Chef John Bissell has spent two illustrious years running the kitchen at OAK at Fourteenth. During that time, he put his signature on seven of the finest seasonal menus to have emerged from the restaurant since it was first opened by Chef Steve Redzikowski in 2010. From the time of its debut, OAK has been the area’s premier location for seasonal, wood-fired American food and inventive cocktails. The eatery recently put out its winter menu, which will be the last by Bissell before he leaves for Portland with plans to open his own spot. He will continue to cook at OAK through Saturday, Feb. 11.
Bissell grew up in Black Forest, Colorado, and has steadily amassed a serious culinary pedigree since working as an overnight cook at King Soopers while attending the University of Colorado. He’s gone on to work at both Mountain Sun and Southern Sun before joining the opening team at Denver’s sorely missed temple for all things meat, Old Major. He then proceeded to cook at the now-shuttered Acorn during its golden era, where he worked alongside Anette’s Caroline Glover and Bar Dough’s Russell Stippich. It was there he found an important mentor in chef Amos Watts, who has continued to shape the Front Range’s culinary scene with the launch of eclectic LoHi eatery The Fifth String in 2020. Bissell’s path took him to Los Angeles where he cooked classic French cuisine under celebrity chef Ludo Lefebvre at both the famed Trois Mec and its 12-seat counterpart Petit Trois. He returned to take the helm at OAK in May 2021.
Bissell recently accepted a position with Josh McFadden’s Portland-based Submarine Hospitality. Beginning this month, he will help McFadden reopen Ava Gene’s, McFadden’s vegetable-centered trattoria that came in fifth on Bon Appetit’s Best New Restaurants in America in 2013. The space has been closed since the early days of the pandemic. McFadden gained fame for his award-winning 2017 cookbook Six Seasons: A New Way With Vegetables.
Once Ava Gene’s is up and running, Bissell will pivot into establishing his own space, a breakfast and lunch joint in the Ace Hotel downtown. Under the name Stones Throw, Bissell will focus on bread, charcuterie, pastries, Japanese breakfast sandwiches, Roman-style focaccia and salad shakers. “My dream has always been to open a sandwich shop,” Bissell says. “You gotta do the formal stuff before you do the casual stuff,” he continues, noting that he hopes Stones Throw will open toward the end of the summer with a “refined convenience store vibe.”
Bissell’s influence at OAK has been substantial. He’s created some truly virtuoso menus, each one better than the last. “I’ve become more confident trusting the ingredients. Less bells and whistles and more focus on solid technique,” says the chef, though he contends that his greatest contribution has been in reshaping the restaurant’s culture. “Not to say that I’ve become obsolete, but at this point the cooks and the sous chefs carry the entire restaurant,” he says with a smile. “I wouldn’t be ready to leave if I didn’t think this place was 100% set up for success.”
In the interim, folks will be seeing more of Chef Redzikowski, with OAK’s four sous chefs — Chelsey Mascchoff, Arturo Bancalari, Reuben Tomlins and Devin Donohue — executing the crescendo that is Bissell’s parting selection of shared plates and entrees.
Bissell says the menu was largely inspired by the cuisines of Scandinavia, Nepal and the Upper Midwest. The steelhead salmon crudo with blood orange, chili lime vinaigrette, thinly-sliced serrano and mint is a good place to start and a nice example of Bissell’s ability to reference a variety of cooking styles while still making wholly original dishes. From there, the Belgian endive salad comes intricately dressed with blue cheese dressing, candied walnut, dill and a healthy portion of freshly-grated horseradish. The kale salad is a menu staple from day one, though the Berkshire pork capicola might be a better way to experience Bissell’s real knack for house-cured meats. While it’s easy to fill up on shared plates, it’s worth saving room for the Oak Roasted Alaskan Halibut, which comes atop a thick chowder base dotted with Calabrian chile oil.
With this list, Bissell made a point of presenting his kitchen staff with a greater degree of ownership. “This is the first menu I’ve given my sous chefs a chance to get items on. My biggest thing with this was giving the staff a voice more and more,” he says. The grilled Spanish octopus with maitake mushroom and pumpkin seeds is drenched in a cole coloradito developed by Bancalari.
Libation-wise, do not leave without getting the Mononoke, an ingenious concoction of Szechuan-peppercorn-infused Ohishi Sakura Cask Whisky, yuzu, shiso leaf and umeboshi plum gastrique under a thick blanket of green tea egg white foam.
While Bissell has left some big shoes to fill, guests can expect a new menu by a new chef to arrive come springtime.