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'Top Chef' takes on Denver, where food scene is reaching new heights

Lori Rackl, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Travel News

Milk Market is part of the larger Dairy Block development that includes The Maven Hotel, a funky 172-room property that debuted earlier this year. How funky? The lobby has an Airstream trailer where guests can fetch a free beer or margarita in the evening. Overnight rates start at $189.

The Maven is where the "Top Chef" cast holed up during filming. Lakshmi, the show's host, stayed in the Diamond Suite, a massive space decked out with a few tasteful baseball references and a baller view of the Colorado Rockies' home field.

Head judge Tom Colicchio, I'm told, liked to hang out by that funky Airstream in the lobby, reading a book and sipping whiskey.

The "Top Chef" contestants stayed in another part of town called Cherry Creek, which I'm happy to report doesn't go by ChCr.

This tony neighborhood full of shops is where "Top Chef" Season 12 runner-up Gregory Gourdet last year opened a Denver outpost of his forward-thinking restaurant, Departure. (The original is in Portland, Ore.) Eating here is like taking your taste buds on a whirlwind tour of Asia: wok-fired Thai sausage and fried rice, steaming bowls of Korean bibimbap, skewers of octopus and jackfruit grilled over petrified Japanese charcoal. Vegan, gluten-free, paleo -- no problem. Also: sushi and dim sum: The moist chicken wings with a sweet chile glaze are a house favorite.

Departure is on the ground floor of the Halcyon Hotel, another good option to bed down during a Denver visit. Opened last year, the Halcyon has a rooftop pool and 154 guestrooms that feel less hotel, more cool condo. A "gear garage" in the lobby is stocked with big-kid toys, such as extra-long skateboards, vinyl records (rooms have turntables) and cruiser bicycles you can borrow for a spin on the nearby Cherry Creek Bike Path. Overnight rates start at $299.

Departure -- and chef Gourdet -- will be getting some "Top Chef" airtime. The sleek restaurant is the site of an elimination challenge, when one unlucky cheftestant will be told to pack his or her knives and go.

Lots of heavy hitters in Denver's dining scene will make cameos throughout the season. Among them: Bonanno, whose restaurant empire includes several addresses in historic Larimer Square, where "Top Chef" cameras rolled during a food festival competition. We'll also be seeing "Top Chef Masters" 2013 finalist Jennifer Jasinski, as well as 2017 James Beard Award semifinalist Alex Seidel, a Wisconsin guy who hightailed it out West not long after college.

"I left Milwaukee on Amtrak with four boxes and a bike," Seidel said. He eventually ended up in Denver in 2002.

"When I first moved to Denver from Vail, I felt like I took a step back," he said. "At the restaurant, I was working at, we were serving salmon on mashed potatoes; it wasn't great food."

Seidel opened his own place, Fruition, a little over a decade ago near the Capitol Hill area. A couple of years later he bought a 10-acre farm south of the city, where he raises animals, fruits and vegetables for Fruition, as well as his newer eatery, Mercantile, in the city's impeccably restored Union Station.

"Just in the last two years, we started the Union Station farmers market," Seidel said. "It's unbelievable to say this -- but it was Denver's first producer-only farmers market."


"Top Chef" filmed at Seidel's farm in Larkspur, where he once had as many as 130 sheep. Decadently high in butterfat, sheep milk is the basis for the rich, artisan cheese he produces under the Fruition Farms Creamery label. The ricotta and feta are especially dreamy.

In a "Top Chef" elimination challenge in the fourth episode, teams have to create a four-course meal, with each course featuring a different cheese from Fruition Farms. The dinner takes place at Mercantile.

"My 10-year-old son is a judge on the show," he said, smiling with pride.

I tried to convince Seidel that his cheese-making skills must stem from his Wisconsin roots.

He wasn't buying it.

"I never lived on a farm; I grew up in Racine playing soccer," said Seidel, another transplant making his mark on ever-changing Denver.

"Technically, yes, I'm a Cheesehead," he said, "but Colorado is home now."

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