Colorado Cuisine: A How-to Guide

By Sean Kenniff


Sean Kenniff

For Kyle Mendenhall it begins with language. “Arcana’s menu is written in English,” he says. “There’s no ricotta on our menu, but there’s whipped buttermilk. There’s no vinaigrette, but there’s dressing. Americans like naming things. We’re good at it.”

Arcana: mysterious or specialized knowledge, language, or information accessible or possessed only by the initiate

Mendenhall is on a mission to drive the national conversation about cuisine, and ultimately to help define it. It says so on his restaurant’s website: “We fully believe that in years to come we will look back at this moment in our history and see it as the renaissance of American identity as it relates to food.” 

Language is important in this context because it implies intention. Mendenhall even has a Venn diagram that represents his mission. The use of this visual cue makes sense when you consider he was a classical oboist before becoming a chef. Mendenhall is as used to seeing and reading music as he is to playing and hearing it. The diagram is posted in his kitchen, like sheet music that informs how he and his team create and compose dishes using the overlapping parameters of Heritage, Season/Region, Relationships, and Preservation.

In practical terms, Mendenhall uses his Venn diagram to show how three dishes at Arcana articulate a new, modern, personal take on Colorado cuisine that is “bold, creative, and unflinchingly American.”   

Smoked finnan haddie: hard boiled egg, chive cream cheese, crown bread, cucumber, radish, lemon
I have a recipe book from my great grandmother with the first entry dating 1911. In it, she outlined how to simply prepare Finnan Haddie (smoked haddock). We used this as an inspiration. Finnan Haddie originally comes from Scotland, and made it to the United States by way of England. This is how we’re looking at our personal heritage.   

Season/Region: With Colorado being landlocked, using the haddock allows us to offer a fish that is available in winter at top-notch quality. It’s a great for cold months because it has a high fat content and it’s smoked.

Relationships: We get the haddock from our good friend Sue Buxton up in Stonington, Maine. We’re forced to rely on our relationships with those close to the coast. Sue and I have spent time together in Stonington and the communication is such that it’s like she’s just down the road. Preservation: This dish, in a sense, is preserving my own family cooking heritage. We know fresh fish does not last long, so it’s also an example of how people cure and smoke fish to preserve it. Lastly, it’s another item we can order for Sue, which helps us preserve our friendship. 

Masa dumplings, braised oxtail, guajillo and ancho chiles, brussels sprouts, winter green radish

Heritage: Masa was an important food for early Americans and has impacted cuisine in Colorado. We want to respect that history, but use it as a starting point to drive something new. Traditional masa dumplings were a little big in size, and I wanted to use masa in a way that was a little more elegant and subtle. I also missed making pastas from scratch and had the idea to use the masa like you would to make gnocchi. That wonderful corn flavor goes great with braised meats and chiles, as in a tamale. We use a lot of dried chiles at the restaurant and knew that making a mole-ish sauce would make a great complement to the dish. I am not well versed in cooking Mexican or Native American cuisine, so the dish, although with similar flavors to those cuisines, was really built from the ground up.

Season/Region: Because corn is easily dried and preserved, it’s something we can use in winter. We work with local friends who produce several heirloom varieties, and incorporate some red flint cornmeal into the dumpling that comes from a biodynamic farm just a few miles north of Boulder. We’ll often rotate the protein for the dish. If we have front legs of rabbits, we’ll cure and confit them. Pork shoulder we’ll braise. And once our butcher has saved enough Colorado oxtails, we’ll braise a batch. 

Relationships: Peter Waters owns a taco shop just down the street from us called T|aco. He’s grinding a lot of masa for house tortillas. He offered to bring by a bag of his fresh masa for me to play with. It was so good, we didn’t need to make our own. When I insisted we pay him for it, he said, “It's no big deal.” Waters comes into the restaurant often and loves our burger, so when he tries to pay we just tell him, “It's no big deal.”
Preservation: We are trying to preserve the history around masa and the actual corn itself, through our local farms and the relationship with T|aco.

Sugar steak: rutabaga mash, spigarello, salsify, fried mushroom, cheese oil, bulgarian carrot flakes

Our sugar steak combines two old-school techniques: a minute steak (usually a more affordable cut of beef sliced thinly so it cooks quickly and is more tender) and a sugar-marinated steak (a process to tenderize the meat and enhance the char). There’s a restaurant here in Denver that’s famous for its sugar steak called Bastien’s. The place dates back to 1937 and is one of Denver’s best kept secrets.Season/Region: All our beef comes from small, independent Colorado ranches and is available year round. We almost always run “thin meats,” because the ranchers need an outlet for them and most restaurants are only looking for prime cuts. I believe that if you’re doing a proper job as a chef, you can take those less known, less popular cuts and make something super tasty and give guests the chance to try something more interesting.

Season/Region: All our beef comes from small, independent Colorado ranches. We almost always run “thin meats,” because the ranchers need an outlet for them and most restaurants are only looking for prime cuts. If you’re doing a proper job, you can take those less known, less popular cuts and make something super tasty and give guests the chance to try something more interesting.

Relationships: The white salsify grows wild in Colorado. When farmer Marcus McCauley told me he had some, I was super excited. But when he dropped off the salsify, I was initially disappointed with the quality. The roots were very small, too small to work with in a traditional way. Many chefs would have immediately sent back the 10 pounds and asked for credit. McCauley would’ve probably composted it. I said, “If I can find a way to use it, we’ll pay for it.” This challenge made me a better chef. We were forced to find a technique that would give this otherwise “composted crop” an added value outlet. In the end, we had something special and different than any of us had seen or done before. We salt-baked the roots with aromatics. They turned out delicious! Something like a really good French fry, but with a more complex flavor and sweetness. It’s a great example of what we're trying to do at Arcana and in defining Colorado’s cuisine. 

Preservation: This dish really speaks to our desire to preserve our relationships with our producers. The produce needed a home, or he would have had to take a loss.

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