The Fort's Geoffrey Groditski on his $40,000 mistake, raw bull's balls and how pine nuts make him puke
This is part one of my interview with Geoffrey Groditski, executive chef of The Fort. Part two of my interview with Groditski will run in this space tomorrow.
Less than 24 hours before the Valentine's Day stampede, the kitchen at the Fort is in a state of perfectly controlled chaos, preparing for the Sunday night pre-show. Executive chef Geoffrey Groditski is expecting to feed nearly 400 mouths tonight, and 450 more on February 14, but the skyscraping number doesn't seem to worry him in the slightest. "We're used to it," he says, adding that with nine guys on the line, they can handle the crush -- and impending Valentine's Day proposals. "Every year we get loads of them," he attests.
Groditski, of course, would be running the line on Valentine's Day, cooking a four-course dinner, including buffalo filet mignon, for which the Fort, open since 1963, is known. But cooking is a craft he fell into strictly by accident -- and interestingly, it all started at the Fort. "My very first job was here, as a dishwasher, when I was sixteen," he recalls, "but after a year, I left and said that I'd never work in a restaurant again. I didn't like being dirty and wet, and washing dishes isn't exactly a lot of fun."
But soon he was back in the kitchen. "A friend of mine was working as a busboy at the Country Broker, and he convinced me that being a busboy was a lot better than being a dishwasher, and I needed a job, so I took it," he recalls. And he hung around for several years, starting as a busboy, moving his way up to pantry and eventually landing a gig as a grill cook. "I was working there six days a week and started to actually have fun," says Groditski, who worked at the Country Broker until it closed in the mid-'90s.
He bumped from kitchen to kitchen after that, soaking up fancy French food at Chateau Pyrenees, Italian grub at Fratelli's and steaks at the DTC Broker -- all of which are now gone. Then he decided that he might be a good candidate for culinary school, so he joined the like-minded fray at the Art Institute of Colorado. And then he dropped out. "I had hoped that it would give me the tools to move up and become an executive chef, but I left, because everything that I thought I'd get out of it, I didn't," he says, calling it "the $40,000 mistake."
Still, he enjoyed cooking and wanted to stay in the kitchen, so he returned to familiar scenery: the Fort, where he was hired as a line cook. And then he left -- again. "I didn't feel like there were any opportunities, at least at the time, to move up, so I moved out," he remembers. He finally snagged an exec-chef position at Pasta's, where he stayed until 2004, just before it closed, and then went back to -- guess where? -- the Fort. "I still had friends here, and there's a real family atmosphere," he says, "so, yeah, I came back as a line cook, worked my way up to sous chef and then executive chef," a position he's held since 2009. "I love surrounding myself with passionate people -- they keep me going -- and this is a kitchen where we get excited together, play together and create new food together," says Groditski. Fort founder Sam Arnold, who passed away in 2006, ran his restaurant the same way that Groditski tries to run his kitchen: "Sam was the kind of guy who would talk to you no matter who you were, and he knew everyone's name. He cared about his staff a lot, and this restaurant was his life."
In the following interview, we take a peek into Groditski's own life -- a life that includes a tremendous amount of butter, customers who ask for raw bull's balls, and ritualistic she's hot/she's not debates at Hooters.