Simple, Thoughtful Cooking

It was a hot August night when I first saw Dakota Soifer from across the meadow at Cure Farm in Boulder. The farm was buzzing with diners ready to take their seats. The white clothed table was set on a path flanked with rows of arugula on one side and herbs on the other. The sun was mercifully setting, the drink service was painfully slow, appetites ran high. From the make-shift kitchen in the back, Dakota was cooking with a calm and a playfulness that nearly seemed to contradict each other- easy, rhythmic, pleasing.

Months later, I came across a Facebook page for a restaurant-soon-to-open in Boulder. Dakota was opening Café Aion, in an unlikely location, with a dubiously small budget, suspiciously little professional help in opening a new business, and hardly any hired help on the remodel of a space that needed significant work. A do-it-yourself-project that now, knowing what I know about him, makes perfect sense.

Dakota grew up in a small town in Maine. His father worked as a chef for years, but left the kitchen to chase an equally creative and labor-intensive path as a carpenter. His mother, a woman who successfully pursued a PhD in Eastern religions, worked part-time as a college professor and cooked ceaselessly with inspiration filtered through her studies (think endless versions of Asian dumplings), the seasons, and a vast family garden.

The family of four shared a home built by his father. A tree ran through the middle of the dining room and kitchen, centering the house around food. They raised chickens, some for laying eggs, some for eating. Mom used a large garden to supply her cooking with everything that would grow there. She canned everything. She made blue-ribbon winning pies; dad grilled; the boys reluctantly helped in the garden.

By the time high school came around, they would travel 30 minutes each way to school every day. Simple kids who loved the outdoors, they swam, hiked, climbed, or plainly played in the mud. And they always loved helping in the kitchen. In the summers, the Soifer brothers took jobs with an uncle in New York. He owned a catering company and had the two teenage brothers working hard. At the ripe age of 22, admittedly in over his head, Dakota had a real job as a chef cooking for big concerts in central park.

He came to Boulder for college in 1999, admitted in the contemporary dance program and architecture programs at the University of Colorado. I would have never guessed dance; as it turned out, architecture it was. He fell in love with Boulder, the casualness, the dazing mountains, the appreciation for food.

With college behind him, he headed off to California to cook. He watched Judi Rodgers obsess over creased lettuce leaves at Zuni Cafe. He settled in Napa and grabbed a bite to eat late night at Bouchon weekly because it was right there. He cooked at Julia’s kitchen and fully experienced the big fancy kitchen set on three acres of California gardens vested with 3 walk-ins with motion sensor operating doors. And it wasn’t long until he returned to Boulder and practiced a decently large cooking operation at The Kitchen. Then he hummed along Bella the Bus at Meadowlark Farm Dinners for a summer cooking with what each farm had to offer.

And he was ready, as ready- as a 29 year old, deeply type B relaxed personality, part-time single parent to a toddler named after a private label rum, with no personal business experience, but a deep commitment to his vision- could be. He opened a restaurant with what from the outside looked like a delusional ease. He claims to have been nervous- no trace of nervousness was detected.

Weeks before the restaurant opening, I found myself at Dakota’s house. In a home he shared with two room-mates, I was watching some 7 courses exiting a tiny cluttered kitchen. Friends gathered for what was a very casual menu sampling party. Here I was in the middle of an incredible dinner that stood out both in the thoughtfulness yet simplicity of the food as well as in the casual and relaxed atmosphere. There were no pretenses, no formalities – just friends, sharing food.

That is what Cafe Aion became when it opened its doors early April last year. Dakota managed to translate his personality and his style of cooking into a restaurant that captures the essence of his background and vision. The atmosphere and food share a comfort, an ease, and a simplicity that you are hard-pressed to find in many places. A playground for the grownup cook, Cafe Aion thrives on local ingredients, uncomplicated presentations, an intimate environment.

Dakota shared his mother’s polenta with ragu and poached egg at Aion for brunch since he opened his restaurant. And not long ago, he shared the process of making it with me.

Anson Mills Polenta with Poached Egg and Tomato Ragu

Polenta: ½ cup Anson Mills polenta; 4 tablespoons butter; salt to taste ¼ cup finely grated parmesan cheese.

Bring 2 cups of water to a boil. Add salt to the water then pour the polenta into the boiling water in a slow stream.

Stir continuously with a wooden spoon over medium heat to prevent any lumps from forming. Continue stirring to bring out the starches out of the grain for 2-3 minutes. Turn the heat down lo medium-low and allow it to cook for 30-35 minutes stirring occasionally. At the very end, add the butter until melted and stir the parmesan in.

Ragu: ¼ cup olive oil; 1 large yellow onion, peeled; 2 medium carrots, peeled; 6 celery sticks; 1 green bell pepper, cored and seeded; 2 teaspoon mixed spices (½ teaspoon fennel seeds; ½ teaspoon cumin seeds; ½ teaspoon coriander seeds; ½ teaspoon red pepper flakes); 2 cups stewed tomatoes, crushed; 6-8 springs of thyme tied up together with twine.

Chop all the vegetables into ½ inch dice. Heat the olive oil in a large sauté pan on high heat. Add all of the vegetables and stir to coat them with the oil. Keep the heat on high to allow the sugars in the vegetables to caramelize and keep stirring until the vegetables soften, about 10-15 minutes.

Grind and mix the spices with your mortar and pestle. Add them to the vegetables, along with salt and pepper to taste.

Add the crushed tomatoes and all of the juices that the tomatoes released, as well as the thyme. Allow it to cook and reduce on medium heat for another 25-30 minutes.

Poach the eggs by bringing a deep pot of water to a boil. Add 2 tablespoons of vinegar per quart of water. Reduce to a simmer and crack the shell of the egg on the side of your pot, gently lowering the egg into the water. With a spoon, nudge the egg whites closer to their yolk. The eggs cook for approximately 3 to 5 minutes depending on the firmness desired. Remove the eggs from the water with a slotted spoon.

To serve, spoon half of the polenta in 2 bowls, add a generous serving of the ragu, and top each bowl with one egg…or two. Add another sprinkle of salt and dig in!

And if you don’t feel like making it, head on over to Cafe Aion. Dakota will probably be cooking up a storm in the kitchen.

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  • Dan.Eliot

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  • Lori Lynn

    Love your writing style. And the Polenta sounds terrific. Passing this on to my friends in Boulder.

  • Sasa

    happy Blogoversary to you too then, fun that we have the same one! ^_^

  • the constant hunger

    This was a great post. I love learning about chefs. Great behind-the-scenes photos.

  • A Thought For Food

    I would love a big bowl of polenta for breakfast (it is bfast, right?) :-)

  • Shopgirl

    He sounds wonderful and my favorite people are usually type B's, from my nephew, neighbor to co-workers. But mostly I live in a type A world.

    This is a beautiful story of your friend's journey to a dream come true. It also reminded me the beauty of Colorado. I visited Denver recently (to see a type B friend), I had the most amazing restaurant experience at the White Chocolate Grill. Loved it and this story.

  • Bethany

    Happy Birthday French Press Memos! Thank you for a wonderful year of delicious recipes, witty writing, and inspiration in the kitchen. Cheers to many more years of posts to look forward to!

  • Island Vittles

    Such a well written story — you had me hooked! I grew up very city, but we moved to a small rural island 8 years ago and have never looked back — a very good island friend has a tree coming up through the middle of their kitchen/living room, and I take every chance I can to cook next to it.

    Best of luck to Chef Soifer and his dreams! Theresa

  • Monet

    I was completely captivated by this entire post…I loved learning about Dakota. You captured him beautifully. We are all products of our families, and I loved hearing about his. I can't wait to visit this locally inspired restaurant when I head back to Colorado in May.

  • Magic of Spice

    Absolutely wonderful post…I am intrigued with this cafe as well as it's creator. If I ever have the chance to be in that area, this is where I would want to be :)

  • A Thought For Food

    How I love polenta! It's so comforting and rustic. And the addition of tomatoes and eggs. Heavenly!

  • saltyseattle

    I love this story. It's so nice to know where people come from. He should hang your post on a wall in the restaurant- you captured him perfectly.

  • SilvanaMondo

    What a lovely storytelling art you have Andra, thank you for introducing us all to Dakota. Hope to experience it soon.