Denver Chef Alex Seidel On Teamwork, Exploding Vinegar, And Finding Balance

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PHOTO: Alex Seidel Fruition, Mercantile Dining and Provisions
Denver chef Alex Seidel at his restaurant Mercantile Dining & Provisions inside Union Station.

This story first aired on July 29, 2016.

If Denver chef Alex Seidel wins a James Beard Award Monday, it will be one of the highlights of his career in the kitchen, most lately as chef and owner of Denver's Fruition and the new Mercantile Dining & Provisions in Union Station.

Boulder mainstay Frasca Food and Wine is also up for a James Beard Award. It is competing in the outstanding restaurant category against entries from New York, Chicago and Birmingham, Alabama.

We asked Seidel, a finalist in the category Best Chef: Southwest, not about his best moments in the kitchen, but about some of his worst. After all, even great chefs sometimes miss the mark. Julia Child embraced her mistakes on television -- and was lampooned by Dan Aykroyd on Saturday Night Live in the late 70s.

Audio of Seidel's conversation with host Nathan Heffel will be available soon. Edited highlights are below:

A memorable disaster at Fruition in its early days:

"I remember it being probably a 90-plus degree day. A Friday or Saturday night, I don't remember exactly. If you've ever been to Fruition, the kitchen is a shoe box. It's a tiny little kitchen. Five guys huddled in there like sardines and we're working, we're all hustling through service and are putting out all our plates. And we have a show counter where all the plates are plated on a nice little white linen tablecloth. Up above us there is a shelf and on that shelf was a glass bottle of balsamic vinegar.

It got so hot in the kitchen that that bottle of vinegar exploded in the middle of service. Drenched everybody with balsamic vinegar. Glass all over a plating surface. The food all had to be thrown away in the middle to service. The plates all had to be scraped and redone. It was interesting. [The patrons] can't know about those disasters. They're not expecting anything but a nice plate of food in a timely manner."

On his "no rules" rule in the kitchen:

"Part of our success at Fruition, at Mercantile, at The Farm and now at Food Mill, our newest venture, is really about the people. We wouldn't have the success without the people that make up all those places. And I've been very fortunate to be surrounded by a good group of -- a good team. And when we hire people that's what we're looking for. We're looking for professionals. We're looking for people who want to make this their career. And with that you get people who are dedicated to the craft. And for that, if you have those types of individuals in your atmosphere, in your culture, you know hopefully rules are -- rules are a little stuffy."

On the challenge of moving from the kitchen to the back office:

"You know, the last year of my life is certainly one that I've been looking inside myself. You go from one culture of 25 people every day and being a part of that culture and being invested in that team every single day, six days, seven days a week. And then you split yourself between two cultures. So it makes it challenging, also makes it challenging. I've certainly had my little bouts with, I guess, anxiety or you know taking that role from being a chef or being a cook -- you know that's all I know is cooking. And I've done it for 25-plus years. And now I'm kind of taking on different roles with the restaurants and overseeing all the operations and also working on advocacy and giving back to our community."

On trying to find balance:

"It's a good balance. I don't think I could ever last on the line every Friday or Saturday night with these young kids who are 23 years old that are are running these kitchens. They do a great job and I don't know if I have the speed to keep up with them anymore. "