While helping develop Garden of the Gods Gourmet's "Dinner With Our Chef in the Kitchen" series, co-owner Sandra Vanderstoep went online to see if anyone else was doing anything like it.
She found something in San Francisco, differing only in that service was family-style, at a long community table. An online commenter said something to the effect of, "This food is marvelous and we love eating here, but gosh those chairs are uncomfortable and it's really hot in there."
Vanderstoep laughs as she tells the story: "That's exactly what we're doing here, and nobody seems to mind."
Yes, when you go behind the scenes, you experience what line cooks live with nightly: scorching grills and sauté lines in an already hot kitchen on an already hot day. Enter the bandana or toque for sweat absorption, and the only appropriate use for those absurdly portioned 7-Eleven Big Gulp cups.
But really, in GoG's kitchen, with fans blowing and rows of high-top card tables several feet removed from the smoke and stainless steel, it's not all that bad. And truly, nobody seems to care, especially not the regulars who were among the 14 attendees during my recent visit. (The event sells out at 21.)
The whole point of this weekly affair — paying $35 for five courses and a glass of Two Rivers Winery vino — is to be in the kitchen, watching chefs Amy Pontius or Larissa Warner chop this and plate that. "It's as interactive as the guest wants it to be," Pontius tells me as I watch her slice roasted red bell peppers. (Disclosure: Pontius knows me from my participation in annual food events. But because the chefs write menus two days prior, her recognizing me at dinner should have affected only service points, if anything.)
We'd started with the greeting wine in the retail market, then an introduction and menu unveiling by Pontius, before heading into the kitchen past the looming Colorado Restaurant Association trophy that she and Warner have earned in Iron Chef-style battle both this year and in 2010.
The first course brought a mini trio of olive oil-soaked focaccia crostini under the aforementioned peppers, plus artichoke hearts and a ball of chèvre, setting the Mediterranean tone of the evening with vibrant potency: crunch, tang, sweetness and creaminess.
An herb-heavy summer salad followed with feta, olives and cucumbers doing their usual synergistic flavor dance, then a lovely intermezzo of shaved Riesling mint ice. In the main course, Pontius doubled down on the greens and red bell peppers with a wilted spinach salad next to a fun, phyllo-wrapped salmon over a bright lake of garlic red-pepper sauce. Happy fish.
Dessert brought a welcome cup of Serranos coffee with a fantastic, lemon-zest-amped apple-currant country tart, sporting a superb pastry crust and appreciated "dollop" (as in big-ass-awesome spoonful) of whipped cream. As in competition, Pontius killed it.
And that's what Vanderstoep likes about giving her chefs free rein to be creative and somewhat spontaneous outside the catering gig: "We've hardly ever repeated a menu in three years," she says. "This serves a need for a chef to continue pushing boundaries."
And for guests, she loves the small community tables, where "you have different conversations than you would have ever planned."
Feel the heat, watch 'em work and appreciate everything you don't normally see from the dining room. The series isn't so much about dining out as it is dining in.