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Lobster shrimp and grits at Arcana (Photo by Casey Giltner)

Samuel McCandless Talks Fads, Vegans, and Cooking Sober

Arcana’s new executive chef on his return to fine dining and plans for the Colorado-proud Boulder restaurant.

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A little over four years ago, Samuel McCandless tried to drink himself to death. He had been cooking nonstop for 16 years by then, leading in the kitchen and excelling outwardly, but also abusing alcohol daily and forbidden from even seeing his young daughter. “I got to a point in my career where I thought I could get by and just drink like crazy,” McCandless says. “And then it just wasn’t working anymore. I had to stop.” On his daughter’s fourth birthday, which McCandless missed, he did finally stop, and he’s been sober ever since.

For a while, he fell into another obsession: exercise. “I’d go to the yoga studio three times a day,” McCandless recalls. “I thought things would get easier and that wasn’t the case at all. I was riddled with anxiety. I replaced the alcohol with working out…which is better, but it’s still escape.” Eventually, he realized that he needed more balance and scaled back his marathon gym and studio sessions. “The way my [yoga] practice is now, it’s there all day long,” McCandless says. “I’m always feeling good and it taught me to love.”

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Samuel McCandless is Arcana’s new executive chef. (Photo by Casey Giltner)

Since January 6, when he took the reigns at Arcana (one of 5280’s 2018 25 Best Restaurants) from chef Kyle Mendenhall, McCandless has been bringing that love and his passion for cooking to his new kitchen. He brings a wealth of culinary experience to Arcana too, including fine dining training with some of the best chefs in America, from Laurent Gras at three-Michelin-starred L20 in Chicago to two separate stints under James Beard Award-winner Lachlan Mackinnon-Patterson at Frasca Food and Wine. But it’s his sobriety journey, as well as his yoga practice, that informs the kind of culinary leader McCandless intends to be at Arcana.

“There’s no longer that [sense of] ego,” he says, “or the feeling that I have to be super cool or this innovative guy. I love the people who come to eat at [Arcana], I love the team, and I love that I have the opportunity to make a living through food. Every day is a joy.” That feeling translates to McCandless checking in with his staff every day, one-on-one. “First, I want to know how that cook is doing as as person,” McCandless says, “then I want to know how the work is going.” He also encourages his staff to bring their own style, personality, and standards to their cooking, as he subtly shifts the direction of Arcana’s culinary approach.

Based on hyper-selective ingredient sourcing—from Colorado growers and beyond—McCandless is having fun exploring seasonal Southern cooking at Arcana. “It’s elevated comfort food with a Southern influence,” he says. “To do that [in Colorado], it’s like we’re finding our own lane.” On Arcana’s menu, that lane tastes like buttery “groundnut” rolls, rich with flavor from house-made peanut butter, piled high with paper-thin slices of Benton’s Smoky Mountain Country ham and coffee-pickled shallots. Or an elevated play on shrimp and grits featuring big pieces of sweet lobster, a chestnut-and-lobster bisque, homemade hot sauce, and red whiskey cornmeal grits. Or local lamb loin, rib, and belly paired with a lamb bacon jam, heirloom white beans, roasted rutabaga purée, and tangelo-coriander chimichurri.

At Arcana, Colorado lamb meets heirloom Mortgage Lifter beans, rutabaga purée, and tangelo-coriander chimichurri. (Photo by Denise Mickelsen)

“My goal for myself and all the cooks [at Arcana] is to bring things to the table that won’t go out of style,” says McCandless. “We don’t want to work on fads, we want food that we can put our souls into, and that we can refine for the next 10 years.” To that end, McCandless is preparing to evolve that lobster-and-grits plate into one that highlights spring peas, and then summer tomatoes and peaches. A recent delivery of “beautiful” rhubarb inspired him to begin developing a rhubarb vinegar icebox pie. “We’re not going for elaborate presentations,” McCandless says. “The food should look good because it’s naturally good food. I want [it to be] intuitive.”

McCandless also plans to include at least one vegan option for every course on his menu. A former vegan himself, he wants guests adhering to a plant-based diet to feel cared for at Arcana. The decadent, coconut-milk-based “Arcana fudge pop” on the current dessert menu underscores that point—even omnivores won’t miss the dairy when faced with such a rich, generous treat, made with local Fortuna Chocolate and topped with crunchy toasted coconut.

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“I want that dialogue,” McCandless says, “with our guests and with my team. It’s a team’s heart that makes it a greater thing.”

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