By Mark Antonation, Westword
When chef Cindhura Reddy and front-of-the-house manager Elliot Strathmann purchased Spuntino from John Broening and Yasmin Lozada-Hissom, another husband-and-wife pair, last September, whatever jitters they had quickly disappeared as they got back to business with the crew that had already coalesced at Spuntino. Strathmann had been working the dining room and bar program of the comfy Italian eatery in Highland for a year, much of it as general manager, and Reddy had come on board as chef de cuisine in March 2014. During the next six months, Broening and Lozada-Hissom had slowly stepped away from the everyday routine of running the restaurant, so Reddy and Strathmann were already used to the decision-making and planning required for running a small business.
“I was given a lot of flexibility with the menu,” explains Reddy, and the two had already been responsible for hiring. “We cultivated our own staff,” adds Strathmann.
The couple had known they wanted to have their own place some day, but they didn’t expect it to happen so quickly. “Owning our own restaurant when we’re both under thirty is something we never could have foreseen,” says Strathmann. In fact, a career in the service industry wasn’t exactly an early dream for either of them. They met at Oberlin College in Ohio, when both were angling for law school. But food was always in the mix for Reddy, who’d been raised on the Indian dishes that her parents, who moved from South India to the United States when they were in their early twenties, cooked on a regular basis. “I became familiar with goat and lamb at an early age,” Reddy recalls. “It’s still the best food I’ve ever had — my dad’s curry.” Big Sunday family meals were a regular part of her childhood, and she has fond memories of helping to prepare them.
And she took her love of cooking to college, where she continued to hone her skills in makeshift dorm setups and small apartments. Eventually her desire to take her cooking to the next level overwhelmed her interest in pursuing a law degree. “It was definitely a passion, and it just took a little push from Elliot,” she recalls. After the two graduated, Reddy enrolled in the culinary program at the Art Institute in Philadelphia, while Strathmann began learning the ropes of restaurant management. Philadelphia was a natural choice for the couple, since Strathmann’s family lived there. “It was a good chance for my family to get to know Cindhu better,” he explains.
While in culinary school, Reddy took a job with noted Philadelphia chef Michael Solomonov’s restaurant group, starting out doing prep work at Zahav, one of Philadelphia’s top eateries. “I was fortunate to join such a great company right away,” she explains. “Mike was a great mentor.”
Strathmann’s route to a restaurant career was similarly grounded in home cooking, but he was a late bloomer when it came to appreciating culinary variety. “I was an obnoxiously picky eater,” he remembers. But the suburban Philadelphia of his childhood was experiencing a wave of new ethnic eateries, and his father discovered a passion for Thai cuisine that soon led to cookbooks and experiments at home as well as many, many takeout orders. In high school, Strathmann began helping his dad prepare Thai dishes — and within no time, he was hooked on the exotic spices and ingredients. But it wasn’t until he met Reddy and encouraged her to pursue cooking professionally that he realized that customer service was an appealing career choice. “I was a shy kid, and this was a great way for me to develop interaction with people,” he explains.
After Strathmann and Reddy married, they took nine months to tour the globe and explore the world of traditional foods and farming. Starting in Vietnam, their journey took them through 23 countries before ending in Portugal. Along the way, they spent two months in South India and also visited Thailand, Egypt, Turkey, Italy, France and Spain. To help defray expenses, they participated in World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, an organization that exchanges room and board for farm labor. “Basically, we were traveling where we wanted to eat,” Strathmann says.
Vietnam and Thailand were their favorite countries for food, especially the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai. But they enjoyed many other experiences, too. “I still remember the squid curry we had at that guy’s house,” Strathmann says of a home-cooked meal that friends they made along the way cooked in a small coastal town in India.
In Italy, they worked on farms in the Abruzzo region, tending vineyards in exchange for food. “There was a guy who lived in a caravan down the hill from the farm, and he showed us how to forage for wild asparagus,” remembers Reddy. “We made a frittata out of the asparagus we found.”
Another memorable meal came after a long day of farm work, when the owner of the farm prepared a meal of spaghetti carbonara using eggs from the farm, fresh-made pasta, and bacon from the village butcher. It was a simple dish that captured the flavors of the region; the owner explained to them that carbonara is hearty miners’ food and that the black flecks of pepper represent coal from the nearby mines. What Reddy took from that experience is “Don’t mess with the carbonara.” So at Spuntino, she serves it as a winter dish that’s nothing more than pasta, eggs, black pepper and Tender Belly bacon; she braises a whole side of the cured pork belly and uses a three-ounce portion for each plate.
In central France, they worked on a farm that produced goat milk for cheese. “We milked the goats at seven and five every day,” Reddy explains. “If you still eat goat cheese after that, you really like goat cheese. You just smell like a goat all day.” Now she serves braised Colorado goat, sourced from Tonali’s Meats, with a traditional Venetian pasta called gargati that’s made in-house. In fact, all of Spuntino’s pastas are made from scratch using a hand-cranked pasta roller. “I’m really proud of our pasta program,” she notes. “It’s not just one person; everyone on the staff takes turns.”
“We all have really strong shoulder muscles from turning the crank,” jokes Strathmann.
After their trip and several years in Philadelphia, the couple moved to Denver in 2013 to be closer to Reddy’s family, whose members had congregated in Colorado over the years. Sunday dinners still happen occasionally, usually at the home of her sister, who Reddy says is also an amazing cook.
Working at Spuntino was Strathmann’s first job in Denver, which he landed only a few days after arriving in town. Reddy got a job at Tables in Park Hill before the opportunity opened at Spuntino. She says she’s grateful for her time at Tables, which takes a similar approach to high-quality, locally sourced cuisine in a casual neighborhood setting.
When it became clear that Broening and Lozada-Hissom were ready to sell, Reddy and Strathmann jumped at the chance. “I felt like it was our staff and our regular customers even before we took over,” says Reddy. “We have a great group of regulars. Having an open kitchen is great because I get to interact with them.”
Broening is now heading the kitchen at Argyll Whisky Beer, and Lozada-Hissom has been doing some traveling of her own, but the four still keep in touch regularly. “I was just talking to her about tempering chocolate,” says Strathmann, who has been trying his hand at making chocolate truffles for the dessert menu, which still features Lozada-Hissom’s singular caramel-and-sea-salt tart, made by Spuntino’s pastry cook, Victor Hernandez, who has been there longer than anyone else on the current staff. “He’s one of the few people on the planet who can execute her recipes to her satisfaction,” Strathmann notes.
Reddy and Strathmann both relish the chance to use products from small farms in the metro area on the seasonal menu. Reddy’s rabbit rillettes are made from meat sourced at Spring Tree Farms Rabbitry in Longmont. And there’s a new batch of fiddlehead ferns from Hunt & Gather, a foraging business that provides wild produce from California, Oregon and Colorado. “They bring in these amazing mushrooms like I’ve never seen before,” she notes.
In the summer, they buy tomatoes and squash from Mike Miller at Carriage Lot Gardens, who also takes the kitchen’s compostable waste. “And our head server is starting a greenhouse, so we’ll be working with him,” the chef adds.
Meanwhile, Strathmann has been mastering housemade limoncello and three varieties of amaro, the style of Italian bitter liqueur that typically uses blends of dozens of herbs and spices. He grew many of the herbs for his amaro in planter boxes in front of the restaurant. He’s also working on a series of sidecars for the drinks menu, cocktails or spirits paired with a single bite on the side. A recent offering was an organic Paraguayan white rum that he and his team barrel aged, spiced and served with sweet pickled Granny Smith apples.
Since the two are still relatively new to Denver and focusing on their own restaurant, they haven’t gotten out much — but they love what they’ve encountered so far. “We hope for two days off together every week, but it doesn’t always happen,” says Strathmann.
“We have been up to the mountains...once,” deadpans Reddy.
Still, with their obvious ability to thrive as a team and their shared sense of adventure, they’ll be exploring the state’s scenery and Denver’s food scene soon enough. Reddy sums up her impression of Denver with a line that could also serve as a theme for Spuntino’s new owners: “It’s a young town, and people are really excited about food.”
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