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Ox Chefs Greg and Gabi Denton on Food Allergies and Their New Cookbook

Today, Eater is covering the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen live from the Eater Lounge at the Limelight Hotel. Right now: chefs Greg Denton and Gabrielle Quinonez Denton
Greg Denton and Gabrielle Quinonez Denton [Photo: Raphael Brion/Eater]

Congratulations, Best New Chefs.
Greg Denton: Thank you! Very happy about it. It's kind of a cliche, but it really is a dream come true.

How's Ox going?
Greg: Ox is going well. It's busy, but we're very fortunate that we haven't really had a slowdown. We've just had such great press at great times. It's all really been on the up and up.

I want to talk about that photo that you guys took of the allergy board.
Gabrielle Quinonez Denton: I saw that popped back up again!
Greg: I can't believe it got the press that it did. It was on Huffington Post, it was on Eater National... I guess it spoke to a lot of people.

Is that something that you're seeing all the time now?
Gabi: Well, that was special that one night because that was our New Year's Eve where we did a special set menu. We found out that information from people when we took reservations. So we knew what to be planning for, we just needed to know for what table and for what time. But that's very different from a regular dinner service for us. Because of the way we've put our menu together, there's never really an issue. We can handle gluten-free or dairy allergies pretty easily, because we can just leave something off, and we start a lot of our dishes with olive oil rather than butter.

The hardest issue with allergies on a nightly basis, for us, is olive oil allergies and garlic allergies. Garlic allergies are tough for us because we baste our meats with herbs and garlic on the grill, and the chimichurri is sort of the starting and ending point for a lot of people's meal. They don't get to eat that; we don't have any specially set aside without garlic.
Greg: The olive oil allergy is rough.
Gabi: Because we marinate meat in olive oil!

That's a weird one, I haven't heard too much of that.
Greg: We've had two of them so far, and it surprises us because we use it so much.

Do they call and give you a heads-up, or do they just walk in and say "oh, by the way..."
Greg: No.
Gabi: And that's what we tell them, next time you come in, just let us know ahead of time. Let us know what you feel like eating and we can even make a special little one-person batch just for you. That's if we know you're coming in. But we can't do that in the middle of dinner service. But that New Year's night was definitely a challenge. Like I said, we knew ahead of time that we would have ten gluten allergies, five shellfish allergies, one person that's gluten-, dairy-, and pineapple- or whatever-free... so we did have special dishes already planned for them.
Greg: But it was really surprising, on a night where we take reservations, we ask if there's any allergies at all, and that amount of allergies came out. Good thing we had all of these contingency plans in place, because that was the only way we were able to get through a night like that. For the most part we're pretty good with allergies and are very conscious of people with allergies. We actually set our menu so it's very much a choose-your-own-adventure. We can remove most things, animal proteins, things like that.

I'm just impressed with this allergy thing, seeing just how pervasive it is.
Greg: We have respect for people who have severe, serious allergies. Especially nut allergies, shellfish allergies — things that can really kill you. We'll take all precautions. We wash utensils, we switch cutting boards, we put gloves on if we have to. We ask about the fryer oil. But at some point, we have to ask, "Is this OK?" and they're like, oh yeah, that's fine.
Gabi: Right, like maybe it's rice flour-coated onion rings, but fried in a fryer that we fry donuts in, so there will be gluten in that fryer. And when they're just like, "Oh well that's OK," it's like: so, you're not really allergic. Maybe you're sensitive, or this is just the diet you chose.
Greg: And we get people sometimes who say, "I'm just trying not to eat..."
Gabi: And then you see them snacking on bread.
Greg: I would say that's probably 40-60% of the allergies, is mostly preferences or it makes their stomach hurt, or they think it makes their stomach hurt. It's probably closer to self-diagnosed allergies, intolerances, sensitivities. But anyone who says they're allergic to something, we take it very seriously. I do find it interesting that people with really serious allergies do put their lives in the hands of culinary professionals.
Gabi: There are those people who will tell you, "This food will kill me; I have an EpiPen on me." And it's like, but you didn't call ahead? We are so, so diligent when we find out on the line that now we've got a new set of pans, a new set of tongs and spoons and whatever we might need to cook your food for you. But to have that trust in anybody… We're a restaurant that cares, but how many restaurants do you go to that don't care or don't have the paranoia that we have? Someone doing prep earlier in the day might decide just to wipe their cutting board down instead of washing it before moving on to the next task.

Did you ever think when you're going into the business that people's lives are going to be in your hands?
Greg: No, but we started taking it really seriously when we worked at Terra and we were told about a waiter who was allergic to peanuts, who ate family meal and didn't tell anybody that he was allergic. He passed out in the bathroom while he was getting ready, with the door locked, and he did die. He died from it. From family meal. And sure, people talk about EpiPens, but at least in this state, you need a prescription for that. It's not like we can have EpiPens available.
Gabi: Oh, I thought I read in the Eater article that someone did have one in the restaurant?
Greg: Well, they might have an allergy, or have it from somewhere else. But we tried to get one, and they said, "Oh, no, you need an allergy."

Maybe you need to find a friend of a friend who can get you one, just in case...
Gabi: I can't even imagine busting that out in the middle of the dining room during dinner service.
Greg: Or then you get sued because you stick somebody with an EpiPen.

Yeah, and they bruise.
Greg: [laughs] Right. It was a very interesting piece, though. And you don't want people to have to stay home who are allergic to things. But if you're really allergic to something, call ahead, have a small piece of paper printed out with what your severe allergies are. Those things really put the restaurant on high alert. A lot of times, people are already into their meal when they tell us, "Oh, by the way, I'm allergic to walnuts."

So, shifting gears. You guys have a cookbook coming out? What's the name, when's it coming out?
Greg: The working name is Around the Fire.
Gabi: We're hoping they keep it, we like it! And we heard they liked it, but apparently it's real rare, like one in ten books gets to keep the name that it starts with. We get to work on it until March of next year. And then Ten Speed Press gets it for another year to put it together. So it should be out spring of 2016, right before Father's Day.
Greg: We'll be doing a majority of the photos in Portland this Summer, and then we'll go down to Argentina in October and get some good shots down there and really experience it.

What's it going to be about, exactly?
Greg: We really want it to be about the food.
Gabi: Primarily, it's grilled food, but it's all that happens around the grill. It's not just the items you cook on the grill. In our restaurant, where there's only so much room on the grill, we couldn't put more menu items on the grill if we chose to. But it's the same at home, whether you're entertaining around the grill or just cooking for yourself, you don't necessarily want everything to be grilled. Your whole menu is never all grilled. You like that balance. What we try to do on our menu is, for instance, chilled seafood preparations to start, something light and bright and spicy, just to get your palate going. Then we move into meatier things. So, as much as the book will be restaurant-based, there will be some things that haven't been featured on our menu, because we don't have space on our grill.
Greg: I think every cookbook is trying to be inspirational. We want people to be inspired, to realize that different combinations work with different proteins, and then to have fun with it. I think that's the focus. People don't just have to pull the barbecue out during the Summer, on the Fourth of July. You can actually have it as a piece of equipment that you use all year long, depending on where you live. We barbecue in the rain all the time.
Gabi: Part of it is also translating what we do at the restaurant, where we have this super fancy, multi-thousand dollar grill, which is a luxury most home cooks don't have. We have to give options to home cooks who don't have such wild equipment. But our starters, our vegetable dishes, our garden dishes, those will be in there, as well, as food to complement what you're putting on the grill.

Sounds good, I'm excited for it.
Gabi: Thank you. We're super stressed about it! It's not fun and glamorous as I thought it was, which was very foolish on my part. The fun part was trying to figure out which recipes are going in, and now that we're actually putting the recipes together and testing things, it's like, crap! That sounded a lot better, this isn't worthy, we can't put this in the book!
Greg: Oh, and it's so far ahead of time that you're now putting new items on the menu that you're just as excited about, but you already have these recipes down. But you have to cut it off at some point in time.
Gabi: You think that a year is a long time to put it together, but it's not. Just getting ten to twenty recipes done a month, before all the other writing and the stories we're trying to tell, and instruction and technique that we want to talk about behind the recipes. You realize how in the weeds you are. But we have a really good photographer [Evan Sung], so at least we know it'll be delicious-looking, no matter what.

One last question. Have there ever been any sort of endorsement deals or deals in general that have been too weird and crazy, that you had to turn down?
Gabi: No, we're not at that point yet.
Greg: Yeah, endorsement deals? I don't think anyone thinks of us that way.

Or just any weird restaurant deal, or anything.
Greg: We do get people wanting to buy out the restaurant or bring in larger parties. But our restaurant is so small, that for anything over like 18 people, you really do have to buy the restaurant out. And they're sometimes surprised on the price that we give them for a party with like 25 people. But that's the only thing that's been weird.
Gabi: Well, we've definitely had people approaching us, like developers, who are putting together new projects in other cities or even in Portland, saying "Hey, we'd love to get you in here!" And they're sending us blueprints for spaces. But they're not putting anything out that, at this point, we would seriously consider. We haven't had any weird indecent proposals or anything. Can't wait for that, though.
Greg: I know, I can't wait to do an endorsement for somebody, I love free shit!

Vegas calls, man. Vegas always calls.
Greg: I don't know about Vegas. Well, you never know. I hate to say no to anything, really.
Gabi: But we did say, before we even started, that we were going to give Ox two solid years before even playing with the idea of doing anything else.

Well, are you in year two now?
Gabi: Yup, we just hit our second anniversary at the end of April.

Uh oh. I see something coming.
Gabi: And people are asking more and more now, "So what's next?" I guess we really need to start thinking about what's next.

Everyone's always obsessed with what's next. That's our job, too.
Gabi: I'm not so much.
Greg: It's really interesting, there's always someone from New York, someone from L.A., someone from Chicago, someone from Austin, someone from St. Louis who will say, "This place would work so well there." And we're always excited about that, because that means that people think our concept is good enough to be in a large city like L.A. or New York or Chicago, or even a small artisanal city like Austin. So it's excited people would even consider us like that.
Gabi: And then you come somewhere so beautiful like this...
Greg: I'm thinking Ox could work in Aspen! I don't know if I could handle the plane ride in though every time. That shit was rough.

· All Ox Coverage on Eater [-E-]
· All Aspen 2014 Coverage on Eater [-E-]

Limelight Hotel

355 S Monarch St, Aspen, CO 81611