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Kevin Taylor Discusses Business and The Holidays

Chef Kevin Taylor
Chef Kevin Taylor
Photo: Adam Larkey

Kevin Taylor opened his first restaurant in Denver 25 years ago at the age of 25, and now at age 50, he owns five restaurants all within a three-block radius in Denver's theatre district. He works six days a week overseeing Restaurant Kevin Taylor and Prima Ristorante in Hotel Teatro, Palettes in the Denver Art Museum, Kevin Taylor's At The Opera House and Limelight. Taylor sat down for a chat with Eater at Restaurant Kevin Taylor, and while he seems like he's all business these days, he assures that he can still be found on the line cooking during private events. He's seen a lot of restaurants come and go, including his own when Zenith American Grill shuttered after 14 years of business. But, even during rough economic times, Taylor says he's never had to compromise the quality of his food or his fine-dining touch.

So you opened your first restaurant when you were 25?
I opened my first restaurant at 25 because I didn't know what I didn't know. I would have never done it if I knew what it was about, but at 25 you just jump.

What would you have done differently?
I don't know that I would have done anything differently , but when you work for other people you don't know the ugly part of the business — lawyers, HR, liquor licenses, landlords — all the stuff that's difficult, that's not part of being a chef.

But part of being a chef/owner though, for sure.
For sure. And no matter what it is, it pulls you away. Being a chef is already a really stressful job. In the very beginning it's about the adrenaline and it's all very exciting, but the other side is what creates burnout.

How have your restaurants responded to the turbulent nature of the economy?
During this last downturn, we just had to get better at it. Here at the hotel we took a little bit of an opportunity and renovated. We also signed a longer deal and two years ago we started a bigger catering division. One thing we will never be is new again. The good thing is that we've been here a long time and we have a good reputation, so when there are things from out of town and people coming from other places we do incredibly well. That's what longevity brings, but we're never going to be hot and new again.

Have you had to update?
We completely closed and renovated August of last year. We scraped it and started over. If you're going to have fine dining, that's the part that you don't plan for and you basically have a five year window before you have to turn around and sink a lot more money into it. If you have a simple bistro and you can let the chairs go for 20 years, then that's part of the charm of it, but at this level nobody finds that charming.

Do you feel like fine dining has suffered?
Oh yea, for sure. Check averages are down and people are drinking a lot less wine by the bottle, but we haven't strayed from what we're doing and we never have. Upmost quality is very important to me. We don't jump on the bandwagon of discount programs. We lowered prices as food costs went down, but now they're on an upswing again, so what are you going to do? It's been challenging, but we're still here.

How's the holiday season been so far?
It's been good. We're not seeing the guilt. We used to see people canceling parties because it wasn't politically correct to spend a bunch of money. We've had more holiday events than we've seen in a long time.

Are you cooking for the holidays this weekend?
Oh of course. I'm making prime rib with bleu cheese potato gratin. I typically cook on the holidays. We have 18 people this year.

So you don't take a break? Who do you enlist as your sous chef?
I don't. I'm usually on my own.

Do you have advice for young restaurateurs?
What ends up happening when people start out is that they don't think of the longevity of it. It's a very long, long slow process. It's not, "Im going to open a great place and be super hot on The Food Network." It's not that. It's a slow grind. Work every day and every night.

What does your future look like?
You know, I'm here. We look at some projects and expansion from time to time, but the deal has to be right. Right now we're not looking. We're taking what we have and focusing on increasing those properties. We're comfortable.