The artistry of food and hospitality with Chef Kelly Whitaker
Born and raised in Tulsa, Oklahoma, award-winning chef Kelly Whitaker grew up spending summers on his grandfather’s vegetable farm and felt pulled towards the culinary arts. With a mission to deepen his understanding of food and its impact on people and the planet, he traveled abroad to hone his skills with various mom-and-pop restaurants. He eventually returned to the U.S. and applied his learnings toward opening his own wood fired pizza shop in Boulder, Colorado and starting the hospitality group, Id Est. Today, Id Est has grown to three restaurants and a bakery/grainery. In this episode, Kelly sits down with Alan to discuss the give and take of turning your passion into an empire, advocacy kitchens, challenging the paradigm of the restaurant industry, and the power of seeing yourself as an artist.
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ABOUT KELLY WHITAKER
Chef Kelly Whitaker holds a degree in Hospitality Management from Colorado State University, but his real schooling was gleaned in international kitchens. Early in his career, he studied abroad at Hotel Institute Montreux in Switzerland. This led him to his first culinary stint in Italy on the island of Procida, off the coast of Naples. It was there he fell in love with simple, wood-fired eateries, and the joy of taking care of guests. He changed his focus and moved to Los Angeles, where he perfected his craft as an opening cook at the one-Michelin-starred Hatfield’s and as a fish cook with the two-Michelin-starred Providence. In 2009, Whitaker moved to Boulder, Colorado and co-founded Id Est Hospitality Group.
Kelly believes strongly in responsibly sourcing ingredients: he is an active member and local leader of the national organization Chefs Collaborative; he also sits on the Blue Ribbon Task Force for Monterey Bay Seafood Watch and founded the nonprofit Noble Grain Alliance, dedicated to promoting the use of domestic milled-to-order grains. He is committed to demonstrating a commitment to a zero-waste environment, changing the way materials flow through his businesses and planet: implementing sustainability practices in menu planning, service, and design.
Kelly has received local, regional and national acclaim; in 2014, Kelly was named Chef of the Year by Eater Denver and received the Heart of the Collaborative award from Chefs Collaborative. In 2015, he was named 5280’s Best Chef. In 2016, he was again named Chef of the Year by Eater Denver for both the Readers and Editor’s choice categories. In September 2018,The Wolf’s Tailor opened its doors in Denver’s Sunnyside neighborhood, followed by Dry Storage, BØH, and BRUTØ. In 2020, Kelly was recognized by the James Beard Foundation with a nomination for Best Chef: Southwest.
R. Alan Brooks (00:00):
Hey, I'm R. Alan Brooks, a writer and professor. This is How Art is Born, an MCA Denver podcast about the origins of artists and their creative and artistic practice. My guest today is Kelly Whitaker, who is a hardcore revolutionary culinary aesthetic artist. I just put all those words together, just looking at you. I was like, "Yeah."
Kelly Whitaker (00:33):
Yeah, can you repeat that? Because I'm going to change my email signature page because that was better than what I have. Amen.
R. Alan Brooks (00:41):
That's a lot of syllables to put on a business card.
Kelly Whitaker (00:43):
It's cool. We'll use an acronym, but it's worth putting on there.
R. Alan Brooks (00:48):
Right. I want to learn about you and your art practice. A lot of times, people have this sort of narrow idea of what art is, but if we think of art as a creative expression, certainly what you do falls into it. And so hopefully, people listening during this time will get to explore kind of how it feels like art to you. So how did you get started in the culinary world?
Kelly Whitaker (01:17):
Culinary was always interesting to me, whether I was making a bagel or thinking about what I want to do with my life. But the theme throughout my life has been hospitality. It's been driven by people. I love the fact that we're here today talking about artists and not chef or being put in a box of what sometimes feels like I'm like CEO because I have four or five businesses now. And there's obviously a push and pull that has been going on in the last five years of my life when you start to get pulled away from the kitchen a little bit, or the things that you get into this business for. And so my path was like starting out in the way that it was kind of people first and some planet stuff.
Kelly Whitaker (02:12):
So I always like to think of people, planet, existence, what's around me, so I'm kind of coming full circle with the idea that I can not just be a chef and create art, but I could do it at... I'll have to give that up if I am doing this other thing over here. Because it didn't really change the makeup of who I was or what have you. So it's been on my mind lately for sure.
R. Alan Brooks (02:34):
Well, it's interesting. So I hear you talking about it all started with people and the idea of hospitality. And I think about how the idea of hospitality resonates all the way back to like historic text, even like the Bible, like, "Treat the stranger so and so." That kind of stuff. So what is it about hospitality that is so important to you?
Kelly Whitaker (02:59):
I think it mostly has to do with service. So it's if you're serving people, there's a certain, and I think a lot of people can relate to creating something, having somebody appreciate it. And not just that they're like putting it back on you that says like, "Wow, you're so great." Or something like that. It's little to do with that. But more like, "I'm so glad you enjoyed that, or I'm so glad that you found joy in that." So it's like that service element for me has been the driving factor.
R. Alan Brooks (03:30):
So much of what you're talking about is the end experience, the experience of the person who is patronizing your restaurant, or whatever. So what is it that you would like for somebody to walk away with? Is it just a good experience? Is it a different- [crosstalk 00:03:48]
Kelly Whitaker (03:47):
Yeah, I think the simplest form is someone comes in experiences, one of our places, and they don't know why they feel good. I think that's the presence of hospitality. You're not hung up on a single thing. You're like, "Woah, that food was insane." Or you know, this person took care of me or the song chose this or whatever. But really, what we try to do is that whole experience where all these things happen, and you walk in, and you're like, just feel really good. So on the simplest level, it's that. Now, people that try to understand the full ethos of what we're trying to create, whether that's the fact we grow grains on a 600-acre regenerative farm in Colorado and work towards these other full sort of bigger conversations around climate or anything, if they're interested, we want to talk about it. And they can kind of peel back the layers, but really it's like, "That was really good. That was delicious."
R. Alan Brooks (04:44):
So the love for hospitality and affecting people in a positive way through it, can you trace that back to your childhood or?
Kelly Whitaker (04:51):
R. Alan Brooks (04:52):
Kelly Whitaker (04:52):
I mean, you brought up the Bible. I come from a kind of religious family, missionaries, and honestly led a... Like a lot of my travels were based around family members being in different parts of the world and me going to visit and wanting to work in a little dumpling house or something, but yeah. I don't think I would've made a great preacher, but it was something ingrained at a younger age. I think the idea of service, and that's something that has stuck with me. And is a driver, I mean, I think when it comes to creating something, you have to find a lot of whys, and like I said, my why is service, but it could be your why is faith at any age, or it could be trying to impress your date. I don't know, whatever it is. That sort of...
Kelly Whitaker (05:44):
But I always found that love, and I appreciate it, although I didn't fully adopt everything from my childhood or whatever, but I saw it as like, I saw that there was nothing wrong in the love aspect or serving people. It always like kind of no matter sort of what you believe in, or whatever. For me, that was like, that's still like, "It's still right. That's still okay. Love is still okay. And service is still okay." And so that did start at a young age and my family. Yeah.
R. Alan Brooks (06:15):
That's cool, man. So my first job out of college was producing a TV show for a televangelist. That was the church that I grew up in, and it just got to be really big, and they're on TV. The job ended up being terrible, but the youth growing up there with the ideas of service and positively impacting the world still shows through my art like that, that is a strong motivating factor. So I can hear what you're saying there, which is really cool. So the thread of hospitality has always been important to you and affecting people in a positive way. So then, did that make it sort of clear for you? When you're in high school, did you know that you wanted to move into the hospital industry?
Kelly Whitaker (06:58):
R. Alan Brooks (06:59):
What was your path?
Kelly Whitaker (07:00):
I mean, it was a lot of business, and honestly, I was still, I was taking... I took painting. I took all kinds of sort of art avenues. And so it wasn't, and then I didn't know what form it would take. I really enjoyed being in the mountains. I enjoyed lifestyle around skateboarding, snowboarding, whatever sort of that genre. That lifestyle was always a part of what I was doing. So how could I just kind of fold that in? So a big part of me was like, "Maybe I can do this at a level, like at resorts or whatever?" It wasn't truly defined, but I just started to get pulled in that direction more and more. And it was also like chefs aren't notoriously brilliant at a certain thing. It was always going to be like a chef or law school, right? So it was kind of... I was going a direction, and I mean, for me, really, traveling tied it all together. I grew up in Oklahoma, and that's like, I left pretty much the day after high school and just started traveling- [crosstalk 00:08:13].
R. Alan Brooks (08:12):
Kelly Whitaker (08:13):
... around the world.
R. Alan Brooks (08:13):
Okay. And you- [crosstalk 00:08:14] you mentioned Europe, what places in Europe?
Kelly Whitaker (08:16):
Yeah, so most of my cooking experience, I did do two or three months of hospitality school in Switzerland, but most of my experience was in Southern Italy, which is a very tricky place in and of itself. So you go and intern and these stories of cooks, traveling to Europe and working in these Michelin star restaurants. Every time I went overseas, I was in a mom-and-pop restaurant. And it was definitely impactful, like how I am today because there was a lack of maybe technique, but there were a lot more ideas if you were in these small communities. What it did is it really started to build my mental capacity to be in some of the bigger, more spotlight kitchens that I ended up being in the Michelin star world. So I really started with a mindset, and that was always important to me.
Kelly Whitaker (09:06):
I tell Italians from Milan or Northern Italy, "I worked in Naples for almost two years." And they're just like, "Italians don't work in Naples for two years." It's a really hard community, but I found a lot of love there. A lot of people go there, and they come back, and they want to open a wood fire pizza place, and they're like, "Oh, I'm going to open in Naples. And we went there," and they're like, "Yeah, but it was terrible." And I was like, to get to know that community and find love in it, and then, to just try to take their thing from there. But that was one of my first times, first jobs overseas that led to Basta, which was my first restaurant 10-years ago. I was in a terrible location in Boulder, and it taught me a lot about surviving.
Kelly Whitaker (09:50):
And I was like, "I had just been working at a two Michelin star restaurant with Michael Cimarusti in Los Angeles." Amazing chef, amazing restaurant. And so I'm cooking all these creative, hyper-creative dishes. And I go back, and I have this bad location in Boulder because I'm trying to get my start. And I just thought about those pizza places with the bomb holes in it that survived wars. And I was like, "This is never going to work." And so I'm just going to put a wood fire oven and make some pizza on some plates and try to represent this community that I was in that wasn't just like, "You had to use this certain type of flour." Or whatever, but it was about hyper localization. It was about a mindset of using, and it wasn't talked about. It wasn't called the Slow Food movement. It wasn't called anything. It was just called life. And I really appreciated that being my foundation for kind of the bigger to be where I am here, but.
R. Alan Brooks (10:46):
Well, I was going to say your story, you sound kind of like Batman, you had a mission with the hospitality activism, and then you traveled abroad and gained all these skills and then brought them back to the US and got to be Basta. So what kind of restaurant was that?
Kelly Whitaker (11:05):
So yeah, just it's a simple wood fire restaurant. No one came to it for like the first five years.
R. Alan Brooks (11:12):
Kelly Whitaker (11:12):
Yeah, it was like a lot of my friends were in LA opening in really funny locations, and I was like, "I can do this. This is going to be cool." And I was dead wrong. And but I stood in front of that oven for about eight years.
R. Alan Brooks (11:27):
So with Basta, you were saying that activism was always an important thing for you?
Kelly Whitaker (11:30):
R. Alan Brooks (11:31):
So was that... That being your first restaurant, was that element there? Were you just trying to figure out the business of--
Kelly Whitaker (11:38):
No, I think it's always there. You can look at the names of our restaurants, and there's always an undertone of activism, so Basta means "enough." So a lot of people didn't understand, they know they visited Italy and says, "Basta, stop." Because it means stop or enough, but in Spain, if you're protesting in Spain, you have your fist in the air and you're yelling, "Basta." For whatever, it's a sign of protest, and really that's carried through and kind of like up till The Wolf's Tailor, which also has that sort of underlying, but the idea was that we would put only out there what was needed. So if you put like microgreens on something, it's like, "Do you really need those?"
Kelly Whitaker (12:21):
You look at four things on the plate versus three. I would say every day, like, "That doesn't need to be there. That doesn't be there. Like, basta." And in Italy when I was hearing in the kitchens, and I couldn't sleep, and I was practicing Italian, and I'd go to sleep with basta in my head and because it was, but and I thought the chefs were just always upset, but they're just saying, "Kelly, enough."
R. Alan Brooks (12:45):
Right. Only putting out what's necessary, that's about sort of not being wasteful- [crosstalk 00:12:49].
Kelly Whitaker (12:49):
Yeah. No, it's just, I mean, that in a simplicity, I think, is a form of protest. I mean, love is a form of protest, and we talk about it like, I think that anything that's counter to maybe how it's been done. And so you choose one wood fire oven, we don't have stoves, we don't have anything, we have to commit to this one fuel source. And we have to figure out how to make a restaurant work.
R. Alan Brooks (13:10):
And so you said you did Basta for eight years?
Kelly Whitaker (13:13):
It's still open, but yeah.
R. Alan Brooks (13:15):
But you were- [crosstalk 00:13:16].
Kelly Whitaker (13:16):
It's been a decade. Other than me, yeah, I was there, you know? And it was everything that you can imagine from startup. I just felt like when a lot of chefs I worked for they're like, "You must be there. You must." You know? So I had a hard time sort of thinking about expansion or building another restaurant. I did start Id Est, which is sort of the umbrella group. It means, i.e., the Latin, i.e.? So it's i.e., that is. So it really represented like when I started around the same time, and every attorney we have is like, "Why do you have a group, you have one restaurant?" And it just stayed like that it for 10 years.
Kelly Whitaker (13:56):
And, but I still had it. Still had the thought in the back of my head that we would definitely do a little bit more, but i.e. just represented, we wanted to be an example of, we wanted every... So and it's happening now. Like how do we pay our employees? How do we create equity in the group and stuff like that? We wanted other groups to call us and say, "How do you do that?" That's really, that's what was in our mind. And that's, again, that's that get better and better so that people, an example of and they call you.
R. Alan Brooks (14:25):
I love that. Okay. So Id Est is a group of restaurateurs?
Kelly Whitaker (14:29):
Yeah, no, it's just a group of restaurants, our restaurants.
R. Alan Brooks (14:32):
Kelly Whitaker (14:33):
R. Alan Brooks (14:33):
Yeah. I want to hear more about it.
Kelly Whitaker (14:35):
Yeah. So Id Est is our umbrella kind of company. It is... So we have four restaurants in a mill, so we have two tasting-only menus in Denver, the Wolf's Tailor and BRUTØ, And then we have Basta and Dry Storage. Dry Storage being our sort of grainery mill bakery. So all of our restaurants are kind of, sort of about R&D with grains. We're pretty much into grains. We started in grains, but we've just taking a step further with milling grains into flour. So we produce flour for ourselves, and we produce for some other chefs right now.
R. Alan Brooks (15:20):
So are these are restaurants you started, or did you invite other restaurants into- [crosstalk 00:15:25]
Kelly Whitaker (15:25):
Well, now we're selling flour to other restaurants, but these four restaurants I started.
R. Alan Brooks (15:28):
Kelly Whitaker (15:29):
R. Alan Brooks (15:29):
Okay. And so you mentioned the two in Denver, and then there's- [crosstalk 00:15:32]
Kelly Whitaker (15:32):
And then Basta and Dry Storage. Those are all restaurants we started.
R. Alan Brooks (15:36):
Okay. And so how did the progression of, because we talked about Basta has been around for 10 years. You started Id Est at the beginning of that time. You said it was about eight years maybe that nothing- [crosstalk 00:15:47]
Kelly Whitaker (15:47):
That was just like fully supported. I started thinking about expansion just for the reason of survivability, getting food on the table. We weren't paying ourselves. We were just trying to like, there was, we would hustle out events wherever, and I had a mentor that was like, "Kelly, if you're going to grow, you need to start saying yes to all these things just for a year, say yes. Commit to like, if someone calls, just say yes." And I was doing the most ridiculous things, but it was like sleeping on the floor trying to make it work. So in about year eight or nine, we started thinking about... And also, impact was still in the back of my mind. So if I'm the only one in front of this oven, how can I be impactful with my work? I'm just in an apartment complex. And I felt like the right people knew what we were doing, but the world would never find out if that makes sense.
R. Alan Brooks (16:40):
Yeah. That's cool. I mean, it just sounds like this happened really fast. Not that it was easy, but that you made it happen really fast because there were all those years that you were the one person in front of the oven, and now you're like, "Okay, let's expand." Now you have the three other...
Kelly Whitaker (16:54):
R. Alan Brooks (16:55):
Yeah. Congratulations. That's really cool.
Kelly Whitaker (16:56):
Oh, thank you. Yeah, it's hard to hear sometimes because it was... The expansion part kind of happened too fast, and this year we've been able to sort of reset, but I'm like, "Wow." I have to tell myself all the time, like, "Oh, wait, we have four businesses. We have this and..." And they are successful, and we have so much to be proud of with our work. And the fact that we're running tasting menus and we think about every detail and most of all we think about the people that work with us. I mean, it's a big deal.
R. Alan Brooks (17:31):
Yeah. All right. Well, so I want to get back to... You were talking about like you tried different kinds of art you did. You took painting, something like that. So obviously, there's something in creating that feels good for you. So now, at this point, where you have this group, you have the four restaurants, are you still getting whatever the high was from creating?
Kelly Whitaker (17:55):
Yeah. That's a great question. It is. And when we're in it, and we're expanding in all of that, it gets a little lost, but I can tell you, my joy right now is thinking how the space works. And not only did we open four projects, but we've consulted on numerous projects, which has just been incredible because we want to work on impactful projects. So I've always sort of had a side hustle in consulting, and it's allowed me to sort of build and create spaces. And I think that's where I think it starts. If someone brought us in to figure out a restaurant, they always want to ask me about the food menu. And I'm like, "Well, what about... What color is the wall?" That's my like... You can't get all those feelings of like fully taken care of unless it starts way back at the sort of architect level of it. And that's where I come- [crosstalk 00:18:53].
R. Alan Brooks (18:53):
Because you're coming from a place of creating an experience, not just the food.
Kelly Whitaker (18:55):
R. Alan Brooks (18:56):
Yeah. That's really cool. Huh.
Kelly Whitaker (18:56):
The food is last. Everyone thinks the food is first. And I'm like because you think about how that's going to be executed or all the things that go into making that final product. But really, the whole process is what I'm finding a lot of joy in. I don't find as that sort of artist side definitely gets pulled away if it's too much numbers and not the creative numbers. But so I've had to encourage our teams to really focus on our product, which is people and planet, really. I mean, that's our product. That's what we do. And so when we're sort of lost in thinking that we're accountants, I'm like, "We're not accountants, we're in this, we're into shaping this." And this is... Every time we focus and double down on that and the process of that, we get to a much better spot.
R. Alan Brooks (19:49):
What do you think is... So as you expand and you come to a space that you're going to put a restaurant, what is influencing your ideas? What's inspiring them?
Kelly Whitaker (20:04):
We want to create a restaurant and a restaurant system of the future. That's it. I mean, the restaurants are just fundamentally so broken and the business itself. Everyone has heard stories of restaurants and restaurant culture, and a lot of that has shifted over the past few years, but really the way that we look at it in terms of the way that you take care of people, the way that you work with the food, where is the food from, not just farm to table, which is just such a... It's cool, farm to table, that's what Colorado was definitely focused on when I got here. That's okay. Except that there wasn't really any farms in January. So that was confusing for me. I was like, "Well, where's food coming from?"
Kelly Whitaker (20:52):
But thinking about the full ecosystem in terms of what's wasted, how people are treated, what's the responsibility of what we're trying to do. And it definitely has been those types of questions that are sort of driving us to the next phase of what we're doing. Like I mentioned, doing tasting menus versus offering a choice, right? I mean, that's because it's really difficult to sort of have any control when people... When the system's just tickets and just burnout, and luckily for us, we're kind of not hiring right now. And it's not something that I want to brag about, but it's something that we're very proud of because we're offering people a chance to express themselves. We really listen to the people that are with us. And so that sort of expression is offering them more of a lifestyle than a job.
Kelly Whitaker (21:48):
So we dropped hospitality. It was like Id Est Hospitality group, and I just took off the Hospitality Group. Because I'm tired. It's like anything that you sign up, it's like a piece of clothing or whatever, it's something you wear, and if you work with us at Id Est, whether that's our farming system or cooks or whatever it is, we have our firstfull-time gardener, because we grow at all the sites, we grow at every... We have small little... We grow little things, and we're way deep into fermentation and conservation and, again, reversal of climate change, I mean, these are things that restaurants, I don't think we're supposed to think about it that way, but it's inevitable that we have to think about it that way.
R. Alan Brooks (22:35):
No, I love hearing that, especially right now, post-pandemic, there's all this stuff in the news, just about restaurants having difficulty staffing, and you're talking about sort of changing the whole paradigm of how all of that is and offering your employees a lifestyle. It's just really interesting to hear, you know?
Kelly Whitaker (22:55):
Yeah. We don't want them to view it as a job necessarily. So many people, especially cooks that get into this, and then they end up bartending because of money, or they end up not doing that when they love the expression of culinary, they got into this for similar reasons that I got into this is, which is like, "I want to create this thing." Then, you get buried in the isms of the hospitality restaurant. There's a lot of them. And that's how the restaurant industry was founded. And so it burns you out, and you start to lose the love of the game, right? And it happens so much in our industry. And so I'm not surprised. You mentioned the pandemic. It showed every single thing that was wrong with the restaurant industry in this past year and how vulnerable it is.
R. Alan Brooks (23:44):
Yeah. So you're thinking of the experience, not only of the customer per se but also the people who are working with you at every sort of level.
Kelly Whitaker (23:52):
Yeah. Our impact on people, on everything around us, on like stuff that, I mean, there's no doubt there's a lot of things that we're not thinking about right now, but it's... This year especially has taught us a lot, so. And so that's what we're signed up for, sort of out-of-the-walls, so to speak. And that's all... Restaurants are just... They seem to come and go, right? And so, what kind of impact can you have with your work while you're there? Going back to like, "Let's do this really well. If we do a pop-up, we do a lot of pop-ups, a ton of collaborations." We love working... We're constantly bringing people in that were like, "Whoa, look at this food." Last week we had a chef from India, his name is KK.
Kelly Whitaker (24:43):
He's got a restaurant in Santa Barbara, but it was like, I mean, an incredible explosion of, you know, spice, all of a sudden at The Wolf's Tailor that was like, everyone was like, "What is this?" We love that interaction. And if that's all we do for a couple of years and then do something else, that's okay. So it's kind of like thinking big, focusing on small. You don't need 200 seats. BRUTØ, our other tasting menu, that project was going to die this last year. We turned it into an advocacy kitchen before the election. There was a lot of chefs that were displaced.
R. Alan Brooks (25:17):
Oh, wait, what's an advocacy kitchen?
Kelly Whitaker (25:20):
Well, I don't know if it's a thing, but I just kind of made it a thing.
R. Alan Brooks (25:23):
Okay. What is the thing that you made? How would you define it?
Kelly Whitaker (25:25):
Yeah. So with downtown, with everything happening downtown, we had a project at a building here in Denver that was like, it's just, again, it's a one wood fire oven thing. It is open to a 10,000 square foot space. And, but the sort of mall itself, Free Market has divisions for the shops. And everything was just so... I couldn't control anything around me. Our space is open to the whole space. So during the pandemic, I took some of the glass partition walls from the other spaces, and I put it around our space. And so, instead of having a 100 seat space, I brought it down to 10. And we started talking about the power of 10 because, again, I thought maybe no one would order food from us. No one was eating downtown. So maybe they would buy a ticket. And then I saw a lot of displaced chefs with a lot of things to say.
Kelly Whitaker (26:24):
So leading up to the election, I was like wrestling with, I mean, everyone was wrestling with a lot at the time, but I was like, "I'm going to give these guys a place to just do whatever they want to say." So I met Taj Cook, he's from Jamaica. And he was the most vocal. He was working for another restaurant group, that restaurant group closed. And- [crosstalk 00:26:51].
R. Alan Brooks (26:50):
And his last name is Cook? That's perfect.
Kelly Whitaker (26:53):
Yeah. And he said... I was like, "Dude, you have a lot to say. You're being all over, why don't you come in and say it with your food or whatever?" And so he's like, "I'm going to cook Ital food." And I was like, "I don't know what that is, man." He's like, "It's like vegetarian, this and that." And I was like, "Cool." And then, so I brought him in. And then another chef in Boulder, Modu, cooks West African food. And I was like, "I don't know anything about that, but let's go." And then Chef Michael, who's our current chef there right now, grew up in El Paso.
Kelly Whitaker (27:25):
And at this time, Taj was kind of getting the word out. So people would call, and they'd be like, "Hey, I want to do a pop-up." And I'm like, "Well, what do you have to say?" You know? And they're like, "Oh, no. I've got a pop-up. I want to try to open a restaurant." I was like, "This is the wrong time for that." And I would have to explain like this is leading up to something, we have 10 seats, we're in all these restrictions, so I'm just really trying to allow sort of a stage for people, cooks, to kind of say whatever they want to say.
R. Alan Brooks (27:54):
I love this, man. Seriously.
Kelly Whitaker (27:55):
This is really- [crosstalk 00:27:57].
R. Alan Brooks (27:56):
Yeah, listen, I love the name, but and I feel like the whole idea of it, as you've explained it, is really a snapshot of everything you've been talking about, like how to bring together hospitality with activism and create art at the same time. And in this place, you're facilitating art. You're lifting up other people's voices. That's really dope, and it also goes into what you're talking about in terms of challenging the paradigm of what the restaurant industry is. So high five on that one. Yeah.
Kelly Whitaker (28:26):
Thank you. It was amazing. And look, a lot of good, that restaurant is absolutely incredible with Michael at the helm now. And he's actually going to be in the next month a partner and not a token partnership. He'll have like equal ownership to me like I just... And it's just turned into that. So he literally went from that to that, and it's just been nothing but good, man. That's what I say like good on good, man. How can that get off course? It gets off course, but it can't. It always wins.
R. Alan Brooks (29:01):
It's really dope, man. I want to ask, like when you come up with these ideas like advocacy kitchen, how do you choose which ones you go forward with? How do you choose which ones you reject?
Kelly Whitaker (29:11):
Yeah. I would say starting out through the season of yes, or whatever. I mean, obviously, failure has taught me a lot, taken a lot of chances. I kind of feel like my ability to kind of see around the corner, so to speak or navigate, it's definitely not perfect, but, and right now, a big part is letting our team and everyone working side by side are really, that's important to me. So even though I want to say, "Don't do this." I don't like micromanaging the other. I like empowering and that we have like our company is now like 80, 90% women in leadership and it was intentional. So it wasn't like... But it wasn't... It was obviously like there's a lot of qualification there.
Kelly Whitaker (30:03):
And I went to my partner, we have three partners, but I went, and I said, "Are we a company that's empowering the women, or are we a company that's controlling them?" You know? And so, right now, it's for me to take that step back and let them make the decisions. Because my decisions were like, "Yeah, pass, fail, fail, fail, fail, one worked." I was like, "How's everything work out for you?" And I was like, "Dude, you did not see the hundred thousand failures to make this one right decision." And that's really like that's all I knew. It was just, it was kind of stupidity and being led by shiny objects or things that I was like, "Oh, this will be interesting. We should try that." And getting myself in weird situations. But failure- [crosstalk 00:30:52].
R. Alan Brooks (30:52):
But you keep going?
Kelly Whitaker (30:52):
... I mean, a lot of people talk about, focus on, or fail, fail fast, there's all this stuff I really like lately, like thinking not to focus on that because that's how I've spent the last three years of like, "Oh, just fail, fail, fail fast." And really, I just more now think about successes. So answering that question is like, "How was I successful in this moment? How did we create advocacy kitchen out of nowhere with no real plan?" Well, maybe planning's not good. Maybe you make a plan like everyone learned this year, and it's going to get messed up. "Fly and see your family right now, might happen, might not. Don't get your hopes up." In a way.
Kelly Whitaker (31:34):
So it's like some of these things about trying to map that out or focus on failure, now I'm kind of thinking more in the creative process and how to make that specific decision, what's really worked, you know?
R. Alan Brooks (31:51):
Kelly Whitaker (31:52):
Because I don't think about it. If something works, you're like, "Cool, move on." And then you kind of get in this thing. You're all wrapped up in a bunch of failures again. And I'm like, "Why is that? Oh, it's because we're following some fail, fail fast rule or something." I'm like, "Let's follow the other rule."
R. Alan Brooks (32:07):
Well, now, okay, so this might have been baked into your response that you just gave, but I was thinking like, all right, 18-year-old version of Kelly comes up to you and says, "Hey, what's your advice for me?" What would you tell the younger version of you?
Kelly Whitaker (32:25):
I've thought about that question a lot, but so much of all those, all of that, which I have a ton of regrets, right? But it's like, what's creating the product today. So my hope is that I get as much time that I was really bad at being 18 to whatever, that I get at least that much time on the other side doing some good, you know what I mean? Like in a way?
R. Alan Brooks (32:51):
Kelly Whitaker (32:52):
But, I mean, getting around people is everything. So there are times when I wish I was maybe, or maybe I should have been with a different organization. One that cared about me, one that wanted to lift me up instead of... And our industry shifted a lot. But I hung out with a lot of sort of mixed things in this industry that's like, "Maybe I shouldn't have hung out that long. Maybe I should have gone and worked for a chef that..." But, again, I was working for empassioned chefs too that I didn't really sign up for a kitchen that wasn't an advocate for something, Michael Cimarusti, I mentioned Providence. That guy taught me everything about activism. He's one that he's trying to save the oceans and save the fish. And when I lived in LA, I was like, "I'm going to work for that guy." Because he's like, not only is he two Michelin and he's a brilliant chef, but I was always the guy asking him the questions about saving the oceans, right? Not just how to cook the fish, so yeah.
R. Alan Brooks (33:54):
I want to ask, is there anything else that's coming up that you want to talk about or?
Kelly Whitaker (34:00):
Like I said, I appreciate being here for the fact that you're asking me about being an artist. And I think that the artist in people, that everyone sort of possesses this and it's a really powerful tool when you don't think of yourself as the CEO or the chef but the artist, there's not... It sounds so flighty sometimes, right? But, man, this world needs this type of art, and it comes in all kinds of forms, and this happens to be my form, whatever it is, we just talked about, and we do a lot of, again, we could have talked about grains and how we're doing regenerative farming and all the other things, but our art definitely has to do with the human capacity, right? And potential people. That's really all I think about every day. It's like, "How far can I get?" Well, it takes courage to be an artist and to take chances, and you know?
R. Alan Brooks (35:03):
I feel you a 100%. I did a TED Talk over the pandemic to an empty room because of pandemic. And it's like at a million views now, right? But I talked about the importance of art in dark times because you were saying like, by calling yourself an artist, it can feel flighty. That's because people have attributed art to being flighty, irresponsible, selfish even, that you're going to pursue this thing. But one of the things I talked about is how whenever there is a dictator or a despot, they censor and control the art because they're fully aware of the power of art. But we, as artists, are very like, "Oh, I don't know, am I wasting my time?" You know?
Kelly Whitaker (35:46):
R. Alan Brooks (35:47):
But it's obviously like if those people in power know the power, that immensity of what art can do, then we, as artists, should pay attention and use it for some good.
Kelly Whitaker (35:57):
So powerful, dude.
R. Alan Brooks (35:58):
Kelly Whitaker (35:58):
I mean, that's what empowerment is, right? And that's what I find, the less I'm controlling that right now. Like I said, it's not just necessarily my decisions, but those around me right now that I'm just watching our company change dramatically. Inviting people into the story has been our most... And not being afraid of that. Hiring better cooks than me, for sure, our chefs are amazing, and our people are amazing, and it's letting them go and explore that in their way. And it's a very... It's pushing us forward.
R. Alan Brooks (36:36):
All right. Well, so Kelly, if people want to follow your work, where do they go?
Kelly Whitaker (36:42):
My Instagram is ie_Kelly, follow the hospitality group. Yeah, eat in our restaurants. We're not out of this yet. Support our restaurants, support your local restaurants. It doesn't even have to be ours, but look for good food, and if you're not sure where that is, you can always check us out and come in and experience it and eat it and taste it. And hopefully, you'll feel well taken care of.
R. Alan Brooks (37:10):
Cool. Hey, thank you for taking a minute to talk to me. This is really cool. I enjoyed talking with you.
Kelly Whitaker (37:15):
R. Alan Brooks (37:16):
Learned a lot about... I learned some vocabulary words I didn't know.
Kelly Whitaker (37:18):
R. Alan Brooks (37:18):
Thank you to today's guest, Kelly Whitaker. Visit mcadenver.org/podcast for links to his many amazing restaurants. Thanks for listening. Be sure to subscribe for more and leave a review. It really helps us out. Check out MCA Denver on YouTube and subscribe there too for behind-the-scenes clips that don't make it in the episode. How Art is Born is hosted by me, R. Alan Brooks. Cheyenne Michaels is our producer and editor. Courtney Law is our executive producer. How Art is Born is a project of the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver.