Cafe Option's Craig Dixon on women, Yelp-type restaurant reviews and his liver
1650 Curtis Street
Craig Dixon, chef of Cafe Options, is struggling. I've just asked him what it's like to work in a kitchen staffed predominantly by females -- the restaurant is a project of Work Options for Women, a local nonprofit that provides women with the necessary employment prowess to flourish in the food industry -- and, after thoughtful consideration and a few short stories about past girlfriends, he has an answer: "I've certainly learned good communication skills, you know, because of all those feelings and emotions. Gotta love developing those skills."
But it's working side-by-side with the hardworking women of Cafe Options that gives Dixon the most satisfaction. A Massachusetts-born, self-described Colorado ski bum who bounced around kitchens in Breckenridge before eventually settling down in Denver, Dixon says he loves working with people who are passionate about bettering their lives. "It's so unbelievably empowering when you can help others find a job, and the interns who work for me -- the ambassadors of this program -- get so fired up about learning new things and wanting to progress in this business," explains Dixon, whose interns spend four weeks working at Cafe Options before moving onward and upward.
"I would have been a fool had I not accepted this job," he admits. "I think the program is amazing, and I loved the idea of starting fresh with a new restaurant, building a menu and recipe books, and taking all the random things I've learned throughout my career and lending them to a restaurant that cares more about its people than anything else."
Support from the community has been overwhelming, an essential element when 100 percent of the proceeds from Cafe Options go to Work Options for Women. "It was a little tough during the first six months, but more and more people are coming in, because they know we're feeding them good food to help a good cause," Dixon says. It's a good day, he jokes, "when everyone in downtown comes here instead of Subway."
The fact that the staff scratch-makes several ingredients in-house is part of Cafe Options' allure. "We already make our own garbanzo beans for our hummus, our own pickles, sauerkraut and mustard, and I think our customers appreciate that, because it's healthier and just better," he says. Soon, Dixon will begin making his own mozzarella and curing his own meats; a rooftop herb and vegetable garden is in the works, too.
In this interview, Dixon talks about hanging out in his favorite Denver restaurants, orchestrating a battle between Rachael Ray and Martha Stewart (street cred vs. time), smoking lamb on his backyard griller and bolstering the benefits of butter.
Six words to describe your food: Fresh, healthy, simple, familiar and correctly seasoned.
Ten words to describe you: Journeyman, quirky, life of the party, who brought that guy?
Culinary inspirations: I grew up in a big family of big people, where food was always the center of our events and functions. Lobstermen and fishermen were the local industry while I was growing up, and still are today. I went to elementary school with kids who bemoaned eating lobster and cod seven days a week, and I'm pretty sure I'd eaten my weight in crab and lobster several times over by the time I was six. Crab boils, clam bakes and mountains of lobster would be laid out on newspaper-lined picnic tables, and many young Dixons and cousins would attack -- always victoriously. This was how we grew up, around the dinner table, so my wanting to be a part of all the cooking was a natural process. And I remember being a little kid and watching Julia Child and Jacques Pépin on the local PBS affiliate in Boston with my mom, thinking how cool it was that these TV personalities were excited about products so close to home: fish from Gloucester, Ipswich clams and local farms around Concord. And I loved that they both talked funny. It was in 1994, while I was ski-bumming in Breckenridge, that I first came into contact with food and a chef who really lit my culinary fire. It was a new fine-dining restaurant that opened with a couple of young, great chefs out of Miami, and I remember being amazed at the beauty of the demi-glace made from roasting pans full of bones and mirepoix -- amazed by the creativity and craft and exposure to classic techniques. I knew I wanted this as my life.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef: Opening a successful restaurant, Cafe Options, during an economic downturn was certainly big, but more important is having a job that allows me to help people who want to help themselves. The interns I train at Cafe Options, who come to me after working twelve weeks at the Work Options for Women program, are from various backgrounds, but are all working to rebuild their lives and to seize an opportunity to change their lives. There's a certain sense of pride that comes from seeing the women we teach become successful in the kitchen and, ultimately, self-sufficient. In fact, one of our recent interns is now a valuable employee at Tony's Market on Broadway.