After months of waiting ChoLon is finally open. ChoLon, which translates as “big market”, is named after the largest Chinese-influenced market in Saigon, Vietnam. The menu will feature inspired interpretations of traditional Asian dishes with presentations ideal for sharing. Becky and I attended the friends and family dinner and are thrilled to report that ChoLon is everything we thought it would be. From the duck spring rolls, papaya salad and the most amazing chicken (yes, chicken!) Lon Symensma and his Sous Chef Ryan Gorby have taken Denver dining to an entirely new level. A few weeks ago I had a chance to interview Lon and talk about his concept. After a tour of the “tricked out” kitchen – there are fun toys to play with – I sat down with Lon and Ryan. It was noon and they wanted beer – it’s always 5:00 somewhere.
“How many questions are you going to ask?” Lon wanted to know. I said about 20 and those 20 turned into more like 50 and the 45 minutes I usually allot for an interview turned into over two hours. There is nothing like talking to a chef who is passionate and yet humble about his experience. And humble he doesn’t have to be.
What a life Lon Symensma has had – from Iowa to New York to France to Italy to Shanghai and now to Denver.
At age 14 Lon got a job at a diner washing dishes. “I quickly learned that it was more fun to get the dishes done and then help the other cooks prep. From there I moved to a country club. I would leave school early so I could go and make my salad dressings,” says Lon.
That was the start of his illustrious career. At age 19 Lon became the youngest chef to compete on the ACF National Apprentice Team. The job of the apprentice team was to assist the professional chefs. That year the USA received the silver medal. Lon attended the CIA in 1997. He taught at the CIA in 1999. He studied in France in 2000. At one point he lived with Daniel Boulud’s parents in France. “Daniel’s Dad would wake me up at 4:00am to go forage morel mushrooms.” In France Lon cooked with Roger Verge, and at L’Bastide St. Antoine with Chef Jacques Chibios.
After returning from France he won a scholarship to go to study in Italy. “When I got back from Italy I was dead broke. My friend Alicia invited me to New York and said I could stay with her. I ended up in a beautiful brownstone on the Upper East Side living with Chad Ogden – Bradley Ogden’s son. We cooked together all the time. It was here that Lon and Alicia continued to talk about their plans, hatched during their time together at the CIA, of opening a restaurant.
Lon went on to cook in New York at Buddakan, Spice Market and Jeans George. He was also part of the opening team at Jeans George Shanghai. Now Lon is in Denver and his dream of opening a restaurant with Alicia and her husband Jim has come true. ChoLon opens to the public today.
Why Denver? Denver is the next big food city. Give it two years and I foresee a dozen of the best chefs in the country opening places here. You know how Portland is exploding and is getting more press and buzz than restaurants in New York? That’s what’s going to happen in Denver. There is money, green technology and young professionals who appreciate food.
Any culture shock? No. I grew up in Iowa. Moving to NYC was more of a culture shock than moving to Denver.
The menu at ChoLon: Dishes will be influenced from Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand.
Research and Development Trip to Vietnam: I went with Ryan and a great friend of mine, Robert Danhi, who is an expert on Asian flavors. He was my instructor at the CIA. I’m glad he came on the trip with us as he could provide information about the roots and history of every dish we tried.
French vs. American kitchens: I learned discipline in France. I learned about the regimented brigade system. I learned about ingredients. Every few days the chef would drive all the cooks to a local farmers market. These trips were unpaid but we all went. Our chef wouldn’t say anything to us about what we should buy; he would just look at a vegetable and nudge his head. All of us would run to get it. Believe me, you wanted to be the one to get there first.
Most influential chef in your life: I could say the most obvious thing, but it was Chef Donald Miller who was the Executive Chef at Notre Dame. To this day I am the biggest Notre Dame fan. I had really long hair at the time and he told me that to work in his kitchen I better cut it off, so I did. After our shifts were over we would stay late and race to see who could break a chicken down faster. We would quiz each other on wine, make custom terrine pans in the Notre Dame shop and then go to work and do it again.
Favorite station: Wok
Are you cooking on the line or expediting: I will expedite as this is a new staff. If my head is constantly down looking at what I am making, I can’t see what else is going on in the kitchen. No plate will leave the pass until both Ryan and I look at it and taste it.
If you weren’t cooking Asian? I would do regional Italian. I know more about Italian food from studying in Italy than I know about Asian food.
Why Asian? Jeans George, Spice Market. Did you know that Italian reds and German whites pair the best with Asian flavors?
Biggest kitchen disaster: Not mine, but while cooking in a very prominent kitchen I saw a very well known chef over do lamb and SERVE IT.
Favorite cookbook: Le Guide Culinaire.
Favorite kitchen tool: Vita mix
If you could eat anywhere in the world right now where are you eating? South America. I expect that soon you will see more Latin influenced cuisine.
Most manly cooking method: the wok. You ever try to flip 5 cups of rice in a wok? It’s heavy and it’s hot.
Favorite white trash food: Velvetta shells and cheese. I like the cheese packet.
Most tedious kitchen job ever: At Charlie Trotters I had to go through buckets of peas picking out the green from the not so green ones. Working there was so inspiring. Every day before service Charlie would call his chefs out into the courtyard and give the most motivational speeches. We would practically be crying going into service.
Rules in my kitchen: I want everyone to feel as though they are a part of the restaurant. I want them to leave every night knowing that they did something unique. I don’t want anyone to work at ChoLon for a paycheck.
Biggest kitchen pet peeve: Laziness. I don’t want anyone smoking. No smoke breaks. I want it to be quiet during service. There is no need for talking. Service is like an orchestrated symphony. I am the conductor. The kitchen is the stage. No frantic energy. You must have calmness about you going into service.
What would you like to put on the menu at ChoLon but are hesitant to: Chicken liver mousse, headcheese, and tongue terrine. I would love to do some really cool bahn mi and some offal rillettes but I don’t think we’re quite there yet.
Advice for young cooks: Travel as much and as young as you can. Most of my success comes from exploring other cultures. Don’t go through the ranks too quickly. Don’t expect to be a sous chef 6 months out of culinary school.
Advice for home cooks: Don’t take a recipe too seriously. Have fun with cooking.
What do you do to relax after service: Sit on my porch and listen to the crickets. There are a lot of crickets here.
Molecular Gastronomy: Yes, when it serves a purpose. Check out the chicken or the rib eye at ChoLon to see how Lon and Ryan have used transglutiminase to make these dishes phenomenal.
Most nervous moment: plating dishes for Paul Bocuse at Num Cha. My hands were literally shaking.
Last words: Be true to yourself. Be true to your concept. Be humble. Set the standard. Push your crew to the next level of expectation. I want to be friends with everyone in Denver.
ChoLon – 1555 Blake St., Denver. 303-353-5223. Hours are Monday – Thursday 11:00 a.m. – 10:00 p.m. Friday 11:00 a.m. – 11:00 p.m. Saturdays from 5:00 – 11:00 p.m.