Posts Tagged ‘Rising Star Chefs’

Cholon Modern Asian Bistro: Denver

Posted 21 Feb 2012 — by S.E.
Category Food Alert Trends, Full Service

When I first met Lon Symensma he was headed to the Culinary Olympics in Berlin Germany as a member of the U.S. National Apprentice Team in 1996. Under the watchful eye of the gentle and gentlemanly uber-coach and former H.J. Heinz Corporate Chef Roland Schaeffer, Symensma and his team were shining stars that placed in the top ten in their division. Symensma was clean cut possessing great energy and a good foundation of culinary skills having completed his initial training at Scott Community College in Davenport Iowa.  Sixteen years later Symensma is owner of Cholon Bistro in Denver and, word has it, a soon-to-be nominee for a James Beard Award this year.

That Symensma pursued his dream of opening his own restaurant is what I admire most about him. Many of the other chefs I knew in the 1990’s who competed at the international level chose professional careers in higher education or at country clubs or hotels. Very few pursued sole proprietorship; the ratio of risks to rewards being too great. However, Symensma kept his head on straight, paid his dues internationally and, eventually, went on to run the kitchen at Buddakan in New York City, one of the highest grossing restaurants in the country.

When I caught up with Symensma in Denver recently, he laughed about his time at Buddakan and suggested the four years he spent there took a decade off of his life. Having dined a Buddakan back when he was there, there is probably some truth to his comment. Buddakan is a massive restaurant and one of the flagship stores for Stephen Starr Restaurants out of Philadelphia. When I visited  in 2007 the house was full and the kitchen was cranking. The volume of food produced was staggering, it was not a kitchen for the faint of heart.

Fast forward to 2011 and Symensma is in Denver having flown close to the flame in New York. Paired with former CIA classmate Alicia Pokoik Deters and her husband Jim, the three formed Flow Restaurant Group, opening Cholon as a first concept in 2010. Symensma crafted a menu that is approachable and aligned with the clientele in Denver while honoring his eclectic Asian style. The bistro itself is modern in décor with a massive custom wooden door, concrete floors, exposed ceiling and large informal dining room (no tablecloths here) with open kitchen along an interior wall. During service Symensma stands in starched whites at the kitchen counter, back to the crowd, expediting with customers seated to his left and right.

His food is better at Cholon than it was at Buddakan, probably due to smaller size and better attention to detail. However, the food is more rustic. His Kaya Toast with Egg Cloud is rich and creamy with tremendous flavor and the French Onion Soup Dumplings are a great contemporary take and a classic. My favorite dish is the Singapore Style Lobster with Sunny Side Egg and Bao Buns. This isn’t fine dining or modernist cuisine but it is great local food at a fair price with fantastic service. The restaurant is loud and full of energy and the city of Denver has embraced it but I estimate Cholon does the same volume in a week that Buddakan used to do in a day. Symensma has proven he has capacity for more. I predict that he is just starting what will become a regional restaurant empire as Cholon settles in and he gets back to his fighting weight.


Beef Tar Tar, Chinese Mustard, Tapioca Puffs

Soup Dumplings, Sweet Onion and Gruyere

Kaya Toast, Coconut Jam, Egg Cloud

Pork Belly Pot Stickers

Singapore Style Lobster, Sunny Side Egg, Bao Buns

Vegetable Fried Rice with Poached Egg

Cholon Modern Asian Bistro

155 Blake St.

Denver, CO


The Dorrance: Providence, R.I.

Posted 14 Dec 2011 — by S.E.
Category Fine Dining


When Travel & Leisure Magazine named Providence, Rhode Island the third best city for foodies in the country this past September I smiled. The city has more than its fair share of excellent restaurants and is gaining influence nationally as a food destination. It helps that hundreds of Johnson & Wales University culinary students reside in the city while earning a degree and a number remain upon program completion to work with a local chef or pursue a dream of owning a fine restaurant. Ben Sukle of The Dorrance, a newly opened restaurant in the city center is a perfect example of this phenomenon.

When I bumped into Ben Sukle in New York this past October he was helping Alex Talbot of Ideas in Food deliver a culinary demonstration. Talbot prepared a rack of venison roasted on juniper branches that were foraged by Sukle back in the Ocean State. After the demonstration Ben and I chatted and he told me he was just a few days from opening The Dorrance as Chef de Cuisine. Sukle is over six feet tall, in his mid-twenties with a graceful yet boyish demeanor. He is a 2008 graduate of Johnson & Wales University and served as Chef de Cuisine under owner Matt Jennings at La Laiterie bistro in the Wayland Square neighborhood of Providence prior to departing to find his own path. After La Laiterie he made his way to Noma in Copenhagen for some inspiration. The juniper branches under venison are a perfect representation of the modern Nordic aesthetic of Chef René Redzepi of Noma, a chef who earlier in his own career completed a similar stint with Chef Ferran Adrià. In 2010 Noma displaced Adrià’s El Bulli as the best restaurant in the world; apprentice displaced master.


When I visited The Dorrance it had been open for just two weeks. Ben was still working out the restaurants kinks with a limited staff and long hours in the kitchen. The menu reflected a range of interesting combinations including beef brisket with snails and turnip; smoked beef tongue with chilis and pickled green tomato; and roasted dry aged duck with beets, kohlrabi, and quince. This isn’t typical Rhode Island cuisine but it is Ben’s cuisine. The influence of Chef Redzepi is clear but that influence is grounded in a local farm and ocean to table mentality and a hand-crated approach.  


Travel & Leisure mentioned the “boat to table” focus of Providence restaurants when it ranked the city third in the country and Sukle continues the tradition by offering a perfect pan roasted porgy (Scup) with pole beans, potatoes and salsa verde. Porgy are plentiful in local waters, have a wonderful white flesh and offer a sustainable alternative to other white fish species that under pressure. It’s nice that Sukle is willing to take the risk and feature sustainable species like scup; he also offers local scallops. Welcome to the Ocean State.

In the kitchen, Sukle uses modern cooking techniques and his plate presentations unveil the diversity of options and creativity when cooking sous vide. He also cures and pickles various meats and vegetables and air-dries his own duck breast for the duck entrée. Although still a work in progress, his Avant-garde cuisine stands out in the local marketplace and adds a new dimension to the Rhode Island restaurant scene. That Providence was ranked third is a testament to the many established and emerging chefs in the city. As the next generation of chefs like Sukle ply their trade in the city has much to look forward to.