In the 2019 restaurant world, three years can be an eternity. This past New Year’s Eve, Kyle Mendenhall served his last dinner at Arcana in Boulder, where, for more than two years and after two chefs before him, he had leveraged close relationships with farmers and created a Colorado cuisine on a frequently changing menu.
A month later, Arcana is embarking on its fourth year in Boulder’s competitive climate. Mendenhall has left. And Samuel McCandless, with restaurant experience from Frasca Food and Wine to the Squeaky Bean, L20 in Chicago, and the Fifth Floor in San Francisco, has taken over.
“I want this restaurant to thrive,” McCandless said of Arcana’s next chapter.
The restaurant’s first three years have come with challenges. After less than two months open, owners Elliott and Annie Toan fired starting chef Matt Lackey, who later died in a climbing accident. The Toans then hired Mendenhall, longtime chef of Boulder-based the Kitchen, who had just been let go by that company. Regarding his time at Arcana, Eater couldn’t reach Mendenhall for comment.
Now Arcana’s latest chef McCandless is coming onboard after taking a couple-year hiatus from day-to-day cooking. He had been working at Michelin-starred and James Beard-awarded restaurants and decided to stop, get healthy, and get sober. He wasn’t even planning on getting back into the industry.
“There’s only a couple places I would want to go,” he said of the decision, “and this is one of them.”
With restaurants scrutinized now like never before, McCandless said he had some criteria of his own returning to the business. The factors that drew him to this maturing spot in Boulder were both visible and behind the scenes — openness and cleanliness in the kitchen, clear goals, a shared vision, and a staff that’s self-motivated and driven.
“It’s not like, what you did last night, it’s like, what are you doing with your life,” he explained of their mentality coming to work every day. The team he’s speaking of includes sous chef Rob Meier, general manager Michael Elmore, an advanced sommelier, and sous chef Luke Miller, grain-miller and baker of Arcana’s loaves and dinner rolls.
Under McCandless, the restaurant’s Southern-leaning menu is getting an update while maintaining many of Mendenhall’s local purveyors.
New items include the groundnut bun with Benton’s ham and coffee pickled shallots, and Maine lobster grits (pictured above) in a broth McCandless perfected working under Laurent Gras in Chicago. For the changes, the younger chef is drawing on his classic French training as well as “Charleston Receipts,” a Southern cookbook first published by the Junior League in 1950.
Starting next week, he’ll also introduce three- and five-course nightly tasting menus that will highlight new and old dishes and show Arcana’s continuing evolution. “There’s no secrets here,” McCandless said finally, pointing to the name of the restaurant and its ironic definition.