By Zakiya McCummings
Photos by Young Kim
Gathered around a table, tucked away sits Bear Tooth’s very own knights of the round table: general manager Steph Johnson and front-of-house managers Amara Liggett, Amy Mack and Brian Dagget. As plates start to arrive, so do the chefs: executive chef Natalie Janicka and sous chef Jessica Rose.
The Bear Tooth Grill, known for its locally sourced ingredients and Latin-inspired flavors, combines the best of both worlds in a variety of house specials. The first Monday of the month brings new dishes inspired by everything from the changing seasons to fresh summer produce. The process of getting the plate from kitchen-to-table is one that takes extensive planning.
Janicka and Rose spend the early part of the month brainstorming and testing recipes before the first tasting with the management team. The first round is the most intensive; many dishes are prepared using multiple techniques to see if the smallest change can make a difference.
Upon the first bite, the Colorado crema, a smooth yet tangy sauce that brings the whole plate together, appears to be the star of the show. After tasting the dish a second time, this time with roasted arepas, the flavor profile changed completely.
“That’s kind of the purpose of the group setting so we can get feedback and constructive criticism from everybody,” Rose said. “If you serve [a dish] with a lime wedge, is it going to completely change it because you’ve added that one thing that it needed?”
The watermelon gazpacho, for example, is a refreshing cold summer soup with a kick of spice that took time and patience to refine. The initial response from the testing was lukewarm: it needed more sweetness to balance out the tomato, as well an herb that could lift the flavor profile. For the second tasting, Rose added more watermelon, used locally grown tomatoes, replaced dill with fresh mint and thinned out the puree.
Johnson was pleasantly surprised by the new and improved cold soup. As the general manager of Bear Tooth, Johnson has been one of the first to taste specials as they come and go.
While the arepa benedict and the watermelon gazpacho were tweaked before making the final menu, plenty of other recipes don’t make it to the menu.
“I think it’s really important when you show up at the table and when you’re involved with the creation of specials to know that you’re going to not succeed a good portion of the time,” Janicka said.
Rose joined the Bear Tooth team back in February 2016, working her way up from the eggs station in the morning to sous chef. The ability to make new specials every month is an important creative outlet for her.
“The food is a big part of it for me,” Rose said, “I went to school to be a pastry chef, to make wedding cakes because I like making pretty food. It’s the art aspect of it that appeals to me.”
The entree Rose presents at the tasting is an ‘everything bagel’ glazed salmon — prepared both grilled and broiled — with fried green tomatoes and cauliflower puree. Consensus on the salmon is swift: the char of the grill adds a depth of flavor. But the cauliflower puree doesn’t wow.
“It needs something more,” Johnson said, “It’s a little bland.”
Rose listened. During the second tasting, the cauliflower puree — made this time with cream instead of buttermilk — was suddenly bringing a lot more to the table.
“We have a list in the back of when produce is in season. This month is cauliflower,” Rose explained. “That’s an easy textural component that’s warm, that’s local, and who doesn’t love butter and cream?”
July is the heart of the salmon season. Rose knew that she wanted to do a fresh plate for both local taste buds and those visiting from outside looking to try fresh Alaska salmon. But a simple grilled salmon won’t do at Bear Tooth.
“Natalie [Janicka] had fireweed shoots that she got. We were trying to find an application for them because they’re fresh and we could only get a certain amount, so she dehydrated them,” Rose explained.
They powdered the shoots, but still had the task of finding the right application of them within the dish. Trying to find a way to incorporate the powder into a glaze, Rose thought instantly of bagel spice.
The result is a fillet of fresh Alaska salmon with a one-of-a-kind flavor profile. It’s peppery with just a hint of earthiness from the fireweed, set on a bed of fresh Alaska sprouts and rounded out with tangy fried green tomatoes, surrounded by the rich cauliflower puree. The real test, however, always comes on the first Monday of the month.
“The first day of specials is hair pulling nuttiness,” Janicka said.
Execution on the first day doesn’t always go as planned. The Colorado crema had proven to be more difficult in practice than in theory. Unlike a smaller cafe, who might crank out new, elaborate specials every day, Bear Tooth has a large kitchen and a busy front of house that leaves little time for overcomplicated elements.
“In a small cafe you can do a lot more things, versus this machine of a building where you have to make 500 of them a month,” Rose explained.
There’s a lot of critiques that goes into creating specials, both before and after they go live, but Janicka and Rose each have their own ways of measuring the true success of a dish.
Janicka’s satisfaction comes from the initial tastings themselves. Seeing the reaction among the managers — and later, the staff — is the true sign of success.
“I know if [the tasters] feel like ‘Oh my god,’ and the staff are like ‘Oh shit, I can’t wait to eat this,’ then that’s going to translate to the people coming in,” Janicka said.
The process of creating specials at Bear Tooth is a long and tedious task that takes a month — sometimes more — of planning.
The customers of Bear Tooth, Rose said, demand consistency, but the change is one that Janicka considers positive. If you can figure out a way to create something that fits within the box, the results are a uniquely Bear Tooth experience.
“It’s that feeling like, ‘I’ve got a sick idea.’ You want to be able to share that.”