Jon Robbins has worked for chef/restaurateur Frank Bonanno at Mizuna since 2007, and while he's the badass chef de cuisine Tuesday through Saturday, he adopts a different role on select Sundays when he operates Gypsy Kitchen — an underground supper club hosted at Mizuna for 15-20 guests. Robbins, partner/maitre d' Alex Kayir and a few generous volunteer cooks serve a 10-course meal with 5-7 wine pairings during each dinner. It sounds extravagant, and it is, but the price tag is a bit surprising: $100 (plus tip, of course). Do the math — it's an insane deal.
How did you land a job at Mizuna anyway? And when did this Gypsy Kitchen business begin? I was first hired in 2007 [at Mizuna], and I just gotten back from France and I was broke and bored. I wasn't planning on staying in Denver, but I just happened to walk in at the right time. Jean-Philippe Failyau was the executive chef at the time and Osteria Marco wasn't even open yet. It was just Luca and Mizuna. I stayed for three years and loved it, and then I left for a year and a half to work in the Virgin Islands. When I came home for a vacation from the Virgin Islands, I hosted a dinner at my mother's apartment building because she has a commissary party area with a small dining room and an open kitchen, and that's when it all started.
And how did Alex Kayir, your manager of sorts, get involved? I invited Alex to my dinner actually, but she refused to sit down for the meal and insisted on working. We first met when she came into Mizuna years ago, before I left to travel, and we started talking. She was working up the street at Lala's at the time and we just became good friends. She's become quiet important piece to the puzzle. She spends a lot of time writing emails and booking our events.
So you weren't even living here when you started the Gypsy Kitchen? Correct. I went back to the Virgin Islands, and when I went back, my friend Andrew Van Stee [from Potager] started doing Noble Swine, and Alex started going to those dinners. She called me and told me about what they were doing and how it was different from mine. Andrew and I are very close — though I still haven't experienced one of his dinners. He has helped work a Gypsy Kitchen dinner though, and I'd love to have him back.
So how did you jump back in to what you had started? I came back to Denver, but again, I was not expecting to stay. But then I started doing more Gypsy Kitchens, and we've just continued.
How are you making money? We're not. This is a not a for-profit thing.
Is that crazy? Or are you just selfless? Oh, it's a huge ego boost for me. I feel awesome after the dinners. I'm pretty much beat up, and all I think about are the mistakes that happened, but when people come up to me and tell me how amazing they thought it was, it's great. It's definitely not selfless.
Put the price tag in perspective. At Mizuna, we serve eight courses with wine for $200, but there's no way my friends could afford that, so that's another reason I started the Gypsy Kitchen — so my friends could enjoy the experience. I thought it would be fun to write a menu with six courses and four little inbetween things, but, it's kind of developed into 10 small courses. I enjoy marathon eating sessions because you get a board spectrum— fish, salad, cheese, soup — I really enjoy tasting menus. The amount of food and wine you get for the price is ridiculous.
What kind of people typically come to your dinners? It started with friends and it's kind of evolved to where it is today, which is a mix of industry people and Mizuna regulars that enjoy the intimacy.
So what's the goal with Gypsy Kitchen? I'd like to see it grow, and maybe even turn it into a restaurant at some point.
But you'd definitely have to generate a profit to turn it into a restaurant. Yea, and I don't want to talk too much about the concept, but it would be similar. It'd be prix fixe only, and it would be more expensive.
Why so hush-hush about these dinners? I'm not one to push for fame. I think it will come eventually, as long as I focus on the food and what I'm doing instead of focusing on promoting myself. It's about the food. You [as a cook] are here to cook good food. You're not an artist, you're a craftsman. You're pleasing people, you're not pleasing yourself. That's just the philosophy I grew up with.