The Regional Chef finds his Region in Fort Collins
Mar 29, 2019 08:35PM
● By Leland Rucker
The Regional, a locally sourced American restaurant, opened its doors in Ft. Collins in December. It’s in an old two-story brick building that once housed a bank the vault door is still there, now the entrance to the kitchen and chef Kevin Grossi, whose daughter was born just a couple days after it opened is pretty darned excited.
During a recent visit, Grossi shared his approach to cooking and talked about his new place. The first thing that caught my eye on the menu was a small plate called Native Hill Carrots Cooked in Soil. I just had to try that. Grossi obliges while explaining the concept.
“I like to cook things inside things,” he says, and for this one he gets the best potting soil he can find, puts it in a clay pot, sticks fresh, raw carrots into the soil and shoves it in the oven. Timing is key, since the veggies can go from hard to soft very quickly. Served warm, the carrots are decidedly not dirty and simply delicious.
“I like to cook things inside things.”
Grossi says he’s known he wanted to be a chef from an early age, and though he’s been in the business for about two decades, the Regional is his first real sit-down restaurant. Some in Denver might remember the first Regional, a counter inside Avanti Food and Beverage. The new Regional, while retaining the feel of the counter, including a board with specials, seats about 50 people in two pleasant adjoining rooms. Grossi was also chosen recently to be this year’s chef for Mason Jar Event Group’s seasonal cannabis-pairing dinners.
Grossi explains that what he has learned over the years informs the Regional, which is along Mason Street near Mountain Avenue. Grossi grew up in Rochester, Michigan, north of Detroit. He says he wasn’t particularly good in school, or that enamored with it, for that matter. “Have you ever done anything the way other people tell you to do things? I had a hard time with that,” he admits, as a freight train rumbles by outside.
He worked at restaurants, starting as a dishwasher. It wasn’t until he was accepted at Schoolcraft Culinary College in Livonia, MI, that things began to fall in place for Grossi. “I go to culinary school, and all of a sudden I’m on the dean’s list, you know, because it was hands on, and it was different thinking,” he explains. “And that’s why the restaurant industry, to me, was a welcoming area because it was like, ‘I am smart, and here I am.’”
He spent time as a pastry chef, ran an online truffle company called the Chocolate Nation. And he spent seven years working for and studying with Dave Query’s Big F Restaurant Group, the popular Front Range chain that includes the popular Zolo Grill, Lola Coastal Mexican, and Jax Fish houses including a stint as chef at the Ft. Collins outlet for seven years, where he learned a lot about what he wanted, and what he didn’t want, to do.
He’s a big fan of Query and the Big F operation. “They are the masters of ‘The Concept,’” says Grossi. “They have the Mexican seafood and Jax. You know exactly what you’re gonna get when you’re at the Post. There’s a lot of good there, but I don’t want to be like that. I want to be ourselves.”
Another thing he learned over the years was that, when it comes to making good food, simplicity rules. Every time. As he studied in different places, he never found a cuisine he didn’t like. But he was really fascinated with Mexican food and its basic simplicity. “There was just something about the soul of that food, because there was an array of different ingredients, but nothing was complicated,” he says.
He said that once at Big F, trying to impress Query and Lola Coastal Chef Jamey Fader, he started adding ingredients to salsa, trying to be creative. “I just got bashed by Dave and Jamey they love bashing but I’m walking away and wondering, ‘What am I doing wrong?’ It was just five basic ingredients.” He returned with a simpler recipe, which didn’t get bashed. “What I learned from that was just the simplicity and the soul of it.”
The Regional isn’t a Mexican restaurant, but that same simplicity applies to the carrots in soil, appetizers like lightly breaded, fried oyster mushrooms you pull apart by hand, as well as full-plate dishes featuring beef, chicken, lamb, and fish. “I’ve learned all these different kinds of cuisines,” he admits. “But at the end of the day what makes me feel comfortable is cooking food that strikes memories and warm, fuzzy feelings and comfort.”
Grossi grew up eating fried fish and chicken with cornmeal, something reflected once a week at the Regional: Wednesday-night fried chicken made with non-GMO flour. He says he puts a high price on local sourcing for his recipes, personally selecting produce and meat and getting to know the farmers. “People get a little more comfortable knowing that the products are from the farmers they know are not that far down the road,” he says.
He talks about an experience he had in a restaurant when he mispronounced a word on the menu and was rudely corrected. “I remember that feeling of being made to feel like I’m less of a person, you know, and a restaurant experience should be a true Midwestern American feeling of just feeling welcome and easy. We’re not trying to impress people with fancy words or things.”
He has worked with Mason Jar owner Kendal Norris in the past, and he’s looking forward to coming up with menus for the popular dinners, yoga/brunch pairing classes, and events this year. He relishes the challenge of preparing savory food outside the kitchen using unsophisticated gear and equipment. “The chefs have been able to come into these environments and pull out food that people would never dream of,” he says.
He’s also eager to work with Norris on how different foods interact with cannabis for pairing purposes. “Are there certain spices or is it a certain fattiness or a fruit that we can put on the forefront to really make that guest experience memorable?”
He says his staff is settling in, and the Regional has become what he envisioned. “It’s what we put on the walls. It’s the lighting, the music, the food, and the combination of everything,” Grossi says. “But knowing that we’re smaller, it’s just that I have the ability to be different, you know?”