Avenue Grill's Andrew Lubatty on the White House, offal, his way or the highway and the customer who lost his tooth
Lori Midson Avenue Grill executive chef Andrew Lubatty
The Avenue Grill
630 East 17th Avenue
Andrew Lubatty can't contain his excitement. The Avenue Grill executive chef is just hours away from boarding a plane and jetting off to Washington, D.C. -- specifically, the White House -- where he's joining eight more Colorado chefs, all of whom were invited to President Barack Obama's palatial estate for the "Chefs Move to Schools" pilot program kickoff, a component of Michelle Obama's Let's Move! Campaign to push proper nutrition and abolish childhood obesity.
"It's really an honor to be chosen," says Lubatty, even though the chef admits it's been a long time since his two school-aged children sucked down a school lunch. "My kids have really helped me to understand that the school lunch program needs to be fixed right away -- that it's a high priority," he stresses. "I'm not saying that the cooks have to start cranking out fresh pasta, but at least get them to do foods that aren't fried. The whole point of the pilot program is to get chefs to go into schools and teach the staff to cook better and healthier under tight budget constraints and within their skill levels," explains Lubatty, who also sits on the board of the local chapter of Share Our Strength's Operation Frontline, a nutrition-education nonprofit.
Born in Southampton, New York, the 47-year-old Lubatty has focused on food since he was thirteen, when he got his first gig, as pot scrubber, dishwasher and oyster and clam shucker. "It was an awful job that I did for the low, low price of two bucks an hour," recalls Lubatty, who continued working his way through top kitchens in New York, Arizona and California before moving to Denver in 1995. "I was living and working in Arizona and doing really, really well there," he recalls, "but after another stifling 107-degree day, I just looked at my wife, Robin, and said that we needed to get out, so we moved to Denver."
Despite the fact that they motored to Denver with "nothing lined up -- no job," Lubatty soon found what he was looking for at the Avenue Grill, whose kitchen he's governed for nearly fifteen years. "We've been through a lot together," says Lubatty, who's seen the restaurant undergo numerous changes. "The food was Southwestern when I started -- green chile, fajitas and burritos - and the restaurant was a lot more casual, with a lot of remnants from the '80s," he remembers. But on a trip to San Francisco in 1998, he and the owners decided to retool the space and the concept. "We bopped around a bunch of San Francisco restaurants," Lubatty recalls, "and, at the time, Southwestern food was getting the boot, so we came back to the Grill with a lot of new ideas and started adding new dishes to the menu -- a lot of them with an Asian bent -- and made the dining room a little more formal."
The one constant? The kitchen. "I hear so many chefs complain about how small their kitchens are, but I guarantee you that they haven't seen mine, which is tinier than a shoebox," he insists. "I used to hate it, but now I use it as an excuse to press ahead and challenge myself, a lot like we're going to have to do if we want to make sure that our kids start eating nutritiously at school," says Lubatty, who talks more about his journey to D.C., his fondness for rabbit, his first platter of offal, and customers and their teeth in the following interview.