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We might have Grasshopper Pie to thank for Paul Reilly’s rise as one of Denver best and most respected chefs. He was about 10 when he spotted the recipe on the back of a Keebler cookie package and asked his mom to help him make it for Christmas Eve dinner.
That green pie served as the gateway to culinary exploration that soon grew to include Italian dressing and casseroles—all under his mom’s watch. And she was no slouch in the kitchen. Reilly, and his sister Aileen, who co-owns Beast & Bottle and Coperta with him, grew up in an 1820s colonial home in Westchester County, New York, that buzzed with people. “It was nicknamed the Reilly Inn because people were constantly coming and going,” Reilly says. “It was a big dinner party all the time. There was always something on the grill or braising in the Dutch oven. And there was always, always music.”
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A love of cooking and entertaining continued into college when Reilly worked as a short-order cook. Those stints eventually led to more restaurant jobs, including at the late Mirepoix (in the St. Julien Hotel), Mona’s, and Black Pearl, before Reilly landed at Encore next to the Tattered Cover on Colfax Avenue. There he was promoted to executive chef. When the opportunity came to buy the restaurant, Reilly called his sister Aileen, who was working front-of-the-house in Los Angeles, and asked if she would join him. Thus, the dynamic duo that brought Denver Beast & Bottle (which turned five last week) and Coperta was formed.
This was also the beginning of Reilly stretching and discovering the chef he could become. He expanded into more seasonal fare and began buying local meat. During a conversation with goat farmer Teresa Beemer of Ewe Bet Ranch, she suggested he buy whole animal. “I was going home and having nightmares. I’m going to have to cut this lamb up, I’m going to mess it up,” Reilly says. “I did a hack job but I could tell what I was doing wrong and every time I did it, I got better.”
And as Reilly got better at butchering, his cooking improved too. Soon braised lamb shoulder, neck tacos, and T-bones were showing up as specials. As the dishes caught on, Reilly realized a whole restaurant could be constructed around this idea: The seed for Beast & Bottle was planted. To date, many of Beast’s dishes, like the lamb ragu and house made sausage, came from those Encore days.
Read on for three more things you likely didn’t know about Reilly:
- On eggs…I was a short order cook in college. I liked the hours and the speed. I was making omelets, crêpes, eggs every way. Most chefs don’t like cooking eggs because they’re hard at high temp, and at high speed is brutal. I got good at it. I’ve always worked in restaurants that had brunch and that question, “Do you have egg experience” is a real thing. Either you have egg experience or you don’t. Can you cook 80 eggs at six different temperatures at the same time?
- On Jean-Georges Vongerichten…My dad had gotten a fairly big promotion, and it was ‘Hey, congrats, and by the way you’re hosting the company Christmas gathering.’ There was panic and excitement because this dinner had to be really amazing. My mom hired this upstart caterer in Westchester County named Jean-Georges Vongerichten. Party went off and it made my parents look amazing. Flash forward 20 years, my mom is at our house looking at my cookbooks. And she says, ‘Oh, Jean-Georges has a cookbook? I’m glad he did pretty well for himself.’ And I’m like ‘Mom, what the heck? He has three four-star restaurants.’
- Menus as albums… I remember the day I dug into my parents vinyl collection. I was 12. I would look at the cover art, and I’d play the album in its entirety and wonder how come the artist picked this track to play after that track. I’m still mesmerized by it. The full album experience, that’s totally lost on the younger generation. The artist made 10 other songs [not just the one that shows up on Spotify or Pandora]. An artist making an album is like a chef making a menu. It has to flow. I have to see and hold a menu before I can approve it.