Talking While Eating

At monthly tastings of potential new menu items at the restaurant Gather, the owners want you to let your inner food critic loose.

By Lila EdythE
PHOTOGRAPHY BY Ryan Dorgan

Each chef presents one item, which is served family style. Before digging in, tasters get a quick description of the dish from the chef who made it.

Each chef presents one item, which is served family style. Before digging in, tasters get a quick description of the dish from the chef who made it.

THE ROASTED BABY beets on top of a Colorado peach-French Brie galette look creepy. Also, there’s not nearly enough Brie. But the cornbread galette itself is delicious; I’ve never had cornbread I’ve enjoyed so much. Rather than topped with long-tentacled baby beets, though, I want it topped with ice cream.
In the next dish, the lamb rillette looks like tuna salad, in a not-good way. The beet chips beneath the rillette are wonderfully crunchy, but the accompanying cucumbers, even if fresh from a local farm, do not go well with the smokiness of the lamb. The carrot-caramel sauce artistically brushed beneath everything is worthy of licking off the plate. But I restrain myself.

I do not have to restrain myself when it comes to sharing my feelings for these dishes, though, even if I am lunching with Graeme Swain, co-owner of the restaurant I’m eating at, Gather. My feelings, and those of my fourteen fellow tasters, are the point of this culinary adventure named Tuesday Tastings at 2.

Gather started doing Tuesday Tastings at 2 shortly after it opened in December 2014. Held the first Tuesday of every month, the late lunch has the restaurant’s three main chefs, executive chef Clark Myers, chef de cuisine Chas Baki, and sous chef Abe McKinnon, each fix a dish they think would make for a worthy special addition to the restaurant’s regular menu. Up to fifteen diners—no qualifications necessary—judge the dishes on presentation, taste, and creativity. Sometimes wine is also served, but Swain isn’t looking for the same depth of feedback on spirits as he is on the food.

Each dish is brought out family style, and the chef that created it comes out to introduce it. All of the chefs are obviously more comfortable with produce than people; each races through the description of his dish and then quickly disappears. I do wonder if the chefs hide just out of sight as we begin talking about the presentation of their dishes, the first of the three things Swain is looking for us to judge.

“The beets look creepy,” says Melinda Binks, a documentary filmmaker and television producer. Now that Binks has pointed that out, many others at the table agree. Comments start flying like mashed potatoes at a food fight.

THE FIRST DISH out is from chef de cuisine Baki: a Colorado peach and French Brie galette with lavender-pepper gastrique. I love how the yellow-orange of the cornbread and peaches pops beneath the deep purple roasted baby beets. Baki gets an 8 for presentation from me. Another taster disagrees: “The beets look creepy,” says Melinda Binks, a documentary filmmaker and television producer. Now that Binks has pointed that out, many others at the table agree. Comments start flying like mashed potatoes at a food fight. “They’re like tentacles reaching up for you,” a woman across from me says. “They are not appetizing,” her husband adds. And he doesn’t eat them. I stick with my 8, though. I think the “tentacles” reinforce how fresh these beets are. Baki roasting them brings out their sweetness, and the “tentacles,” which I usually cut off beets I roast at home, have a softer texture than the rest of the vegetable. They might look creepy, but they taste good and have a pleasant mouthfeel. But not enough to make up for the dearth of Brie flavor in the dish.

When Baki described this galette, it was “Brie” that I heard the loudest, but the cheese is, sadly, not the loudest flavor. It’s more of a whisper. The cornbread galette is the best cornbread I’ve ever had, though.

The group gets into a conversation about whether this should be a dessert or an appetizer. My vote is dessert: Put more peaches on top of the galette and top the whole thing with lavender ice cream. I’m outnumbered. Two-thirds of the tasters want it to be an app—get rid of the peaches, up the Brie, and drizzle it with a savory sauce of some sort. This discussion leads to talk about the dish’s creativity. I give it a 7 because of the combination of flavors. Other tasters rate it from 5 to 8.

I have problems grading the galette’s taste. After all, the cornbread at the heart of it is the best I’ve ever had. I eat the first piece I’m given, and then I go back for a second piece. And a third piece. Neither of my final two pieces has peaches or Brie on them, but that’s fine, because it’s the cornbread I want more of. But chef Baki billed the dish as a Colorado peach and French Brie galette, so the tastes did not live up to those that were promised. After struggling for several minutes, I end up hesitantly rating the taste a 7, and voice to Swain that had I not been expecting peaches and Brie, I’d give it a 10.

Swain’s final question about the galette is about pricing: “How much would you pay for this and feel like you got a good value?” Tasters throw out figures from $12 to $19. Eventually, we decide we could all live with $14. (Not that this dish makes the cut to be a special menu item in the end.)

Only one of the three dishes we taste—the final one, executive chef Myers’ Tippets Ranch New York strip with carne asada, succotash, and corn smut—ends up making it as a special. When Myers first describes it, “corn smut” doesn’t sound too good. When he describes it further, it doesn’t sound any better—it’s a fungus that grows on corncobs. Had I been out at a regular dinner and contemplating ordering this dish, such a description would have dissuaded me. But at Tuesday Tastings, you get what you get, so I eat corn smut.

The steak is superb and cooked a perfect medium-rare. But it is corn smut’s rich, earthy flavor that makes the dish. All of the tasters give it a 9 or 10 in all three categories: presentation, taste, and creativity. It is decided that corn smut needs to be called something other than “corn smut.” “There’s no instance where that sounds appetizing,” one diner says. Prior to this Tuesday Tasting, I’ve done two others at Gather. At both of those, all of the dishes got ratings like Myers’ steak did at this one. Swain isn’t disappointed with the two duds, though. “It’s a true testament to the process,” he says. “That is why we do what we do, to get the best items for the menu.”

Executive chef Clark Myers, center, helps Chas Baki finish his French Brie and Colorado peach galette dish.

Executive chef Clark Myers, center, helps Chas Baki finish his French Brie and Colorado peach galette dish.

Graeme Swain, co-owner of Gather, presides over Tuesday Tastings at 2, looking for guests to be food critics. Gather’s three chefs bring out new dishes and tasters critique them. Only the best make it onto the weekly menu of specials.

Graeme Swain, co-owner of Gather, presides over Tuesday Tastings at 2, looking for guests to be food critics. Gather’s three chefs bring out new dishes and tasters critique them. Only the best make it onto the weekly menu of specials.

Executive chef Myers’ Tippets Ranch New York strip was the winner at a tasting last fall.

Executive chef Myers’ Tippets Ranch New York strip was the winner at a tasting last fall.


Nuts & Bolts

Tuesday Tastings at 2 are held at 2 p.m. the first Tuesday of every month. Each is filmed, and you can watch past tastings at the restaurant’s website. Advance reservations required; $20 per person; 72 S. Glenwood St.; 307/264-1820; gatherjh.com

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