just one rib

Denver Restaurant Week - matt selby

Thursday, February 23, 2012

As winter lingers with it’s bitter cold and sporadic 50 degree days, and folks begin to dream of spring, baseball, shorts and flip flops, all slightly just around the corner, Denver restaurateurs are gearing up for the huge spike in late winter/ early spring sales called Restaurant Week. Or as it’s known by it’s unofficial name, Restaurant Half Month. Most Chefs have created and solidified their menus, floor managers have completed the dizzying task of scheduling staff, and confirmed the two weeks of reservations. Veteran cooks busy themselves with getting the newer cooks prepared. Servers take deep breaths and try to chill a bit before the onslaught.  For me personally, the first day of Restaurant Weeks, I kiss my wife and kids, and lovingly tell them, “See you in a couple weeks”. The first night is chaotic, scary, and full of nervous energy. Did we order enough food? Have we spaced our reservations properly? Do we have enough staff? Are we truly ready for Sunday through Thursday to be just as busy, if not busier, than Friday and Saturday? Are our RW menus up to par with the regular menu, yet streamlined to maintain current cook times? And oh lord, there is nothing worse than the terror of waking from a restaurant nightmare at 4 in the morning, just before the crush, questioning whether or not we stocked up on plates and glassware.  The answer to all of these questions? Truth be told? You can do all the planning, strategizing, positioning, and research you want, only to have the answers revealed, good, bad, or otherwise as the weeks unfold. Only thing you have control over is your emotions, actions and thoughts. 

Much has been said and made of RW. The media has its opinions and angles, Chefs and restaurateurs are divided down the middle…they love it or hate it. The organizers, Visit Denver, obviously have their own agenda, and while jumping Restaurant Week from 1 week to 2 has rubbed some the wrong way, I firmly believe that they have the restaurants’ best interest in mind, along with the interests of this great state. To bring it all full circle, Denver diners have their views, which, in this social media age can either make or break a restaurant through Twitter, Facebook, and all the other electronic review methods.  Speaking of social media, it’s fun to check in on other Chefs in town to see how they are holding up through their posts. All this being said, let me tell you what I think of RW(s). I absolutely love it.

Visit Denver launched the first Denver Restaurant Week in 2004. The goal was to elevate the reputation of Denver dining beyond the perceived “meat and potatoes” rank.  The Visit Denver brass were astute enough to see the benefits reaped by other cities that hosted a Restaurant Week, cities like New York, San Francisco, Chicago and Seattle. They were also keen enough to know that any city’s best tourists, tour guides, and metropolitan visitors all reside in the suburbs, outskirts, and downtown hub of any particular city.  How do you promote the rich dining culture of Denver? Hit the locals. How do you create incentive for them to yell from a mountaintop how good our restaurants are?  Three courses for 2 guests at the Mile High price of $52.80, that’s how.  Since 2004, DRW has grown in guests, participating restaurants, and media attention. As of 2010, Travel and Leisure readers named DRW 13th best in the nation, up from 23rd in 2004. One could even say that Visit Denver was ahead of it’s time in that as the economy slowed, and recession set in, DRW grew because of tighter household budgets, staycations, and cash strapped diners begging, searching, and craving a great deal on fine dining.

While Vesta has been a DRW participant since day one, I must admit that our first time in 2004 was a disaster. And having spoken with other restaurateurs, and even the Visit Denver organizers, sounds like it was disastrous for everyone. None of us had any clue as to what we were getting ourselves into, let alone a clue as how to handle ordering, reservations, staff and guests. There was no real playbook, no local guru to help us along.  We did the best we could, learned our lessons, and got better year-by-year.  While we were able to take those lessons to Steuben’s for our first participation in 2007, we quickly realized that the Steuben’s menu of budget minded regional American classics was well below the check average of $52.80…unless we offered the Maine Lobster roll with fries, along with a cup of New England Style Clam Chowder, a beer and dessert (this year it is our house made pudding, it has been other items in the past). Regardless, we saw the value of playing ball with Visit Denver, and in the spirit of giving back to the dining community in any way we can, we added Steuben’s to the growing list of participating Denver restaurants. By 2012, I’m confident in saying that Vesta and Steuben’s take immense pride in our participation, execution and guest focus during Restaurant Week. This year I sat on a DRW advisory board facilitated by Eat Denver and Visit Denver, and I was asked by a new participant what the secret to our Restaurant Week success was. I answered his question with this question…”why would you change your everyday hospitality philosophy for Restaurant Week, and why change your high level of standards for any two weeks?” You don’t. Sure, you look for ways to streamline, leverage costs, and keep the family glued together, but ultimately, your goal is to provide the same level of hospitality you do through the year, and make damn sure that you treat every guest, new and regular,  so well that they can’t wait to come back for more, regardless of the price.  You see, I look at DRW as a challenge. A challenge in the spirit of which it was created, to elevate the reputation of Denver dining and hospitality.

As Denver Restaurant Week draws near, I have some advice, praise and compliments to mention. First the advice to my brothers and sisters in the industry: stay strong, stay positive and kick some ass. Take care of yourself, take care of your staff…buy em’ a round, bring in some healthy snacks for the night, bring in a masseuse, and reward them for staying energetic and positive. Most important of all, take care of your guests. Give them a reason to come back again and again.  Bring them into your family.  Now a plea to Denver diners.  Understand that we are overwhelmed. Some of us are new to this, and some of us pros make mistakes. Know that it kills us, breaks our hearts, when we do make mistakes. Not because of the bottom line, but because we truly measure success by how many happy guests walk out of our doors.  Tip well and celebrate with us just how far Denver dining has come.  Above all else, when mistakes are made, speak up…give us the opportunity, right then and there, to make things right and exceed your expectations. Don’t take those missteps to the social media graveyard where mistakes go to die, never to be corrected. Save social media posts for praise, insight, and positive word of mouth.  And finally the praise…my compliments to the big hearted Denver restaurants, the Denver diners who make it all worth while, and above all else, Visit Denver for cooking up a plan that has far exceeded anyone’s expectations both locally and nationally.

Restaurant week will be from February 25 - March 9.

Check out the Steuben's Menu below.

Beyond the Sauce, matt selby

Saturday, November 12, 2011
I’m a cookbook junkie. At last count, I have over 500 cookbooks. Most of them are in my home, either on a huge bookshelf, or in my kitchen where you will find my favorite books for spur of the moment inspiration. Many other books are in my office at Vesta. Most of these are either historical in nature, technique driven, or bare bones ethnic. They are good to have around when I, or the other Chefs at Vesta, need guidance, discipline, or just plain brainstorming for a dish or menu.

office collection

home kitchen collection

My collection of cookbooks runs the gamut, from the obvious; The French Laundry Cookbook, Think Like a Chef, and all of the Charlie Trotter cookbooks, to some rare, first edition cookbooks, including Adventures in Good Cooking and the Art of Carving at Home given to my grandmother by my grandfather in 1951. Others include books that are not actually cookbooks, but seem to fit well in that category. Anything from M.F.K. Fisher, Harold McGee, and Richard Olney for example. The book I’ve recommended to young cooks most is Becoming a Chef by Andrew Dorenburg and Karen Page. The first chef I ever worked for gave it to me for Christmas in 1995. I read it cover to cover in 2 days. I’ve re-read it more than 10 times since. Finally, I of course have cookbooks that fall into the “that was a very thoughtful gift” category, which are books that well intentioned friends and family have given me, assuming that the book was an absolute must for my collection. Home Cooki’n with David Letterman’s Mom and The Star Wars Cookbook are two that come to mind. Like I said, those books are well intended, so you will see them prominently displayed, along with all the others, as I try to always learn something from every book…especially when it’s a gift.

signed "to suzanne, with love, alan". gramma's book

got this one signed by madeleine kamman herself! chefs bierderman, kirwan and i saw her speak in boulder

Ultimately I’ve been reading cookbooks my entire career, and continue to learn from, and be inspired by them. I still get giddy when the latest and greatest ends up in my hands. I wonder though, is it ok to name your own cookbook your favorite? Before you read too much into that question, let me give you the brief history of writing Beyond the Sauce, by Josh Wolkon and myself.

Josh and I had talked for years about writing a Vesta cookbook. I imagine that just like us, many chefs and restaurateurs dream of writing a cook book, and I’m sure that there are as many reasons as there are chefs and restaurateurs. For us, the drive to write a cookbook was to honor the family staff members who built Vesta, the loyal regular guests and community who made it possible to write a book in the first place, and ultimately convey our passion and legacy to friends, family, and new guests. Many times the project would make it onto our to-do lists, only to find it pushed back in favor of more immediate and bigger picture goals. Regardless, the project remained something we wanted to do, when the time was right. In the winter of 2007 we finally decided that in our business, there really is no “right time” for anything, and that we should just commit to getting it going. Thus began a series of brainstorm sessions to discuss what type of book we wanted…how we wanted it to look, how we wanted it to “sound”, how we were going to do it. Many more “how do we” questions came up, and we hadn’t even gotten to recipe selection. We started simple though, and took our time. Josh would email me a list of his favorite cookbooks with reasons why, and I would return with my selections. We found as many authors, publishers, and editors as we could, and took them out for coffee to pick their brain. It wasn’t until the winter of 2008 that we sat down to actually write the book. 


dipping sauce "center fold"
While we eventually self published Beyond the Sauce, we initially began the process with a cookbook publisher. The beginning stages were to have the publishing/editing/photography staff fly to Denver to interview us, get to know us and our restaurants, and take some preliminary pictures. While this was happening, we began to write portions of the book that we knew we needed or wanted. Josh for example took on the “Vesta Vibe” chapter, which gives an in depth, humorous and entertaining look into the family-style culture that we have strived to create at Vesta, and Steuben’s. I took on the task of selecting and scaling down signature dish recipes. While we were writing these pieces, the publisher and editor would send us rough draft chapters, and personal introductions based on conversations that they had with Josh and I, our staff, and our family members. While I think that the writers did a great job of capturing who we are, and what we are about, we often found ourselves re-writing to make those pieces sound more like us. The most important thing was that those first pre-edit stories and chapters gave us direction, and structure to better find our voice and vision for the end result. 


vesta vibe funnyness...goooood times...

The work load was very much equally distributed, with Josh focusing on such chapters as “Vesta Vibe”, “Steuben’s” and overall tone, while I continued to re-write recipes. Something that I’m particularly proud of is that with just about each recipe I provided a sort of background, or introduction to the recipe. I very much enjoyed lending my voice and character to those recipes, and letting my enthusiasm and passion come through. Funny thing is that Josh and I learned new things about each other through this process. I learned more about how his childhood and education turned him into an insightful and hospitable restaurateur, and he learned more about how my mind works around food and recipes. “Even after working together for 15 years I was able to learn so much about the inspiration of Matty’s dishes in the creation of this book. I had always been amazed at how dishes came together so easily for him, but understanding where the inspiration came from had always been a mystery. One of my personal favorite parts of the book are Matty’s recollections and stories of what brought certain dishes to life.” That was the easy and fun part. The difficult part was actually testing the recipes. I finished rough drafts by June 2008. We were scheduled to fly to the publishers studio for food photography the first week of August, so really, I was on a very tight timeline to get the recipes tested, and edited. With Josh’s suggestion, I started by handing recipes to our Vesta cooks, and asked them to simply prepare them. The idea was great in theory, but did not take into account that professional cooks would take the recipes and either improvise, cut out steps, or take liberties. I needed every day, home cooks to follow the recipes, show me the finished product, and then circle back to make adjustments as needed. I began to pass out recipes to friends and family, supply them with the ingredients, and figure out when we were going to make them. While I was pretty excited to see many of the recipes work to perfection, many of the pre-edits resulted in disaster that brought us right back to the drawing board. Eventually though, we finished them with confidence, in just enough time for the food photography sessions.

Something I loved about the process of writing this book was having the ability to share the process with our staff and family. Our home cooks were thrilled and honored to test recipes, much like our chefs were thrilled and honored when one of their recipes made the book. When I received the rigorous photography schedule, I realized that I needed to fly someone with me to get the job done. I asked one of my best friends, and the Vesta Executive Chef at the time, Wade Kirwan, to join me. Our first day on the job started with checking to see that all the right ingredients were there, and source missing ingredients. We then immediately jumped into a 12-hour straight photo shoot, right into the day two, 15-hour non-stop session. Seriously. No breaks. We hauled ass, and found ourselves able to cut out day three, and relax. The experience was incredible, exciting, and adrenaline fueled. At the end of it all, I was blessed to have Wade there to keep me centered, and keep the train moving. I could not have done it without him. Check out the video! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0nMX6eYC-SA

Once all of the individual parts are mostly complete, the next step in writing a cookbook is putting it all together, seeing how it fits, making preliminary edits to make the book flow smoothly, and then ultimately move onto final edits. In the spirit of sharing, we asked Emily Biederman, Chef Biederman at Steuben’s wife and Josh’s assistant, to help with the editing. Josh and I read and edited, read and edited some more, but it wasn’t until the rough draft made it into Emily’s hands that the book began to actually sound cohesive, articulate, and of course grammatically correct. All in all, I’m pretty sure the book went though the publishers edits, Josh and my edits, and Emily’s edits, for total of 4 rounds. Then there was the final final edit…Josh and I sat in his office with disk and PDF proofs, re-reading every single page, scrutinizing every single picture, and obsessing over each word. This then lead to the final, final, final edit, after the publishing editors made our final edits. Lot’s of editing in writing a book…I’m sure you get the picture.

chef biederman

josh wolkon
Very few things in life are as exciting as holding in your hand the very first copy of your very first book. I liken it to seeing your child born, or opening a restaurant. Still there are significant occurrences after holding that first copy that give off that sense of pride and accomplishment. Giving a book to your mom. The first copy you sign. Attending your own book signing. A local chef who you love and respect emailing to say just how great the book is. The first in house guest who loved their Vesta experience so much that they had to bring home a signed copy. Josh explains it like this, “I love hanging at the Tattered Cover or Peppercorn in Boulder where the cookbook is prominently displayed and just listening to the shoppers who notice it, talk about Vesta and flip through the book. It’s an unexpected way to hear how Vesta has touched people’s lives. Regardless of whether they ultimately buy the book or not, it’s very cool to have Vesta taken out of the normal context of the restaurant.” Beyond the Sauce hit the shelves in November 2010, just in time for the holiday season. We were certainly pleased to see it sell well during those gift giving months, but even more pleased and even humbled to see it move for the rest of the year…”Like any new project, writing a cookbook was an incredible learning experience. It was the realization of a long time goal and dream. For years we mailed out and e-mailed out recipes, techniques, and sometimes the sauces themselves to guests who wanted to do Vesta at home. It is a true compliment that we have been able to sell so many cookbooks to so many people for whom Vesta is more than a restaurant” says Josh. With the return of the holidays, Josh, myself, and the Vesta/Steuben’s family are happy to share a piece of our restaurant with you and your loved ones. So yes then, I do think it’s ok for your favorite cookbook to be your own…besides the writing process, the project sharing, and reader enthusiasm, it’s pretty gratifying to see Beyond the Sauce in a cooks hands, on a shelf in a bookstore, or merely sitting aside my highly regarded cookbooks in my home kitchen.

vesta roll

korean bbq cured foie gras

golden ponzu shrimp
Beyond the Sauce is available for $29.95 at the following…
-Vesta Dipping Grill, and Steuben’s, or online at http://www.vestagrill.com/_product_121647/Vesta_Dipping_Grill_Cookbook
-Tattered Cover
-Barnes and Noble
-The Perfect Petal
-Cook Street School of Fine Cooking
-Boulder Bookstore

The Story of Hudson Barrel Hot Sauce

Tuesday, August 30, 2011
This being my first blog, I wanted to write about something relevant to Vesta, Steuben’s and the Steuben’s truck. I put a lot of thought into my first topic…the creative menu development process, stories and histories of our chefs and managers and the roles that they play, and the importance of staying involved with the community. All great stories I’m sure, and relevant as well. Great topics for future blogs. The more I thought about it, though, the more I kept coming back to one thing: hot Sauce – more specifically, Hudson Barrel Hot Sauce.

Before age 25, my threshold for chilies and heat was very low. Wimpy low. Not sure what happened, or what the internal catalyst was, but post 25, I have become what’s known as a “chili head” -- or plainly, a lover of heat, chilies, hot sauce, hot dishes, spicy sauces and salsas. To be clear, while my heat tolerance is considered high, even for a 10-year-plus rookie, I’m not a “the hotter the better” chili head. That distinction goes to Jeff Bustos, the general manager formerly at Vesta and now at Steuben’s. Jeff has the highest tolerance for spice I have ever seen. If Jeff says it’s too hot, I generally stay away. Regardless of our marginal degrees of tolerance, we inevitably find ourselves talking about all things spicy if for no other reason than it’s our common denominator. To finally illustrate my love of spice, I give you a quick conversation between my oldest daughter, Olivia and me: “You put hot sauce on everything,” she says. “No, I don’t,” I respond. “I just rarely eat the things I don’t put hot sauce on.”

As my love for heat progressed, my next logical obsession would have been hot sauce. About six years ago, the world of hot sauces, which had previously been a mystery to me, became a whole new culinary adventure. The evolution of the obsession, influenced by Vesta’s world-eclectic menu, and the development of Steuben’s menu, started with bottle upon bottle of varying world-spanning hot sauces, multiplying like bunnies in my home kitchen cabinets. The obsession peaked, I think, when I proudly took over three unoccupied shelves in the Steuben’s to-go area, which is now called “the hot sauce bar.” The Steuben’s hot sauce bar reflects my preferences and personal favorites, but has always been open to additions from all of the staff -- with one caveat: No rudely named, gimmicky hot sauces. My favorites? Some are pretty typical, like the extra hot Valentina, Texas Pete, Crystal, Sriracha, Tabasco, and Sambal Olek. Others fall into unusual, off the beaten path, in-the-know, or eccentric category. I love the Tabasco Spicy Teriyaki. An Indian peri peri sauce is sweet and spicy, albeit hard to find; Texas Pete Chili Vinegar is essential for collard greens; El Pato hot sauce is a Mexican favorite; and finally, we have featured some hot sauces that we’ve consumed, only to never find them again. A fiery Korean and onion paste haunts me. It is my Moby Dick. My hot sauce obsession reached its proud finale when I decided that it was time to make my own hot sauce -- not to try to make anything better than what I already loved, redo the hot sauce wheel, or even compete with anything on the beloved hot sauce bar, but because with Vesta’s arsenal of sauces backing me, the Steuben’s hot sauce was another accomplishment for us. Considering my newfound need for hot sauce in my life, it seemed like something I was destined to do.

The process started when I tried to decide what type of hot sauce I enjoyed the most. Louisiana? Mexican or Latin? Asian? I couldn’t decide. I love them all equally for different reasons. I then turned to the chefs in our company, and asked what they liked, or what they thought I should make. Chef Brandon at Steuben’s felt like something Louisiana, or American in style would fit the Steuben’s menu, while the Vesta chefs naturally believed an Asian, or Moroccan (think Harissa) hot sauce would better fit Vesta. Others suggested I try to come up with a sauce that combined the best of all worlds. This decision process became wildly debated, and the various sides passionately stuck to their guns. Eventually, it became clear that I simply needed to think about the components of a hot sauce that I wanted, rather than the style. The obvious components were easy: I wanted heat, but not “burn your face off hot”; I wanted vibrant red color; I wanted it to be smooth, but with texture, sort of like a cross between an Indonesian Sambal and Louisiana hot sauce. Vinegar? Yes. Sweetness? Yes, but only from the chilies. And then the idea that eventually defined what this hot sauce would become came to me: smoke. Not bbq smoker smoke, but barrel-aged smoke. I wanted to make a hot sauce, and barrel age it. Not just any barrel, mind you, but a whiskey barrel.

In 2009, Chef Biederman and I took a professional course in charcuterie at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park. Being upstate, we also wanted to take a tour of the Hudson Valley Foie Gras Farm http://www.hudsonvalleyfoiegras.com/index.html Before class one morning, Brandon suggested a tour of a distillery, where he happened to be friends with the son (and marketing director) of the owner. The distillery was Tuthilltown Spirits http://tuthilltown.com/ in Gardiner, New York. Steuben’s serves their whiskey, called Hudson Whiskey; the first legally distilled and aged grain spirit to be produced in New York since prohibition. Gable Erenzo, Brandon’s friend, gave us a cool tour, complete with tasting and gifts. Along the tour, I noticed…the barrels. Brandon asked if they sold and shipped the barrels. Gable said yes. We talked about the best barrel for the job. I wanted something char-burned on the inside, and, as luck would have it, Gable had just the right barrel.

As soon as we got back to Denver, I ordered the barrel. While I waited for it to arrive, I worked on the recipe…and the name. More on the recipe in a moment. The name was originally “Whiskey Barrel Hot Sauce,” which has a great sound to it. The more I pitched the idea to others though, the more I was asked, “How much whiskey is in the hot sauce?” I explained that there isn’t any whiskey in the sauce, but that the batch was aged in a charred whiskey barrel. I had to change the name. Thinking of Hudson whiskey, at some point, my thoughts turned to my grandfather, Alan Hudson. Big Al was the driving force behind my love of BBQ -- and BBQ sauce. I made the connection between BBQ sauce and hot sauce, and, from that, I came up with Hudson Barrel Hot Sauce, as a way of paying homage to Tuthilltown Spirits and my grandfather. That’s the name that stuck in my head, and now we’re bottling it on a regular basis.

While I am usually more than willing to give out my recipes, I think that a barrel aged hot sauce sort of demands a degree of secrecy. I’d like to keep the recipe a secret, but will tell you that Hudson Barrel Hot Sauce is made with red Fresno chilies, onions and garlic. After 3 initial rounds of playing with the ratios, and technique, I’m proud to say that it was Vesta’s Chef Brandon Foster who finally nailed the blending technique that made the hot sauce the consistency I was looking for all along.
Telling this story had made me realize just how fortunate I am to be surrounded by incredible chefs, and passionate people. I’m excited to share with you more stories, both from me, and our staff, through this blog. And if you haven’t tried it yet, I’m excited to share Hudson Barrel Hot Sauce with you, whether you are at Vesta, Steuben’s, or visiting the Steuben’s truck.