Q&A: Chef Kelly Whitaker on his latest restaurant project for Stem Ciders

Project Highlight: The Park Tavern & Restaurant
January 11, 2018

Q&A: Chef Kelly Whitaker on his latest restaurant project
for Stem Ciders

— coming in 2018 —

Award-winning chef and restaurant owner, Kelly Whitaker, is doing wonders for the Colorado hospitality industry. In addition to founding Noble Grain Alliance, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting the use of domestic, milled-to-order grains, Whitaker owns a hospitality consultancy company that assists restaurants in curating unique restaurant experiences through the food, decor and overall flow of the restaurant.

We chatted with Whitaker about working with Made Furniture Studio owner, Donnie Criswell, and everyone else who participates in bringing his restaurant projects together, specifically the new Stem Ciders and Acreage project opening in Lafayette, CO later this month.

How are you contributing to the new Stem Ciders and Acreage restaurant in Lafayette, CO?

KW: Our group is the brainchild for bringing Stem Ciders' vision to life. We were brought onto the project to work with everything from theaesthetics to the experience to the menu to the furniture, and more, with an awesome team of architects.

 

What has the menu creating process been like for Acreage? Are you working with anyone else to bring it all together?

KW: I’m actually a cook but I get brought onto other projects quite often to bring together the project. Our group developed a concept with Stem and I brought in Daniel Asher [chef and partner at River & Woods] about a month ago. I’ve been working on the project for probably 8 months or more. I asked Daniel because it seems like his character and Colorado cuisine fit really well.

I gave Daniel a framework and said, “I bought this huge 10-foot wood-fired grill, plus this piece of equipment here and this is the sort of vibe that Stem and we’re all going for and then I asked him to fill in the blanks.” So Daniel jumped in and did just that. It’s a big, collaborative, awesome project.

 

 

What was your process like in establishing the flow of Stem Ciders and Acreage, specifically?

KW: With Donnie’s work and with the furniture as a whole, I broke up the experience into different 'zones'. So I looked at the space layout and thought, we’re up on a hill, we can see from Colorado Springs to Fort Collins, and we have these incredible mountain views.

It’s a counter service concept, which is very different and unique for this size of a restaurant, so I wanted to steer people into not getting too absorbed with the size of the space or anything like that.

I want people to be engaged with and see some of the food to understand what they are getting into. So, there’s this sort of 'meat on display' section - you’re holding onto a menu at that point and you’re getting a glimpse of the food - but you’re sort of captured in that first little zone up front.

I wanted to make sure the counters were high and the meat case was high because I didn’t want to get into the second part which is the wood-fired oven, the cider bar, and all of these other things. I really wanted you to be engaged in the first part, which is ordering. I wanted the space, as you walked through it, to sort of open up to different experiences.

Outside of the ordering experience, it’s these long massive beer hall/cider hall type tables and that was something I felt like, if you walked in and saw, it would signal right away. What I didn’t want to do is wrap people up into the view so much; I want them to be wrapped up with each other. I want this communal vibe where you're sitting across from somebody and you see over their shoulder to the wood-fired ovens.

Stem Cider Acreage Made Furniture Studio

I intentionally dropped the counter two and a half feet so you can perfectly see the wood-fired oven. You don’t really notice it when you come in but once you sit on that long communal table, you’re looking at the friend across from you and you’re also seeing the cider bar and the wood fire.

Instead of putting random four-top tables everywhere, it was very intentional that this wasn’t just another communal table. When you go to the back there are low lying booths that I expressed to Donnie, "This is what I feel like," and Donnie came up with these amazing designs.

Stem Cider Acreage Made Furniture Studio

Once you go out to the patio, it’s chill and casual and you’re - at that point - 100% absorbed in where you’re at. There will be apple orchards and a lot of outdoor activities and different things. We also have a  private room that is view facing.

 

How do you decide who you are going to bring in to participate in a project like this?

KW: It’s about crafting experience. I spend a lot of time in this realm of looking at spaces and understanding spaces. It's when you put a good team of architects and furniture builders [together], and you start dreaming this stuff up, and everybody brings it to light. Sometimes the partners we bring on aren’t as passionate about the project as we are, so we end up switching. If we don’t like the team, we'll change it.

Then when the grill starts going, and we light the fire and all that stuff starts happening, people say, “Kelly is the cook.” But really I'm not because we try not to open 'our' restaurant and [instead] open Stem’s restaurant.

 

Is it challenging to work on a client’s restaurant without feeling tempted to make it the way you would want your own restaurant to be? How do you keep the client’s vision in the forefront?

KW: I've learned about making the client's vision come to life and not my own through trial and error. When I first started doing this I got caught up in what I thought was great and I lost sight of what the person thought was great. The more projects like these that I work on, the easier it is to know what it means to bring someone else's vision to life.

 

Why do you choose to work with Made Furniture Studio for the restaurants you open yourself and for those you consult on?

KW: What's great about Donnie is in a lot of the things we do, we're trying to push what the future feels like.

Donnie doesn't have to totally understand what I'm thinking to go down the path with me. He trusts that there is a vision even if he doesn’t get it at first. He's not afraid to accept that things change even at the last second.

I push Donnie and we have a great working relationship - he's incredibly reliable With a shared vision, I feel like every time we work together, we're going to get to someplace that I didn't know or plan for because he pushes me back and its that type of conversation that I love. In the end, you end up with this phenomenal product. Like I said, the piece of furniture really greatly affects that food that is being served there. It's the same as the relationship with your farmer. I look at knowing my farmer the same way as knowing my furniture maker.

 

How do you keep interior of the restaurants you opened years ago relevant?

KW:There's an upgrade thing that needs to happen to keep restaurants relevant. What I like, too, is that Donnie's not going to come in and say, "Well, let's do all of the chairs now," but he'll say, "When it's time and when it's right, let's continue to evolve the space."

While Donnie didn't start with us on Basta, over time he has come in and - one piece at a time - has made the space better.Donnie didn't start with us on , but over time he has come in and one piece at a time has made the space better.

 

Thank you for the interview, Kelly! We can't wait for the opening of Stem Ciders and Acreage at the end of February!

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