The Blue Star
1645 S. Tejon St., 632-1086
I was a young executive upstart with a corporate card when I was introduced to The Blue Star. This was 1995, soon after another young upstart, Joseph Coleman Jr., had opened the place at its first location on Colorado Avenue.
When my friends and I first met Coleman, he was doing one of his patented rounds through the dining room, checking on his customers. Strangely, he told us his name was Skippy, and that he wasn't the owner; it wasn't until several visits later that we realized we'd been playfully duped.
Looking back, I can only guess Coleman created Skippy to sort of secret-shop his own customers and gauge their true satisfaction. But even then, I got the sense that the owner enjoyed having an alter ego; he didn't necessarily like the spotlight.
When The Blue Star earned Best Overall Restaurant (and Restaurant Wine List) honors this year, I approached Coleman for an interview. He flatly declined, and instead gave me access to his staff, insisting that they're the real reasons for The Blue Star's success. So I'm sitting down with general manager Tyler Schniedel (pictured right), special events manager Nicole Stocker and executive chef James Davis Jr. (pictured next to Schniedel).
"We are not some cookie-cutter restaurant," says Schniedel, a nine-year Blue Star vet.
"We are beyond trendy," adds Davis.
"We are consistently evolving," piggybacks Stocker.
They give off a palpable passion, often finishing each others' sentences and gesturing with intensity. They thrive on the philosophy of "freedom in thinking," which gives each employee the opportunity to excel and even fail with the support of one another.
"No one should fear for their job," says Schniedel. "No one is bigger than anyone else."
Not even mighty Joe, by the sound of things.
When I ask their approach to employee training, the group bursts into laughter. Stocker recounts her first day: "I was handed a laptop and told to get to work." Employees come in as blank canvases and can paint any picture they choose.
From Schniedel's perspective, that yields servers who take ownership of their work. For Davis, that can mean taking something that already exists a classic, even and tweaking it.
Take, for instance, his version of a traditional latke, on the menu through month's end: He pairs Gravlox-style (salt-cured) diced salmon tartar with the fried potato, then mixes a bit of a brandy marinade with sour cream, Dijon and dill for a sauce and tops it all with American caviar.
Davis loves to purchase produce from local farms, and beef and lamb from Colorado producers, but also to venture thousands of miles away (at least in principle) for foreign foods.
"He's always asking questions," says Stocker. Davis carries a little black book, and scribbles notes about things like what customers have eaten on vacation. He then figures out how those foods might work in the restaurant.
Flashing his Georgia grin, Davis says nothing should be out of reach: "If you can get heroin across the border, I should be able to get lupin seeds."
The group loves a challenge, like handling a Plaza of the Rockies Christmas party before the building had a kitchen that'd be 1,200 people and a hallway full of Sternos. Or accommodating a Black Forest man who wanted to do an in-ground hot-rock clambake.
"We had these rocks in the ovens all night," says Schniedel. Then came the task of transporting them, which in a nutshell, involved a truck and an absurd level of caution.
Davis talks about building a level of trust, something that's especially important to customer Kate Faricy. Born with genetic disorder phenylketonuria (PKU), Faricy cannot metabolize proteins, calling it her "quirk." So Davis has devised a list of the do's and don'ts of her diet no to milk, eggs, nuts, meats and fish, and yes to greens, vegetables, rice and pasta. Davis and his staff customize dishes for Faricy each time she comes in, and that attention to detail has kept her coming back "a ridiculous amount" of times.
But then again, most diners get some kind of special attention, if access to specialty items qualifies. For the restaurant's new Market Menu, sous chef Andrew Sherrill brings in delicacies like Texas antelope and East Coast Cherrystone clams.
"I'm given carte blanche," Sherrill says.
So even though you won't hear it directly from Joseph Coleman, his staff speaks well for itself. A proven, wild passion for food and the freedom to create clearly produces winning results.