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The End of Denver’s Inferiority Complex

Last week's ED Talks have generated a lot of buzz. Here's what I had to say. 

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Last week I spoke at ED Talks, EatDenver‘s inaugural lecture series. The topic was service and hospitality, something that has long been a point of discussion in the local restaurant community. I took a slightly different tack than the other speakers. I addressed Denver’s inferiority complex and the idea that if the root of good service is having pride in the food you serve and restaurant you work in, that also extends to having pride in Denver’s dining scene. Below is my talk—I hope it continues to generate discussion.

For as long as I can remember, when out of state and asked where I’m from, I’ve replied Colorado—not Denver, nor the mountain town in which I was raised. This stems, I think, from growing up in Aspen, a wonderful place yes, but one that elicits immediate responses. Sometimes the reactions are silly: You mean people really live there? Other times the assumptions are simply crass: Your parents must be rich. (In fact, my dad is an elementary school teacher). I’ve gotten similar misguided responses when I mention I live in Denver; the worst of which remains Is Denver still a cow town?

For far too long, Denver has suffered from an inferiority complex. We’ve often felt cast aside by the rest of the country—labeled a cow town, a flyover city, a mere gateway to the Rockies.

But Denver has been biding its time, waiting for its moment—all the while evolving into its wonderful, casual, fun, culturally rich, vibrant self. And now, the rest of the country is figuring it out. Look at the influx of people (roughly 100,000 between 2010 and 2014). Look at our economy, our housing market, our desirable lifestyle, and, of course, our exploding restaurant scene.

In 2004, it was Frasca and The Kitchen that put Boulder—and effectively Colorado—on the culinary map. And then in 2010, Bon Appétit heaped on the accolades when it named Boulder America’s foodiest town. The criteria of which was: “Small (fewer than 250,000 people), quality farmers’ markets, concerned farmers, dedicated food media, first-rate restaurants, talented food artisans, and a community of food lovers.” Boulder was the place to be.

But, to me, that sounds like Denver (with the exception of size, of course). The Mile High has been quietly, steadily raising its restaurant and food bar. And just look at this city now. Yes, there are accolades: We have a Food & Wine Best New Chef, a James Beard winner, Bon Appétit Best New Restaurant nods, and awards for best bars and top bartenders. But also look at the blossoming of downtown and Union Station. Look to RiNo and LoHi, both neighborhoods that barely existed a few years ago. Even Globeville is suddenly making a play. Denver’s restaurant scene’s density, depth, and creativity far eclipses that of Boulder’s. Denver is the culinary barometer for this state.

And you can taste it. Travel to most any city on the national food radar these days—Austin, Nashville, Portland, Oakland—and you’ll have some really great experiences and some misses too. The same is true here. We are very much on par with cities that are generating national excitement. And those cities are aware of us. I was in Nashville recently and upon finding out I lived in Denver, servers and chefs didn’t ask about the mountains or skiing, they asked about Denver restaurants and said they’d been hearing great things. One server even asked for a list of my favorites to tuck away for a future trip.

Diners here and beyond are more discerning, more well traveled, more curious than ever. Our chefs—especially many of those setting today’s standards—are also reaching from beyond. They’re traveling, they’re learning from elsewhere, and they’re bringing that knowledge home to capitalize on. Established chefs in other cities are bringing their talent here because this is where they want to live. We need more of that. And as Denver’s scene continues to expand and the competition for revenue dollars becomes fiercer, that necessity for new ideas, new talent, and well founded creativity will become the difference between success and failure.

Will we ever be as influential as the coastal cities? No. Do we expect to be? No. But we are Denver and that’s worth celebrating.

I have a T shirt that, like so many these days, has the Colorado flag on it. It’s a point of pride. But what’s different about this shirt is that there’s a Denver reference. The C for “Colorado” combines to say “Embrace the Cow.” Think about that: Embrace the Cow. Denver might be successfully shedding its cow town image but this T-shirt—this message—should remind us what we’re building from and to hold tight to our hard-scrabble, hard-won western sensibility. Let’s celebrate where we’re going, but not forget who we are.

Newcomers, old-timers, and natives, what do you think of Denver’s ever-changing restaurant scene?

Follow food editor Amanda M. Faison on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and Pinterest.

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