs, they perpetuate our country’s exploitative industrial food system with their cheap meals that mask a much higher cost on the back end. Consider the health impacts on disadvantaged communities in particular, inundated with low-quality “food.” In the article I asked what will remain special about travel when everywhere eventually looks homogeneous, with the same corporate brands swallowing the last of the independent eateries.
Just look at all the tower cranes in Downtown Colorado Springs’ skyline right now — all the rapid development — and ask yourself what this city will look like in five, 10, 20 years? Will it be a place you still call home or a place you flee for quieter pastures? Says Mike Callicrate in Episode 5: “In Colorado Springs, the independent businessman has the same problem as the farmer, when you’re dealing with developers — rent collectors who just maximize the rents…concentration of power and wealth is the greatest threat to any free society.”
Like I said, we tell it like it is on the podcast. And “there’s nothing more political than food,” as Chef Ian Dedrickson says in Episode 3. It’s an echo of the well-quoted Wendell Berry, who famously said “eating is an agricultural act.”
In many of my restaurant reviews in the last several years, I’ve mentioned the term “Denverization” — which often relates to growth and affordability (being priced out, gentrification). As it specifically pertains to food and drink, as I employ it, the term encapsulates not only a business bleed, with places like Denver Biscuit Co., Dos Santos and Ambli Global Cuisine opening southern outposts, but it speaks to a higher standard of a more advanced culinary scene. It’s not without reason that we suffer from a smaller-sibling inferiority complex when we measure ourselves against the Mile High City’s finest and most stylish.
That’s actually driven some local chefs to step up their game. Brother Luck says he had a chip on his shoulder about it. “I got here in ‘06,” he says. “I was so blown away by what [chefs like Club 9’s Gust, Africano and Beavers] were doing, but they weren’t getting the recognition. And it was almost a level of disrespect when it came from Denver. It was like, ‘No, absolutely not, you guys aren’t welcome.’ So for me, it was one of those thought processes of not only do I want to be known here locally, but I’m going to be recognized nationally, to where Denver has to accept me.” (Mission accomplished.)
I think I speak for many Springsters when I say that just as much as we don’t care to see chain proliferation to the point we lose our identity, we also don’t want to become a replica of Denver as we develop — we just want to borrow the best bits and nurture a culinary scene that’s equally as awesome, but still our own.
This is one of the many themes we end up chewing on in State of Plate. Says chef Chantal Lucas in Episode 3: “I think Colorado Springs is looking for fun. I think they’re looking for more vibey, more trendy. It’s kind of like getting with the times.”
So how do we modernize as we super-size?
We share some ideas on the show. Simple stuff, like vote with your dollar as a consumer. What you feed, grows. The more you hit a fast-food drive-thru instead of spending money with a local independent outfit, especially one that supports local food producers, the more you perpetuate the problem.
The Springs sometimes seems endlessly complacent with familiar and well-trodden paths. Heaven forbid we find a menu ingredient we can’t pronounce or something not fried. (I’m being dramatic, but you get my point.) We as customers have to send the message to chefs that we will support their experimental endeavors.
“If you come to your favorite restaurant, and have your favorite item on the menu, you know it’s going to be there the next time you come in,” says Red Gravy’s Eric Brenner. “Try the special. See what’s in the chef’s head.”
You’ll hear in Episode 2 of the podcast from the old-guard chefs that they feel like there’s so much more they are technically capable of executing on plates to elevate the scene, but there’s the hesitance that their efforts won’t be rewarded by patrons. Expensive ingredients for good specials have gone bad and been turned into the next day’s soup (actually and metaphorically). That’s on us, the eaters. We must be willing to take risks and get away from the please-all mentality that forces so many menus to be static. That’s just one step toward maturing our scene.
Oddly, as Shane Lyons and Jarod Boyer point out in Episode 1, the Springs’ drink scene has actually evolved before its food scene, which runs counter to how it has happened in most big cities. Usually drink follows food, but here, we culinary contrarians are already sitting on fully on-point coffee and cocktail service, and our breweries and distilleries have won just as many prestigious national awards at competitions as those in larger cities. So don’t think State of Plate is totally down on our drinks and morose with our morsels. We do cherry-pick the highlights, too. We should celebrate what’s awesome around town, as we legit kick-ass in certain arenas. As Lyons noted, don’t let our criticisms detract from the hard work behind what is working. To simplify: We’re talking averages and a hopeful rising tide (standard of excellence) that would lift all boats.
Younger generations, researchers have told us, favor experiences over materialism. That drive (and dollar base) might be just what we need to kickstart a renaissance across Springs menus. But style must be subordinate to substance. Panache through ambiance is fine, as evidenced by recent food hall additions and higher-profile restaurant openings, but it must be subservient to the other tastes displayed — those on the plate. I don’t care how hard you hipster or how Instagram-worthy your dining room is if the food and drink bore me.
Back to the blunt honesty I displayed with my radioactive Roswell review: I will ask you, reader, and listener, when was the last time you were truly wowed somewhere in town? Enough so to tell several friends, even become a regular? Is it really that good, or have you hammed it up a little with a pretty picture and Facebook post? How often are you satiated, but still unsatisfied by a plate of food, consumed as if strictly out of caloric need and utility rather than true hedonistic revelry? Think: bad sex. You got off, but in retrospect, you were actually never turned on.
Am I being mean again? Or am I telling it like it is? More of us have to, in order to hold places to account, as we’ve said. Not in the spirit of being shitty, to tear things down unconstructively, tossing our food on the floor like a feral toddler in a high-chair. But with the candor to catalyze the change we want to see. That’s the job of a food critic. All of us play the role.
Speak true. Give grace where necessary and reward all the positives that you can find when fulfilling the duty. Provide constructive and tactful feedback, direct to staff and ownership when you can (versus shitposting on Yelp, etc.) — and no, not ’cuz you’re angling for a free dessert for your tragic troubles at the table for a misstep. (Don’t ever be that guy.) Do it because you, like me, genuinely care about building something better for us all to enjoy.
I’m not asking for the moon, or Alinea. I’m just asking for something beyond “good enough,” to borrow Africano’s words. A fair value proposition for a hard-earned dollar. There’s absolutely a time for all things, from a greasy diner breakfast and dive-bar drink to late-night grub, grab-and-go international fare, a big-ass burrito, tiny-but-tasty taco, deep bowl of noodles, scoop of soft serve, and that special anniversary meal where you punish your wallet to buy a memory. Rate all those things in context. Each is vital to a complete scene.
We may not be where I and many industry peers would like to see us, today, but we’re not too damn far off. And the striving to be there sooner is what will propel our journey. To get flowery about it, it’s like the Sufi mystic Rumi wrote in the poem Love Dogs: “... Your pure sadness / that wants help / is the secret cup.”
Stay hungry. Don’t be satiated by the subpar.
Let’s prove Jarod Boyer (all grown up slingin’ vino in Chicago with his fanciful food feelings toward his native land) right. Demonstrate that we are underrated, and grow us into a world-class city.
When the day comes that Colorado Springs’ state of plate arrives there, I know what I shall eat: crow. I’m pretty sure The Roswell, for one, would be willing to serve it to me.
Thank you to these community organizations for underwriting this podcast:
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