The former editor in chief of Cooking Light magazine takes on the local restaurant scene.
Scott Mowbray moved to Colorado in 2014 after holding magazine editor positions in New York City and elsewhere (most recently, as editor-in-chief at Cooking Light in Alabama). Along the way, he wrote the James Beard Award–winning cookbook The New Way to Cook Light, as well as a book about personal photography. He was also the restaurant critic in Vancouver, British Columbia, for CBC radio and founded the restaurant awards for Vancouver Magazine.
As a guy who’s closer to a cranky old rooster than a spring chicken, I’ve been lucky enough to eat in a lot of restaurants in Southeast Asia, India, Europe, North Africa, Canada, and every major American city. I grew up in odd places—Java, Indonesia, and Kabul, Afghanistan—because my father decided to chuck his university job and work as a physician for the relief organization CARE. I fell under the spell of water buffalo rendang and mutton pilau while my prairie friends back home in Saskatchewan still regarded TV dinners as bona fide adventures (as I did, until I was served a heap of frog’s legs in black bean sauce and immediately understood that Swanson had been duping me).
What came to define a great meal for me was not “authenticity,” whatever that is, but honesty, craft, and a way with flavors best compared to an artist’s way with colors. No recipe captures the essence of a perfectly cooked dish, and no manual tells a cook how to preserve that essence through the weird military process of running a restaurant. For me, every great meal is mysterious, sublime. I care about design and service, but half the meals on my lifetime top-10 list were eaten in shacks and holes-in-the-wall, so I guess I don’t care all that much. I’ve long since tired of the Baroque agony of the hyper-fussy, 15-course, itty-bitty-things-on-a-plate show-off dinner—except, of course, when said dinner is sublime.
American food has entered a new era: post-revolutionary. The roots of the revolution go back to M. F. K. Fisher, James Beard, Julia Child, Craig Claiborne, and Alice Waters (only one of them a restaurateur). What America did with music—jazz, blues, bluegrass, country, rock, hip-hop—chefs began doing in kitchens, blending roots and inspiration into something new. California and New York City led the charge, the former because of its hippy-dippy realization that local farms and handmade food might actually hold the keys to the mystery, the latter because New York is the gilded monster that not only never sleeps but also never stops eating out. Then the revolution spread. Along the way, immigrants such as Wolfgang Puck banged the fusion drum, while homegrown enthusiast-scholars, like Rick Bayless, devoted themselves to Other cuisines (in Bayless’ case, Mexican). Meanwhile, obsessive food-chasers like Jonathan Gold in L.A. returned from immigrant neighborhoods with tales of treasures.
The revolution is still spreading, of course, and there are parts of the country barely converted. But the gist is known. Most cities, Denver among them, have witnessed the rise of the artisan armies, the worship of “local,” the boom in farmers’ markets, the coolness of hyper-expertise in coffee, chocolate, whiskey, cocktails, and such. The great cooks of the South rose again, waving okra and bottles of bourbon. Barbecue became a national fetish. Colorado led the charge in craft beer and then craft booze. I watched the New York scene explode in the ’90s and 2000s from Brooklyn, traveling to some American city almost every month, then decamped to Alabama for a few years before landing in this beautiful mountain place, still hungry. It only took a few meals in Denver and Boulder to realize that the joint is bubbling with foodie ambition.
What’s interesting now—the challenge for any chef—is: How do you cook on the shoulders of giants? What claims to originality can you make, in Denver or anywhere else? The revolution set the bar for restaurants very high, and I see no reason to judge my new neighbors any differently than I would judge places in Chicago, Manhattan, Los Angeles, or New Orleans. To get four stars, our highest rating, a restaurant has to excel in every particular while consistently achieving that mysterious state that makes an old bird like me want to say grace.
As for the ratings themselves: One star means consistently disappointing, two good but flawed, three very good with minor flaws, and four consistently excellent. I’ll blend the system with half-stars whose meanings are presumably easy to figure out. A really lousy restaurant just won’t get reviewed—why waste the space?
I'm thrilled to have the critic gig in this booming food region.
OK, let’s eat.