Alex Seidel is not accustomed to using recipes.
“I had never had recipe books in my kitchen. It was always just teach to cook,” said the chef and owner of Fruition and Mercantile Provisions, two beloved restaurants in Denver where Seidel is a culinary star.
“I’ve been programmed to think, ‘Yeah. My labor’s going to be 40-45% and that’s just the way it is, and if it takes five minutes to create the salad, it takes five minutes to create the salad,’” Seidel added.
But that approach had to change when he was developing Chook Charcoal Chicken with business partner Adam Schlegel, who also is a founder of casual-dining breakfast-and-lunch chain Snooze A.M. Eatery.
Chook, which rhymes with “nook,” is Australian slang for chicken, and the restaurant is inspired by Schlegel’s years spent living in Melbourne, Australia. Some of his favorite meals for him, his wife and two kids were from corner shops that served affordable, tasty dishes where you knew where all the ingredients came from.
It took Schlegel a couple of years to get Seidel on board, but ultimately the idea of serving food of the same quality that he serves at his full-service restaurants in a format that more people could afford appealed to him.
“There are issues of food access, food quality, distribution, processing — the overall health of the food system. … Chook is really meant to tackle all of those challenges and provide good food to more people in more neighborhoods,” Seidel said.
Chook is also a certified B-corporation, meaning it needs to satisfy certain criteria around environmental sustainability and social equity, among other standards.
The restaurants serve rotisserie chicken, sourced from the same northern Indiana purveyor that sells chicken to Seidel’s other restaurants, cooked over a charcoal grill. It’s served with a global pantry of sauces, including traditional gravy of chicken stock reduction thickened with roux, chimichurri, piri-piri, barbecue sauce and a Mexican hot sauce called macha thickened with pumpkin seeds.
Sides include mac ’n’ cheese, mashed potatoes and gravy and potato wedges, but also grilled seasonal vegetables, charred vegetables seasoned with dukkah, celery-apple slaw and cucumbers with feta cheese, mint, cashews and red onion in a red wine vinaigrette. There are five different salads and four sandwiches, and falafel was added last October to appeal to vegetarians. Schlegel says the falafel is successful enough that they’re having trouble keeping up with demand and are now shopping for new machines.
The average per-person check is in the $13-$15 range.
The restaurants are now thriving, with three locations in three different Denver-area neighborhoods and a fourth soon to open in the south Denver suburb of Greenwood Village, Colo.
To a certain extent, Chook — which first opened in December of 2018 — was well-suited to the onset of the pandemic. With a mission to provide wholesome, delicious and affordable food to people who couldn’t afford Seidel’s other restaurants, the menu had been designed to streamline labor and keep food costs in line.
Take a tour of Chook below.
Although the menu looks complex, most of the vegetable dishes are based around cauliflower, broccoli and carrots.
“I worked on the brine recipe [for the chicken] for a long time, because a brine at Mercantile takes me a couple hours to make. The brine here, you fill up a five-gallon bucket of water and its done,” he said.
Seidel said that when they opened the second Chook location, he was surprised at how consistent the sauces remained, and it was also true with the third restaurant. The fourth location is going to be larger, with a commissary to produce all of the restaurants’ sauces and dressings, as well as falafel batter.
He’s in no rush to expand, however.
“We always look at this as one at a time. This is a restaurant, not a ‘concept,’” Seidel said.
But Schlegel said they would ultimately like to bring more good food to more people.
“We obviously believe a lot in what we do and can see Chook being really beneficial in a lot of communities,” he said. “The more that we do this, the better our poultry industry can be and the better opportunities we can give to our teams.”
Contact Bret Thorn at [email protected]
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