A Changing of the Guard at Some of Boulder’s Best Restaurants Is Both The Continuation of a Local Legacy and a Brilliant Vision for the Town’s Future

Bobby Stuckey, Bryan Dayton, Steve Redzikowski, Amos Watts — these are names pretty much any culinarily-inclined person in Colorado is likely to know. And for good reason. Their restaurants — Frasca, OAK at Fourteenth, Acorn and now The Fifth Stringfundamentally changed the local landscape, bringing the finest and most-lauded cuisine the state had ever seen. It was also within the walls of these kitchens that a new generation of chefs was coming up, working the line alongside these established greats.

Time marches forward and now the youngsters are running their own kitchens — spaces they contributed to, admired or in part paved the way for. In a six-month period in 2021, Rich Byers, Samuel McCandless and John Bissell took the helm at Jill’s, Corrida and OAK respectively and have been making food visibly impacted by their mentors while continuing to push the envelope in the kind of gratifying way that can only happen when the student starts to become the teacher.

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Byers was raised in Southampton, Long Island and blames some of his talent on his family. His grandfather was a butcher in New York and his mom was an exceptional cook who was known as the Queen of Casserole. “She always made a point of cooking for the whole family,” said the chef.

He attended the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park and departed for Colorado to work his first internship at the Ritz-Carlton in Aspen. “I skied every morning and I worked all night,” he grinned. From there he worked at the now-shuttered Olives before heading back east to run the kitchens at the Borgata. In two years he moved from executive sous to executive chef — managing Speccio, a four-star class Italian joint, Ombra, an underground wine cave with casual Italian and Risi Bisi, which did pizza and paninis. He then followed his mentor Jason Rogers — who he had met while working at Olives — back out west, beginning as executive sous at Jill’s over a decade ago. His initial stint was short-lived — he left for a two-year run at Oskar Blues followed by 10 years running the kitchen at The Corner Office in Denver. He returned to take the wheel at Jill’s in June 2021.

“75% of my day is making sure my staff is happy, the food will follow,” said Byers. He currently runs a kitchen of nearly 30 people that handles Jill’s 120 seats alongside room service, banquets and the additional tables spread across the hotel lobby and terrace.

While volume is the name of the game, Byers is still producing serious cuisine. “I want people to look at this restaurant as not a hotel,” he said. The imported Italian burrata for two ($24) — with Amarone fig jam, smoky salt and pepper, basil and chili flake — is a crowd-pleaser and is one of the chef’s personal favorites. The yakisoba noodles ($13) — with cucumber, carrot, ginger, scallion and crispy wonton — continue Byer’s penchant for global comfort food, which defined his menus at The Corner Office, as does the Morrocan eggplant hash ($24), which comes with sweet potato, chickpeas, almond romesco, basil, onion and toasted pepitas. The whole menu is full of heaters, but it’s the Snake River Wagyu Burger ($21) — with cave-aged truffle cheese, black garlic aioli and onion jam — that really stops the show. At the newly-minted brunch, try the croissant beignets ($8), the Truffle Croque Madame ($19) or the smothered breakfast burrito ($17).

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McCandless hails from Red Lodge, MT but first moved to Boulder in 2002. He started his first job cooking in a retirement home but his career really was set aflame by his experience at Bistro Enzo in Billings, MT. Previously owned by James Honaker — a graduate of Le Bernardin — Bistro Enzo gave McCandless an early exposure to fine dining and helped propel him into the kinds of kitchens that would litter his formidable career. After arriving in Boulder he did a stint at the now-shuttered Q’s Restaurant before joining the opening team at Frasca in 2004.

“I cooked vegetables and Steve [Redzikowski] was the meat cook,” said McCandless. He went on to work at Olive and Ivy in Scottsdale before relocating the Chicago to work at L20 under Laurent Gras, who famously acted as opening chef at Restaurant Alain Ducasse Paris before breaking out on his own. In 2011, he returned to Frasca where he moved from sous chef to chef de cuisine before departing again in 2014. In January 2019, he took over at Arcana before assuming his current role at Corrida in August 2021.

“The main focus here is beef,” said McCandless. That means a lot of American Wagyu, sourced from places like Strube Ranch and Bootheel 7 Ranch in Parker. “We’re interested in beef that comes from Colorado and works with the land. I want to buy the best product and do the least to it.”

The Spanish-inspired menu takes its greatest inspiration from Bodega El Capricho, a family-run institution in Jiménez de Jamuz, León, Spain, that is famous for what many people consider to be the best steak in the world. McCandless visited there after starting at Corrida, an outing he says helped to apply a Spanish feel to his existing style. “The trip to Spain just confirmed that I was going in the right direction,” he said.

The menu — one McCandless says he changes all the time — is a testament to the chef’s skill in both sourcing and preparation. The pimientos ($13) — blistered shishitos with sudachi aioli, togarashi and shiso — take advantage of the sudachi’s floral leanings, as the pulpo ($28) sees grilled Spanish octopus come topped with tomato, garbanzo beans, parsley and smoked olive oil powder. Steak-wise, there’s no going wrong, though the 31-day dry-aged local grass-fed “cowboy” ribeye (MP) with house-made beef garum butter, will likely emblazon itself forever, perched nicely towards the top of all steak-related memories. “I want people to feel like they taste the love and care,” he continued. In this, McCandless could not be more on the money.

Each Monday, the restaurant hosts a Culinary Tour of Spain ($55), a three-course look at a region that changes monthly. The Canary Islands will be the focus through the end of June.

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Bissell grew up on a cattle ranch in Black Forest, CO. “The first restaurant I had that wasn’t digging fences or branding cows was in a restaurant,” smiled the chef. Beginning as an overnight cook at King Soopers doing “scoop and serve stuff,” Bissell moved on to act as a prep cook at the Mountain Sun, assuming a managerial role at the Southern Sun after graduating from the University of Colorado Boulder. He was part of the opening team at Old Major before moving over to Acorn to work under Watts — who Bissell labels his prime mentor. “He has uncompromising standards no matter what,” he said. His time at the iconic, and now-shuttered restaurant at The Source was particularly formative. “It was a place that was so busy all the time you didn’t realize how special everyone was until you left,” mused Bissell, noting that he worked alongside Annette‘s Caroline Glover and Bar Dough’s Russell Stippich.

His journey then took him to Los Angeles where he worked for chef Ludo Lefebvre at both Trois Mec and the 12-seat counter Petit Trois. Growing tired of what he found to be the routine nature of fine dining, he moved over to the Manhattan Beach Post, working under David Lefevre. In May 2021 he returned to Boulder to take the helm at Oak. “How vindicating it would be to come back and run the place I used to walk past in college,” grinned Bissell.

Along with sous chef William Cusack, Bissell has been building his menus on seasonality, deliciousness and executability. “I like dishes where everyone in the kitchen gets to learn and get better by doing it every day,” he said. The dishes are delicious indeed, bordering or falling headlong into transcendent. It’s also feel-good food. Even the largest feasts will leave diners feeling invigorated. “This is how I like to eat. I never want anyone to feel weighed down at the end of the night,” he continued.

Bissell does a nearly complete overhaul of the menu each season, with only a few coveted items maintaining their prominent position. The apple and kale salad ($14) — candied almond, grana padano and togarashi — is one such item. It’s been on the menu since day one. It deserves to remain there forever. The Korean Barbecue Pork Shoulder ($88) — which has graced both the winter and spring menus — is a Herculean affair that serves three to five and is joined by rotating house-made banchan. Epitomizing spring is the local bibb lettuce salad ($15) which uses a romaine vinaigrette to impart layers upon layers of leafy green flavor. The summer menu is set to land in early July. No matter what Bissell decides to put on the menu, it’s sure to be some of the most compelling cooking available on the front range.

For all three chefs, the roots run deep. They’ve all put in the sweat equity. That they’re now taking charge of the gastronomic direction of the town that they shaped during their own formation is a suitable ode, and a well-deserved pat on the back.

Corrida is located at 1023 Walnut St. STE 400, Boulder. It is open Monday, Wednesday and Thursday from 3 – 9 p.m., Friday from 3 – 10 p.m., Saturday from 10:30 a.m. – 10 p.m., and Sunday from 10:30 a.m. – 9 p.m.

OAK at Fourteenth is located at 1400 Pearl St., Boulder. It is open Monday – Saturday from 5:30 – 10 p.m.

Jill’s Restaurant is located in the St. Julien Hotel and Spa at 900 Walnut St., Boulder. It is open Monday – Friday for breakfast from 7 – 10:30 a.m., for lunch from 11 a.m. – 2 p.m., and for dinner from 3 – 10 p.m.

It is open Saturday and Sunday for brunch from 7 a.m. – 2 p.m., and for dinner from 3 – 10 p.m.