The Secret Lives of Denver Foodies

Here's an inside look at the outside-of-the-kitchen passions that drive five of Denver's esteemed culinary creatives, and how some surprising pastimes inform their job-related decisions.      
Denver has been widely acclaimed as an epicenter for food innovation, and some local chefs, restaurateurs and food manufacturers have even attained celeb-caliber status for their quality grub. Creating and curating mouthwatering fare might be demanding, but our favorite food pros still manage to carve out time to pursue their interests and passions.

Troy Guard

You know chef and restaurateur Troy Guard for a delectable list of creative eateries: TAG and TAG Burger Bar, of course, along with Guard & Grace, Lucky Cat, Bubu, Los Chingones and SugarMill. What you probably haven't heard, though, is that this kitchen wiz is also a huge fan of '80s hair metal.  

We're hardly exaggerating when we say huge! Born in 1971, Guard came of age smack-dab in the middle of the '80s. "Of course I had a mullet," Guard says with a laugh. "I wasn't a jock, so I was a rocker," he adds. In sixth grade, Guard got his first Walkman; his first cassette was Journey, supplemented soon after with Mötley Crüe, Bon Jovi and the like.

"My first concert was Mötley Crüe, 1985 -- that was in Seattle at the Tacoma Dome," Guard says. He still attends about two dozens concerts annually, and has amassed a sizeable collection of concert tickets and envious experiences: Metallica in Tokyo, Iron Maiden in Mexico, Guns N' Roses in Hong Kong.

It's hard for him to pick a favorite show, but Guard leans toward a Pearl Jam pageant in Mexico in a 200-seat arena, played out before the band was popular. Last year, Guard and his wife snagged front-row tickets to a Scorpions 50th anniversary show at Fiddler's Green Amphitheater -- another noteworthy production.  

Guard still sings along with his favorite bands. "Whenever a show comes through town, I try to go to it -- especially these days," he says, explaining, "The bands are getting older, plus it's a good release for me. It's loud and crazy, and I have to wear earplugs, but it reminds me of the good times when I was younger and purely having fun."

Sometimes the folks in Guard's restaurant group get to experience a simpler time, too: "What I like to do is I'll buy tickets for managers and staff, and take them to concerts," he says. Last year, for example, he went all out for Mötley Crüe's final tour, procuring a suite at the Pepsi Center, and convincing employees to dress up with him.

Being a rock star in his own right has come with some unexpected perks: Guard has catered several shows, and he regularly invites bands to hang at his joints. Guard's also entertained the idea of a rock-themed eatery. "Hopefully someday," he says, "because I'd love to use all of my posters, cassette tapes, T-shirts, and pictures."

Jeff Hermanson

"My college girlfriend left me with a basset hound," begins Jeff Hermanson, CEO of Larimer Associates, and a restaurant partner in TAG Burger Bar, Bubu, Bistro Vendome and Rioja, among others. Forty-five years later, and Hermanson is still a dog lover and basset hound owner.

"God only knows why," he says about his basset-specific tastes. He's lived with seven hounds over the decades. "They're untrainable," he says. "They're at the bottom of the canine chain in terms of intelligence, but for whatever reason they've stolen my heart."

Hermanson was living in Crested Butte when he started working in Denver nearly three decades ago. "In order to maintain that lifestyle of living in two cities, I started flying," he says. A year ago, a friend sent Hermanson an image of a basset hound at the door of a small plane; the accompanying story was about Wings of Rescue, an all-volunteer, L.A.-based organization flying canines and felines from California kill shelters to regions in need of adoptable pets.   

Hermanson wanted in, of course. "I didn't understand that there was such a disparity in placing rescue dogs, but there is," he says. He offered up his plane, participating in a rescue event with 25 other pilots in November of 2015, on the Friday before Thanksgiving. The team of volunteers set a Wings of Rescue record by moving 1,000 pets in a single day.

"I played a small but meaningful role," Hermanson says. His plane flew dozens of dogs from a small airport in L.A. to Salt Lake City, where it was met by folks from an area humane society. "I asked if the dogs would be adopted, and they said they'd all be gone in a week," he recalls. "Just by moving them around, you can create new beginnings for dogs, and for the families that rescue them."

What's it like having dozens of canines on your plane? "It was remarkably calm," Hermanson says. Well, okay, it was "noisy at the beginning," he admits. "Then they all settled down and went to sleep."

Eric Gutknecht

Eric Gutknecht, CEO of Continental Sausage, makers of CharcutNuvo products, was working as a management consultant in Dallas in 1998 when he fell into his intense passion. "I was bored because there isn't anything to do in Texas," he explains. So Gutknecht taught himself to swim on a whim, and entered a sprint triathlon.

The entrepreneur came out of his first 500-meter swim with folks who'd started two waves behind him. His girlfriend at the time -- now his wife and the company's CFO, Jessica Gutknecht -- was worried he'd drowned. "I was dead last in my age group, but caught up a little on the bike ride," Gutknecht says. He was hardly deterred by his performance; in fact, he says, "I was hooked."

Gutknecht graduated from minis to full triathlons, and has completed over 100, including four Ironman competitions, which are widely considered one of the most grueling one-day sporting events in the world, consisting of a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride and a 26.2-mile marathon, in that order. Ironman training is time-consuming, and Eric awakes every morning at 3 a.m. to ensure his workouts won't compromise valuable time with his family.

Gutknecht's Ironman induction was in Coeur d'Alene, Idaho in 2008. "The water there was freezing cold, and I tore my calf muscle," he recalls. Injury aside, that competition gave Gutknecht the confidence he needed to reach for the Ironman World Championship, held yearly in Hawaii.

In 2012, he made it to Kona, after qualifying with two triathlons in six weeks. "The thing about Kona is that everything about the race is hard," Gutknecht says, explaining, "It's the best of the best: Everyone's fast, and the swimming is totally violent. The bike is the hardest bike on the circuit and the run is through lava fields."

Racing Kona -- or any triathlon, for that matter -- isn't so different from running a thriving food business. Since taking over the family biz in 2003, the Gutknechts have grown Continental Sausage by 500 percent.

The challenges of negotiating triathlon transitions and enduring a long race certainly made Gutknecht more apt for that success. "You look at processes, and every little second counts," he says, offering, "If you're packaging sausage, it really matters how many steps you make."

A busy work schedule -- including a massive company rebrand -- hasn't quelled Gutknecht's competitive spirit. He recently raced the Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon, and is currently trying to qualify for the USA National Team.

Benjamin Frohlichstein and Stacey Marcellus

If they aren't making gluten- and grain-free pastas, frozen pizzas and vegan cookie dough, Cappello's founders Benjamin Frohlichstein and Stacey Marcellus are probably practicing yoga.

For Frohlichstein, "Yoga corresponds to starting the business." He began his career in real estate, but soon was looking for "a new direction," he says, when a friend turned him on to yoga.  Frohlichstein has been saluting the sun each morning even since, and that led to a moonlight practice, too.

"It spiraled out of control from there," says Frohlichstein, who became a certified yoga teacher in 2011, originally with the intent of deepening his own practice.

Marcellus first tried her hand at yoga at a rec center in boulder when she was a teenager.  "My mom and I went together; it was extremely awkward," the yogini recalls, admitting, "Yoga didn't grab me right away." Years later -- in her twenties -- Marcellus discovered Bikram Yoga, followed by alignment-based and flow classes. Today, she maintains a regular yoga and meditation practice that's clearly leaked into her company's mindful business model.  

"Yoga and meditation give us a general respect for all of the people and companies we work with," says Marcellus. "There's actually a lot of support in the industry. It's not as competitive as you'd think."

Being a yoga enthusiast isn't a job requirement, though, the vast majority of the Cappello's crew -- both its corporate employees at the Cole neighborhood headquarters and the folks in the commissary -- practice yoga on some level. Frohlichstein and Marcellus are so passionate about sharing their way of life that they host weekly yoga classes for their employees.  

The company also shares a portion of its profits with Comeback Yoga, a Denver organization delivering yoga-based therapy to veterans struggling with PTSD. "We think of ourselves as a value-based company, and this feels like such an awesome opportunity to be able to support the people and things we believe in," says Marcellus.  

As for the foodies' favorite poses, Marcellus likes crow pose when she's looking to feel grounded, and Frohlichstein is partial to locust pose and headstand. "And who doesn't love a good savasana?" he asks.

Melissa Withem

At Hopdoddy Burger Bar at Union Station, the busy general manager goes by Melissa Withem; in the rink, though, she's Militia Vandal. "There are some days when you just need to hit somebody," she laughs.

Withem first donned a pair of roller skates in college, when she was working as a car hop at a drive-in in Mississippi, and, she's never really taken them off.

When she heard about it about a decade ago, roller derby sounded dangerous and stupid, and Withem knew her parents would hate it. "Naturally, I said I'd love to play, and was a founding member of the derby team in Mississippi," Withem says. When she landed her job in Denver, Withem was psyched to play for the Denver Roller Derby, a league that's typically ranked in the top 10 in the world.

"A lot of the skaters we play with are also on Team USA and Team Colorado," Withem says, mentioning Team USA captain Tracy Akers. Withem herself has held different titles within her organization: sponsorship committee head and team captain for the Green Barrettes, one of Denver Roller Derby's four home teams.

A lot has changed in derby since Withem entered the scene: "When I first started it was theatrical, with fishnets and makeup. Now it's more legit." The sport is now broadcast on ESPN, for starters, and skaters on the traveling teams use their real names. Roller derby nicknames like Militia Vandal, by the way, have long been used as alter egos, and offer a fun nod to the sport's roots.

Managing a restaurant and putting in the time it takes to be a competitive skater isn't easy. "We have to make 21 practices a quarter -- about three a week, and they're each two hours long," says Withem, who is also a trainer for an awful-sounding recurring session called endurance practice.

Derby's good for blowing off steam, but it's also granted Withem access to a community the skater likens to "this huge family." A family that comes in all shapes and sizes, no less. "Women are under pressure to look a certain way, but when you get into derby we need all body types; we can't have a good team without every kind of size and stature," Withem says.

"Roller derby has changed me in a lot of ways," she continues. "It changed my understanding of what teamwork is, which guides me at work."

Read more articles by Jamie Siebrase.

Jamie Siebrase is a Denver-based freelance writer who who writes about art, culture, and parenting for Westword and Colorado Parent.
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