Blood, sweat and cheers

Chefs and cooks offer a slice of reality about life in Boulder’s back-of-house


Before my career in culinary journalism, I was a Boulder restaurant cook. I was burned by hot fryer oil, injured in walk-in freezers, sliced off fingerprints, and dripped until my sweat ran dry. I also learned the nature of omelets, soups and sauces, and the drug-like high of feeding a crowd of people from a tiny kitchen. It was addictive, but always came at a cost. 

Two things have always seemed true to me as a cook and a critic: Most people have no idea what actually happens in restaurant kitchens to make those hot, crispy onion rings arrive promptly at your table. Waiters, bartenders and hosts get most of the glory and the money, not the easy-to-blame cooks and dishwashers hidden in the “back of the house.”

In honor of Labor Day, Boulder Weekly gave local chefs and cooks some space to talk about the ups and downs of Boulder kitchen work in their own words. 

Zak Amadeus: ‘It’s more like a pack  of wolves’ 

Zak Amadeus is a culinary artisan at Colorado’s Dark Steele Gastro Arts Catering. Amadeus has cooked at the Boulder Dushanbe Tea House and Spice of Life Catering:

“There is a lot the public doesn’t see and can’t comprehend. You button up your chef coat as you enter the kitchen. You have a huge dedication to your crew, but it’s more like a pack of wolves. Somehow, this wolf pack pulls it together to do all the work required to execute an astonishing meal that appears in front of each guest. The diners imagine a magical red button that produces food instantaneously.

Salaried restaurant chef life can take everything you have and crumble it into the fire. The sound of the machine spitting out order tickets keeps you up at night. With catering, I’ve cooked in castles, mansions, night clubs, wildlife preserves and backstage at music festivals, and I’ve fed Harrison Ford, Jack Johnson, the governor and Fat Joe. I’ve found [catering] to be way more rewarding.”

Tony Hessel: ‘Knife wounds, burns and bad knees’

Tony Hessel is the executive chef at Brasserie Ten Ten in Boulder. He has run kitchens at West Flanders Brewing Company, Pour La France, Via Perla and other restaurants. He crafted the famous happy hour menu at the now-closed Mediterranean Restaurant:

Tony Hessel

“I’m 59 now. I was at work at 2 a.m. today to bake bread for service, even though we also get bread from a bakery. I also make all the pastries — but I’m happy every day when I get up. It’s the career that I wanted since I was a kid. I’m the insane one who’s still doing it because I like the kitchen.

When you’re young, you work 18-hour shifts and two jobs because you’re gonna live forever. In my late 40s, I had a heart attack, a wake-up call that you cannot push yourself 24/7, 365 days a year. Nowadays, I have to physically maintain my body to work my shifts. Over the years there have also been knife wounds, burns, bad knees and a dislocated ankle.

Most customers don’t understand that they’re just one of many customers waiting on [food from] the kitchen. They don’t see the line of tickets or hear all the screaming and yelling. When people come back to see me, they are always surprised how hot and small the kitchen is. 

Customers are unaware of the dance, that it takes nine people working 12 hours to put together your food. People work sick, people work injured, and accidents happen almost on a daily basis in a kitchen.

When they complain about prices, guests don’t know that every food purveyor adds a fuel charge to [my] order just to show up in [my] back door. It may be just a plate of fries, but Kennebec potatoes — which used to be $30 — is now $70 a case.

Luckily, our regulars are the most wonderful people in the world.”

Paolo Neville: ‘It’s where I feel most at home’

Chef Paolo Neville is the owner of Lafayette’s Urban Hot Dog Collective and has run kitchens at 95a Bistro, Brasserie Ten Ten and The Med:

“I’m a bit of an adrenaline junky. Working in kitchens, there is a constant timeline on everything you do, whether it’s getting ready for service or keeping the ticket times fast in the middle of a rush. If I’m methodical, it can be smooth and easy. One downside of a chef’s life is I’ve lost touch with old friends because I’m always busy nights and weekends. The kitchen for me is my safe and healing place. It’s just where I feel most at home.”

‘A very strange time for restaurants’

One longtime Boulder chef agreed to share their experiences anonymously:  

“I think it is a very strange time for restaurants. It’s a tough business with labor and food costs through the roof along with more regulations. For customers, this tipping thing is very confusing with all the additional fees on your bill. I don’t think it is the customer’s job to think about who gets paid what.”


John Hinman: ‘Watching a customer take that first bite’

John Hinman is the owner and head baker at Hinman Pie. He was a pastry chef at Roy’s, Vesta Dipping Grill, and The Post in Lafayette: 

“The best thing about cooking and baking is watching a customer take that first bite and catching the thought on their face when they taste something for the first time. The worst thing is when that face makes a sour look. I do wish customers appreciated the hours required to source ingredients and produce the dish. Sometimes people say: ‘You know what you should do?’ And my reply is always: ‘You should buy my company and you may do whatever you like.’ “ 

(A young) James Van Dyk.

James Van Dyk: ‘Buy the dirt’

James Van Dyk is the former owner/chef of the Gateway Cafe in Lyons and has worked as a chef at Lucky’s Cafe, Greenbriar Inn and other eateries from New York City to Japan:

“Sadly, I physically can’t work in a kitchen any longer, but I will forever be grateful for the traveling opportunities and friends I made along the way. So many wonderful loyal guests supported me. My advice to the new chefs entering the business is to never stop learning, study the classics, and always have a plan B. If your dream is to open your own place, buy the dirt.”

John Lehndorff cooked in numerous Boulder eateries including the Greenbriar Inn, Café Circolo, Potter’s, Good Taste Crepe Shop, Alpha Phi Sorority and Savory Spice Catering. 

Previous articleJack’s Solar Garden: Keep on the sunny side 
Next articleThe new preference