“Nothing good is easy.” This is a phrase I repeat to myself at least a hundred times a day lately. It is something that grounds me and helps me to remember how far I’ve come and how far I have to go. It is a phrase that helps me endure the constant highs and lows, which are many lately. This journey started nearly three years ago, when I quit my job as an advertising executive in Chicago, intent on shedding my past life and embarking on a career that held meaning for me. I am a dreamer, always have been. And, my dream was to become a chef and open my own restaurant. Having not worked in a professional kitchen since I was twenty years old, I knew the road ahead would not be an easy one. But, then again, ” nothing good is easy”, right?
After a three month backpack around South America to clear my head, I came back to the states and started a six week road trip across the country intent on finding a new home to lay some roots and embark on a new adventure, a new life. I eventually landed in Denver where I slept on a friends couch while trying to get my feet underneath me. With a resume populated mostly with corporate advertising experience, I knew that I would have to baby step my way back into kitchen. At my first job back in the kitchen, I found myself scooping potato salad for geriatrics and making turkey sandwiches at a deli and cheese shop. I viewed it as a necessary stepping stone, nothing more. But it served its purpose, helping me to land a stage some months later at a neighborhood bar and eatery. I must have made an impression, because after my fourth stage, they sent me to their parent restaurant TAG, an eclectic, fine dining restaurant in Denver’s Larimer Square.
My subsequent stages at TAG went well and a sous chef set up a meeting with myself and the chef/owner, Troy Guard. I met with Troy days later and as he reviewed my resume, he looked perplexed. He started our conversation with, and I quote ” I would never normally hire someone like you.” My heart immediately sank and my brain raced as I conjured up objections and began to tell him about my passion for food and cooking. But as our conversation progressed, he went on to tell me a story of a brick mason without restaurant experience he had hired years ago who went on to open six of his own restaurants. He understood that the most important attribute of any chef was passion. He agreed to hire me as a prep cook.
I began work at TAG that next week as a prep cook. I was paid minimum wage and woke up every morning at 5:00a.m. to begin work by 6:00 a.m. I started off with very menial tasks, meticusiously cutting vegetables, peeling shrimp and cleaning everything in sight. But, I was elated and grateful for the opportunity. Having only been in Denver for three months, I had managed to land a job in one of Denver’s best kitchens. I had found the opportunity I was looking for, it was now up to me to prove myself. And, as a prep cook at the bottom of the food chain, I would have my work cut out for me.
I spent the next six months at TAG arriving to work early and staying late every night to prove myself to the skeptics around me and learn everything I could. I took stock of how the restaurant was run and decided to use my strengths to fill in the gaps and improve what I could. I created detailed systems and organization in the kitchen where it was needed and worked off the clock regularly to help cement my role as a leader. By Christmas of 2011, having spent just six months at TAG, I was promoted to Kitchen Manager. In my Christmas card that year, Troy wrote the following” Clay, my gamble paid off! Thank you for all that you do.” My gamble was beginning to pay off as well. Some months later, I was promoted to Sous Chef.
I spent the next fourteen months as Sous Chef at TAG while also helping to oversee our sister restaurant (Tag Raw Bar) just a few buildings down. I was in charge of all ordering, all food costs, all labor and responsible in more than one way for keeping the restaurant running, whether it was fixing equipment or toilets. I had come a long way in a short amount of time, from peeling carrots to running a $4 million restaurant. It was during that time that we took a family vacation to North Carolina. While in the car with my brother on the way to the outer banks, I brought up the idea of starting a burrito shop. It was an idea that had been bouncing around my brain for the better part of a decade. But, I wanted to do so in a way that broke the mold. To me, a tortilla was a blank canvas and the combination of colors and hues to which it is subject to is as endless as a painters palette. The idea immediately resonated with my brother, an entrepreneur in his own right and fellow burrito aficionado. Over the course of our vacation and many beers, we created the idea for Scratch Burrito and Happy Tap and committed to working towards it.
Work on Scratch Burrito and Happy Tap began in earnest in June of 2011. The journey to get here has not been an easy one. But then again, nothing good ever is.