Goose Sorensen has always stayed true to his humble Wyoming roots. He’s the kind of stand-up guy that would selflessly do anything for his friends. He dutifully takes care of the entire scope of his restaurant, owning everything from electrical to plumbing to wine buying to cooking on the line. And perhaps most impressive of all, he doesn’t give up, even in the face of harsh circumstances.
Eater sat with Sorensen to uncover his early culinary days that began in a frat house to his storied and tumultuous loss with a partner that stole from him and his restaurant, to his favorite food to cook, to colored stories on East Colfax, to what has made Solera successful, despite massive setbacks for 15 years.
The Early Days:
His start in the culinary world began at his fraternity at University of Wyoming in Laramie. He was in school to be a game warden, but his frat’s chef quit, and he took over the job of cooking for 80 people. He eventually stopped going to class and became their full-time cook. The Governor of Wyoming tried his food at an event and told him, "This food is really good!" Sorensen recalls it was the first time anyone really told him something that he did was impressive.
At the age of 20, he decided to move to Denver to pursue his culinary dream. He laughs about those early days where he lived in a buddy’s basement and his bed was on a dirt floor.
He joined Colorado Institute of Art’s two year culinary program and got a job at Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse. He was part of the opening crew there and stayed for a year as their potato fryer.
In his last year of culinary school, Corky Douglas spotted him sitting at a bar and struck up a conversation with him over his "King Ropes" hat, an homage to his Wyoming western roots. He encouraged Sorensen to apply for a cook’s position at his restaurant, Tante Louise. Sorensen became his sauté cook and he learned the subtlety of French cooking alongside working with fresh herbs and produce - something that at the time, he had never done.
During his last semester of culinary school he walked into Mel Master’s kitchen at his famed, Mel’s Bar and Grill to look for a job. Within five minutes he was hired and pulling his knives out of his truck to jump on the line. He said they would "bang out 350 covers at lunch," and he loved the fast paced environment. Sorensen recalls his time with Master as not only the start of a lifelong friendship, but also someone who really encouraged and believed in him.
Mel knew Sorensen could "cook circles" around the other guys so just weeks later, Master opened Starfish, an elegant seafood restaurant in Cherry Creek, where Sorensen became the executive chef.
Sorensen jokes, "I was only a sous chef for two weeks of my life. I was 22 at the time [and was at Starfish for two years]. I haven’t had a boss since."
Starfish received many awards and achieved great success. Sorensen moved into running the restaurant, but that’s when his first partner began stealing from him and the expenses became too costly, so he headed back to the open land of Wyoming for a break.
Sorensen has a deep love for fly fishing. To pursue that, he went to the Saratoga Inn, a small, picturesque resort where he served as a chef and fly fishing guide alongside his brother who was their General Manager at the time.
During this period he got the opportunity to stage in New York at Aquavit, where owner/chef Marcus Samuelsson offered him a line-cook job. Back in Wyoming, as he was getting ready to move to New York, he woke up on September 11th, 2001 and his plans were derailed. With uncertainty for what was next, he decided to pack his bags and move back to Denver.
He found himself in the unruly neighborhood of East Colfax, at a restaurant that started as JP’s (their tagline from an old photo Sorensen has reads: beans, beef, and booze). Next the space was Firefly Cafe for years, and then Ambrosia which had many challenges and needed a major overhaul. Sorensen recalls the opportunity to take the space and make it his own, "fell into his lap," and he couldn’t say no. He initially took the Executive Chef position and later bought the restaurant with a partner and friend from his days at Starfish. Unbeknownst to him, this decision led to years of strife, loss, and setbacks.
Kicking off the 50/50 partnership, Sorensen and his partner completely redid the building and named the restaurant Solera. Sorensen oversaw the back of the house and food, and his partner oversaw front of the house and operations.
Sorensen’s brother who was bartending for him at the time, was the one who initially felt something was off with his partner. As Sorensen starting digging around, he uncovered issues. At the same time, his partner approached him and said he would be leaving in a month, but he was gone the next day and completely disappeared without a trace.
His partner took $40,000 worth of wine, $10,000 in cash, and he hadn’t paid rent on the restaurant in two years. The next day the IRS showed up and soon after, their lawyers sued Sorensen for $108,000.
Sorensen found himself with five lawsuits against him and as he lamented, "not a pot to piss in." He learned the hard way that his partner has been embezzling money and stealing from him since the beginning.
This was only three years into Solera. For the next five years, the sheriff would perpetually show up at the restaurant serving him lawsuit papers or putting a lock on the door and his "parents retirement was over a barrel," in their attempts to help him.
When asked why he didn’t just give up, Sorensen gravely shared, "I am from Wyoming. I am a person who doesn’t screw people over. I am a man of integrity."
Still, times were tough. Every morning he would think to himself, "I don’t think we will be open next week." He shares, "It was a constant battle to keep the front doors open."
He was always negotiating with bills, dealing with bounced checks, rerouting and opening banking accounts, and slowly but surely working on paying everyone back. He remembers meeting with 70 banks during this time to refinance and get money to pay everything back.
Sorensen admits to parking five blocks away so no collectors would see his car at the restaurant. His staff would whistle when a rep came to the front door and he would run out the back door and hide on the roof when he didn’t have money for them that day.
In a desperate attempt to keep things going, he gathered everyone that he owed money to and hosted them for lunch at Solera.
He was honest with them and said, "Here is what I owe. Will you help me? Will you work with me?" He vowed to pay every single penny back.
They all agreed to work with him despite his lack of accounting knowledge or tenured ownership background. To this day, they still want to do business with him because they know he pays his bills and is a man of his word.
Sorensen said he learned to lean into friends, family, and his loyal restaurant patrons for help during this dark time. He even had a regular customer help him pay back his lawyer debt.
This time taught him that "there was no giving up. I’m not a giving up person. I have always made ends meet. It teaches you to be humble and appreciate help from friends along the way."
Sorensen can now see the silver lining and how resourceful this experience made him.
"It’s taught me how to dry wall, do electrical, plumbing, and pretty much anything. Now I can also write a bad ass wine list." There’s nothing he doesn’t do himself. He even plows his own sidewalk and parking lot with his four wheeler that he stows in a neighbors garage behind the restaurant.
Given his background, it’s important to Sorensen to be a supportive resource to his friends. He’s the guy everyone calls if something is broken with their restaurant. For those looking to get into the restaurant business, he’ll dutifully review their contract and terms.
Fast forward to 2016, Sorensen learned the hard way, but he is the sole owner of Solera and he vows that he will never have a partner again. He’s very close to being debt free, he owns the building, and Solera celebrated 15 years of successful business in October.
East Colfax - The Neighborhood:
Sorensen admits East Colfax has undergone a lot of improved changes. He used to carry grizzly bear spray with him and had many a break-in at the restaurant. He remembers hosting a wine lunch with the Mondavi family and many wine influencers at Solera and to his dismay, he saw three prostitutes working the corner, outside his front window. This wasn’t uncommon.
He’s also realistic about the area, "I mean, I’m next to a Popeye's - it’s the bane of my existence."
Over the course of 15 years, times have changed. He loves seeing the growth of the neighborhood and he sees himself as a steward of the community.
"I’ve loved the progress in the neighborhood. There’s great energy here and I love the small, tight-knit community." Sorensen himself even lives nearby. The neighborhood even recently won a bid for $500,000 to do street and light improvements in the area through the Colfax Business Improvement District.
Sorensen is grateful for his regulars who continually show up and make Solera what it has become. He credits the warm atmosphere, consistency, and not being too "chichi" as to why locals return year after year.
"Solera is like my house basically. We care. It’s cozy," says Sorensen. "There’s heart and soul to the restaurant."
When he started Solera, he saw a lot of French and Italian restaurants in Denver, but no Spanish influence. Since he loved Spain’s people and cuisine, he went for it.
"The food is simple. They’re farmers and people who work the earth and use the best ingredients they possibly can." Sorensen said it all reminded him from where he came from. Not to mention, "They’ve been doing farm to table for hundreds of years."
Although he focuses on changing his menu with regularity and his guys in the kitchen play around and have creative freedom, there are a few standbys.
They’re most famous for the calamari. When sharing this fact, he almost rolls his eyes, it’s something he did at Starfish 20 years ago, but people can’t get enough of it and he admits, "okay, okay, it’s good." His chefs make a bet each night on the first order, and it’s always calamari. He says people would go up in arms if he took it off the menu. It starts with a simple syrup of rice wine vinegar and chilies, and the calamari is dredged in cracker meal and flour, then fried. It’s then pan tossed with fresh mint, cilantro, spicy, roasted peanuts and cayenne peppers.
He also sells a lot of their paella and their famed side dish, the truffle mac and cheese that has been on the menu for years.
Sorensen is also proud of being a boy from Wyoming who can put together a decent wine list that’s filled with Spanish influence and 120 bottles strong. He hosts wine classes every Saturday for his staff, to ensure they’re educated and kept honest on what they’re providing customers.
He credits his staff for sticking with him and being such a part of the restaurant’s success, as well. His chef, Nick, has been with him for seven years and he’s just 26-years-old. He also had a bar manager with him for 11 years. They’re like family to him. All those years of strife, where he paid them before himself, pays off.
These days, things are a bit more regulated for Sorensen. He still cooks on the line in his kitchen every Friday and Saturday night and although he ensures he still touches every part of the restaurant, he’s allowing himself to also look back and be proud of what he has accomplished in the last 15 years.
He has seen a lot come and go in Denver and is glad Solera has maintained all these years. Sorensen laughs knowing he’s in a unique category, "If I had a dime for every restaurant that closed in Denver, in the 15 years since we have been open, I would be rich."
In his spare time he loves to tend to his garden. He rents out his neighbors backyard -behind Solera - where he plants and grows tomatoes, radishes, squash, eggplant, and herbs like mint and cilantro to help fuel his dishes. He plows the lot with his four wheeler and remembers the solace he felt in his garden during his tumultuous years. Next year he plans to put an irrigation system on the roof and grow tomatoes on the roof.
He spends time on charities and giving back to organization’s such as Brent’s Place and Colorado Youth at Risk. He puts his heart into every endeavor, and these opportunities to give back are no exception to his code of ethics.
When he cooks at home Sorensen admits his favorite is to cook soup. He loves snowy days where he can hunker down and make curry butternut squash soup or a seafood chowder.
One of his fondest food traditions is cooking for his entire extended family in Wyoming on Christmas Eve. He joked initially it was to get out of going to church because he had so much food prep, but now it’s become a true production where he cooks steak and brings caviar and oysters from his restaurant. He makes a table side ceasar salad and his brother does the serving with him. He said typically 25 relatives show up and then he hosts a 70-80 person Christmas dinner the next day.
Currently, he’s collaborating with his longtime friend and Denver restaurant veteran, Jesse Morreale as the consulting chef for the soon-to-be open, Thunderbird Imperial Lounge. The restaurant is owned by Larimer Group and Sorensen is helping consult with the menu, food, and kitchen. He’s happy to be able to help as Solera is running smoothly now and he’s excited to see the opening which he believes should be within the next 2-3 weeks.
In the end, Sorensen’s just glad he’s made it out alive and has something to show of it. He knows he didn’t get here alone and his humble and giving nature is a direct reflection of that.
"I’m not a prideful person, so I have to let myself be proud of what I’ve done," shares Sorensen. "After massive amounts of debt and negativity in my life, I’m now proud of what I’ve got."