Over sweet potato chips and beers at the West End, Dakota Soifer and Eric Lee hatched their plan to open their own place. Together the former chefs from The Kitchen transformed the old Burnt Toast location into a charming and intimate spot they baptized Café Aion. “We drew our ideas for the restaurant build out on a cocktail napkin,” laughs Eric.
Officially open for 6 months they recently had their most profitable week yet. When asked what their biggest challenge has been they both quickly responded – patience. “Coming from The Kitchen, which has been open for five years, we were expecting the same crowds. The Kitchen is well established and we had it in our heads that it would be like that.”
Neither Dakota nor Eric attended culinary school. They learned their trade in kitchens from Boulder, to San Francisco, to Napa, to England and back to Boulder. Each chef boasts an impressive resume. Dakota having worked at the Zuni Café and Julia’s Kitchen and Eric at The Smoking Dog and the Bell Hotel – the oldest operating hotel in England. Luckily their paths crossed in Hugo Matheson’s place – The Kitchen. Now the two chefs work together at their own place – Café Aion.
On the Build Out: Once we decided on the location for Café Aion there was a huge construction project ahead of us. Among the biggest challenges was working together. We are all alpha males. We did all the work ourselves. Eric got acid burns from rusting out the corrugated metal that wraps around the bar. At the last minute we had to customize the bar stools as we had designed the height of the bar without realizing that our bar stools were too short.
On what we would change: We would start with more money, Dakota laughs. However, not having a huge cushion forced us to make adjustments. We made changes quickly, like offering all night happy hour on Tuesdays and opening for breakfast and lunch in addition to dinner.
Our identity: At Café Aion we’re very into preserved lemon, cumin, coriander, dried fruit and red wine vinegar macerated shallots. This is our toolbox, our skill set to take a seasonal ingredient and think about what it will look like on our menu. This is our place to start – our identity.
On making everything in house: We don’t make our own Dijon and we order cheese, although we do make our own ricotta. We tend to have a long prep time on our menu items and a quick pick up. Two chefs work the line on busy nights. During the day there is only one. Sometimes there is a dishwasher and other times we do the dishes. Pickups have to be easy because it’s a small kitchen.
From the sour dough starter, the housemade charcuterie, preserved lemons and canned and pickled vegetables, Dakota and Eric work at least 65 hours a week. But it’s not without its fun. When they first opened they were enjoying a bottle of sake that Hapa Sushi had sent over as a gift. It was the middle of service and as they were downing sake they suddenly stopped. Is this ok? Who’s the manager? Are we going to get in trouble for drinking during service? And then it hit them that Café Aion is their place and they make the rules.
Favorite cookbook: Moro, La Mere Poulard, River Café, and the Zuni Café cookbooks are at the top of the list for both Dakota and Eric.
Favorite Kitchen Utensil: “My messermeister knife,” says Eric. “Eric’s knife,” jokes Dakota. “My favorite is actually my fingers.”
Chefs we admire: Kelly Whitaker at Pizzeria Basta. Kelly is a super talented chef. Eric Skokan at Black Cat, he’s just a really nice guy. Bobby Stuckey from Frasca has been so supportive and open about communicating information in a really cool way. Hugo Matheson, from the Kitchen. He’s been a fatherly figure. In the beginning he was in here all the time. The paella pans are from him.
Best Meal Ever: Eric: I ate at Chez Panisse and it was great. Also breakfast at a tiny bed and breakfast in England. Sometime the best meal you have has nothing to do with the food, it’s about whom you are with.
Dakota says his favorite meal was the night he and Eric invited friends over and cooked them the first Café Aion menu. “We wrote the menu on chalkboards and had a great time. It was the best dinner party ever. “
White Trash Food: Eric – frozen pizza. Dakota – Ben and Jerry’s.
Eric – I hit a line cook in the face with a frying pan. He kept snapping me with his towel. It was coming to him.
Dakota – during my first Meadowlark Farm dinner I was making porchetta on a spit. As the fat dripped into the fire the flames went crazy so I caught the fat drippings in hotel pans. The hotel pans filled up with fat and caught fire. The fire burnt the string on the pork and it fell into the hotel pans. I was using tongs and towels to grab the porchetta out of the fire. I finally did, scraped it off, retied it and put it back on the spit. Later people told me it was the best pork they ever had.
Advice for Home cooks:
Eric: Don’t burn the toast. My mother burned my toast. Don’t do that.
Dakota: Don’t be nervous and taste as you go.
Advice for culinary students:
Dakota: give yourself at least two weeks to get used to a new job. Then you will get the rhythm down.
Eric: Get out now. Just kidding! Work in the industry before you go to culinary school. Stage first. There is a lot you can love about working in a kitchen, and there is a lot you can hate.
On their location: The hill – it’s the new Brooklyn. There are beautiful college girls that walk by!
Café Aion – 1235 Pennsylvania Ave., Boulder. 303- 993-8131. Breakfast and lunch – Tuesday through Sunday 9:00 am – 3:00 pm. Dinner – Tuesday through Saturday 5:00 – 11:00 pm. Happy Hour daily from 5:00 – 6:30 and again from 10:00 – 11:00pm. Tuesday Happy Hour all night long.