About two weeks ago, Matt Vawter was sharing tastes of the restaurant’s new menu with the Mercantile Dining & Provision staff. After the last dish was served, co-owner and executive chef Alex Seidel made an announcement: He was stepping down as executive chef and transferring the title to Vawter. “It’s a great transition and one I’ve been thinking about for a while,” Seidel says. “It’s 12 years of working together and really seeing Matt grow and mature into a leader. I don’t want him to be under my umbrella or my shadow—he’s Matt Vawter.”
Vawter, who knew about the title change, said the promotion is very special. “I immediately felt an increased sense of ownership and validation,” he says. Already a partner in Mercantile and the driving force in the kitchen, he was nonetheless surprised by the emotions that surfaced when Seidel broke the news.
This is a classic case of hard work and determination paying off. Vawter, who grew up in Summit County and graduated from the Colorado Mountain College Culinary Institute in Keystone, started working in kitchens at the age of 14. After cooking at Alpenglow Stube in Keystone and the Cellar in Breckenridge, he applied for a job at Fruition when he was 22. “I did a stage, and I was blown away by how hard everyone was pushing in that kitchen,” Vawter says. “I knew I wanted to be part of something like that.” He was hired on as garde-manger (the cold appetizer station) and before long he was working hot apps, then the grill, and then full-fledge cooking on the line.
After about six years at Fruition, Vawter felt it might be time to move on. Seidel asked him to stay and promised that opportunities were on the horizon. Before long, Vawter was made a partner in the restaurant that would eventually become Mercantile. And when the Union Station restaurant opened nearly five years ago, Vawter helmed the kitchen with the title of chef de cuisine. “When we opened, my goal was to run to the kitchen and make it my own,” Vawter says. “Certainly with Alex, but I was at that point where I was hungry and would do whatever it took to make it great.”
Supreme confirmation came last year when Seidel won the 2018 James Beard Foundation Award for Best Chef: Southwest at Mercantile. Seidel immediately praised Vawter for his work and dedication to his craft. “Matt is very serious and very disciplined; he’s young but he’s got an old-school mindset and he understands history and respect,” Seidel says. “He understands the self-motivation that is sometimes lost today. When you put all those things together, you rise to the top.”
As for Seidel, he’ll still be heavily involved with the restaurant but the move frees up time for him to focus on overall vision and the multiple entities he’s created: Fruition, Fruition Farms, Füdmill, Chook, and Mercantile. “I’m constantly back and forth between Mercantile, Fruition, and Chook,” he says, while getting ready to jump on the line at the latter. Seidel is also working on a second location of Mercantile, slated to open in Concourse A at the Denver International Airport next year.
For Mercantile diners, it’ll be business as usual (though the menu has been slightly reformatted to make way for more small plates), because Vawter, a fixture in the open kitchen since day one, will continue to be so.
Union Station, 1701 Wynkoop St., Ste. 155, 720-460-3733