Chef Brian Laird is in his element. After years of cooking Northern Italian at Denver institution Barolo, he’s helming the burners (and chef’s counter) at Sarto’s, an eatery in which he is a partner. Since the Jefferson Park Italian spot opened in October, Laird has been busy concocting ever-changing custom small plates at the interactive cicchetti bar, churning out dishes from a wood-burning oven, and making fresh pastas for Sarto’s inclusive pantry and marketplace. After the long two years it took him and owners Taylor and Kajsa Swallow to bring Sarto’s to fruition, Laird couldn’t be happier to be back doing what he loves. Here, the chef talks about providing guests with the highest level of hospitality, his ideas on the evolution of fine dining, and how a dose of humility has influenced his food for the better.
5280: Some say that fine dining is dying out or is becoming less relevant. Do you think there’s any truth in that?
Brian Laird: I wouldn’t say that it’s dead. I think there will always be fine dining—no doubt about it. I did fine dining for so long I don’t want to do it. I just want to be approachable. We want you to be here three times a month, not just on your birthday or anniversary. As Denver’s growing, the cool thing is the melting pot that we’re finally seeing. You know, 10 years ago we didn’t have a really good burger place, then look what happened—boom! Right now [the trend is] the deli and the market. People for years were complaining, “there’s no good deli, there’s no good market,” especially the East Coasters. Now you’re seeing everybody doing a deli and a market or something close. I love it.
I was shot down once—I was at the French Laundry with Thomas Keller—because I had made the stupid mistake of saying “Hey, I’m a chef at this restaurant in Denver, we’re called Barolo Grill, we’re kind of Frasca’s competitor.” He’s like “Hey man, first of all we’re not in competition we’re all in the same business for the same reason.” And it just stuck with me and always will. Everyone’s doing their thing. We’re not McDonald’s and Burger King across the street from each other. It’s cool that everyone can do their thing out here.
You know there’s a lot of humility that’s come through my life, and that doesn’t hurt a chef. I feel that changes a person and it’s affected my food in a positive way. Night after night people are here saying “Chef, you look like you’re having the best time of your life,” and I am. It’s like a different night partying with new friends—introducing things that people wouldn’t normally ever order but being sensitive to their needs. On our menu I’m not telling you have to have a 10-ounce steak for $80, you tell me how many ounces you want. Same with the salmon. You can say “I want three ounces of salmon, four ounces of tenderloin.” No problem. We weigh it, we cook it, you get what you want.