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Basta chef-owner Kelly Whitaker has his hands in many projects, but he’s so humble and understated that often the public is unaware of his breadth. Take, for example, his upcoming restaurant Wolf’s Tailor in Sunnyside (slated to open February/March-ish), or the vision he (along with Duncan Holmes of Frasca Food and Wine) brought to the forthcoming Beckon | Call on Larimer Street, or his launch of the Noble Grain Alliance. And just yesterday it was announced that Whitaker has been collaborating with Stem Ciders (and has signed Daniel Asher of River & Woods and formerly Root Down, Linger, Vital Root, and Ophelia’s) on Acreage, the cidery’s new restaurant in Lafayette.
Amid all that, Whitaker has quietly experienced one of the highlights of his career: Basta’s farro piccolo risotto (a risotto-like dish made with farro rather than rice) is now being served at In Situ, the Michelin-starred San Francisco restaurant from famed chef Corey Lee (also of Benu, and Monsieur Benjamin). “I’m so proud of this,” Whitaker says. “It’s one of the proudest things I’ve ever done.”
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So why does it matter that a Boulder chef’s dish is getting play at another restaurant in another city? It matters because it’s In Situ, the restaurant inside the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where the entire menu showcases the work of the world’s best chefs. Just as the museum displays the prized work of many artists, the restaurant functions in the same way, culling the best-of-the-best dishes, studying them, and duplicating them. “They’re all borrowed dishes,” Whitaker explains. “Nothing is unique, everything is exactly the format of the original restaurant. That’s the kind of thought that gives In Situ that caliber.”
And, as Whitaker tells it, this all came about somewhat by accident. He originally wrote Lee asking if he could stage at In Situ. Lee responded that although museum contracts prevent such internships, he’d like to put Basta’s piada, Whitaker’s wood-fired bread made from hand-milled grain, on the menu. Whitaker flew to San Francisco with his treasured dough starter to teach the In Situ crew how to make the bread, including a crash course in milling. “Every day we were in basement of Benu [which is next door] training three of chefs how to use the mill,” Whitaker says. “I couldn’t believe I was teaching these guys to understand heirloom wheat when they’re ridiculous chefs.” Usually Lee travels to a restaurant himself to learn and master a dish, but this experience felt like a true collaboration, Whitaker says.
The piada will find its way onto In Situ’s menu later this winter but in the meantime, the restaurant needed a hearty vegetarian dish to replace two Michelin–starred chef French chef Mauro Colagreco’s acclaimed dish the Forest. Whitaker suggested the farrotto, and got to work on it. The biggest challenge was where Basta’s only cooking source is a wood-fired oven, In Situ didn’t have one. Whitaker tasted that difference most keenly in the ricotta salata that tops the dish. At Basta, the cheese picks up the smokiness of the oven, delicately imparting that flavor. At In Situ, after considering toasting the farro, Whitaker settled on cold-smoking the cheese. “I wanted smoke without seeing it,” Whitaker says. The final look of the dish was important too. “I explained that we do tiny strokes of cheese on microplane because it looks like snowfall, which is very Colorado.”
Such validation of one of Colorado’s best chefs is certainly worth celebrating. But you don’t have to travel to San Francisco to taste Whitaker’s handiwork—the farro piccolo risotto goes back on Basta’s menu tonight.
3601 Arapahoe Ave., Boulder, 303-997-8775