Many people search their whole lives to find their passion, especially one that doubles as a career. And the lucky ones who do find it, often fail to go after it for fear of failure. Jonathan Power, chef and owner of The Populist in Denver, CO makes going after your passion look easy and successful.
Power began his career in the restaurant industry when he was 15, finished college with a BA in Philosophy, and was accepted into law school shortly thereafter. Before he was supposed to begin law school, he decided he needed to take a step back and make sure he was ready to head in that direction. “In high school, chasing the bigger paycheck felt like a better bet than pursuing something I loved and was passionate about,” recalls Power. “I tried my hand at a number of different fields but something always kept pulling me back to restaurant work. Power decided to return to the restaurant world and hasn’t looked back since.
“After cooking at a few reputable places around Denver, and starting our own supper club, I felt the pull to step out and open a kitchen of my own,” he says. Power partnered with Noah Price, co-owner of The Populist, to expand Crema Coffee House from an espresso bar into a full service cafe in 2010. After much success, they opened The Populist in November of 2012. “It’s been a crazy ride since then, but I couldn’t be prouder of what we’ve done here,” says Power.
You describe dining as a communal act. Can you explain your philosophy for The Populist? Food brings people together. Be it a family dinner over the holidays or snacks while watching a football game, food is very often at the center of social interaction. I wanted to create a restaurant that embraced that; that fostered dialog between the servers and the guests, between different groups of the guests themselves, and between the kitchen and the dining room.
What are some of the challenges of creating a communal dining experience and how do you address those? We tend to ask a for a decent bit of trust from our guests. Much of our dining room is comprised of communal tables. Our menu lacks descriptions of the dishes, pulling diners into conversations with the staff about what each dish is. Our wine list intentionally doesn’t feature many popular varietals so that we can steer people to try something slightly different than what they may have otherwise ordered. Our tasting menu changes each night and is never printed to allow the kitchen to express what it feels suits a particular day. It’s not always for everyone, but we believe that guests who are prepared to embrace what The Populist is will have a unique and enjoyable experience.
What is your most popular menu option? The Bacon & Egg has been on our menu since the day we opened, and is one of my favorite dishes to have come out of this kitchen. It’s a slow poached egg on a bed of bacon and onion jam, served with toast points topped with thinly sliced lardo Iberico. I love that it is at once playful and elevated, approachable and challenging. I like food that a guest can relate to, but steps just a bit beyond that and requires one to adjust their thinking. This dish is just bacon & egg, but in an unexpected context.
How do you continuously differentiate yourself from other restaurants in the Denver dining scene? Our commitment is to growing as a team and growing in the quality of our work each and every day. I believe that if we’re really invested in those commitments, the quality of the experience at The Populist will speak for itself.
How do you measure your success? One night at a time, one guest at a time.
Photo credit: The Populist official Facebook page – https://www.facebook.com/ThePopulist/timeline
The Populist is located at 3163 Larimer St, Denver, CO 80205.