Carrie Baird describes herself as a morning person, and now, after a more than a decade of working in nighttime restaurants, she will be doing something more suited to her own schedule by opening a breakfast and brunch spot.
She will be running Fox and the Hen, slated to open this spring in Denver by Juan Padro’s Culinary Creative restaurant group
Over the years Baird has risen from quiet chef at Bar Dough, another Culinary Creative concept, to entering the spotlight on Bravo TV’s Top Chef. Then, in 2020, she left the group to open her own restaurant, Rose's Classic Americana in a food hall in Boulder, Colo. Seven days after launching her concept, COVID-19 became a true pandemic and all the restaurants were shut down. Her eatery never opened again, and Baird went back to Culinary Creative.
Based on the success of the four pop-ups she has done, each of which sold out in around 60 minutes, Denver is hungry for the chef's iconic fancy toast from her Top Chef appearances as well as other playful brunch items. Restaurant Hospitality caught up with Baird right after her last pop-up to find out more about why the Mile High City loves brunch so much, how she's navigating the price of eggs, and what life after being on TV is really like.
Of all the types of restaurants, why breakfast?
Oh man, doing a breakfast restaurant has always, I mean always, since I was little, been the dream. I remember my dad and I, he did a lot of cooking and we would daydream about owning a restaurant. In the daydream it was always breakfast: Pouring coffee and making eggs. Even when I was in culinary school and the project was to design a restaurant, it was always breakfast. I just enjoy breakfast, and I enjoy going out to breakfast.
Why is this the right time to open Fox and the Hen?
Honestly, I never had any money, or partners. I have been an employee my whole life. It's expensive to open a restaurant and I never met my Juan [Padro] or Michael Fox [chef and owner of DisBurrito] until five years ago. Now I have funding and partners. People always say, “You are so busy, how do you do it?” It's because we have structure, we have a CEO, CFO, and accountants. We aren't alone.
Fox and the Hen is part of the Creative Culinary restaurant group, but you also own it. How does the partnership work?
Culinary Creative has 13 restaurants, which I own pieces of, including Bar Dough and Señor Bear, and shares in Aviano Coffee. Fox and the Hen will be under the tutelage of the group, and Michael Fox owns, I think, 49%, then Katie [O'Shea, founder and CFO of Culinary Creative], Juan and myself own 51-percent.
How did you end up such a big part of the group?
Culinary Creative is so great, and that's one of the things that attracted me to them. Years previous I worked for several companies, and one thing that always irked me was that me and my chef teams would be writing the menus and running the restaurants, but then the chef-owner that was never there yet still would put their name on the menus and take credit for it all. Juan and Katie give [what’s due]. Some places don't ever talk about the little guy, but with them I saw it, and they were an easy choice to hitch myself to.
How have pop-ups of your concept helped with restaurant development?
[We just had] our fourth pop-up, and I don't want to sound selfish: They are fun for the guests, but they are mostly for us. We find out what works in real time. This last one [at Culinary Creative's A5 Steakhouse] was the closest one to what the Fox and the Hen menu will be like. We did the others at Bar Dough and there is no griddle there. So we finally got to play with pancakes and French toast [at A5]. I think we are pretty close to having the menu completed, about 90% of what I want to do.
The last pop-up menu featured some fun and whimsical takes on classic brunch food, for example the Le Big Mac Omelette (seasoned beef, white onions, American cheese, secret sauce, hollandaise, shrettuce [sic], pickles and hamburger bun croutons) and fried chicken cupcake (whipped potatoes, chicken tender and green chile gravy on a savory-sweet cake). Some would even say it's the perfect hangover food. Is that how you want the menu to go?
I was taught by my mentors that things are classic for a reason. Don't reinvent the wheel, but have fun. The classic flavors, for the most part, have been discovered. Pancakes and maple syrup; don't mess with that. But you can definitely spice it up. I don't smoke weed, but I was told it was stoner friendly.
I don't aim to go too far out, and I don't know how I got so like that. I am not a huge glutton in my own life, either. I tend to look for big food and big flavors. I love funny food and not taking things so seriously. Why does food have to be so serious, especially breakfast food? It should be fun and sharable.
We no longer just go to a restaurant. You don’t just get a starter and an entrée and call it day. You order for the table. The more the merrier so you can try everything. It's a brunch restaurant, and brunch is a little more friendly to that group atmosphere [than just breakfast is]. Brunch is like drinks, friends, and music.
Speaking of brunch, it appears to be the most popular meal in Denver. What do you think, and if so, is the popularity going to stick around?
I have been in Denver for 10 years now and I agree. I have been amazed at Denver's appetite for brunch. I worked at Linger [A Justin Cucci restaurant in the Highlands neighborhood] years ago, and on Saturday and Sunday there would be a line around the block for brunch. I never saw anything like that. I don't think I have ever gone with, like, six friends to a day-drinking proper brunch. I always work brunch. So at Fox and the Hen we put a lot of thought in the menu and the décor so it's complimentary to all of that. It's going to be fun.
After making the winning-dish Fancy Toast on Top Chef Season 15, will it be on the menu at your new spot?
My other Top Chef alum friends tease me about it. Now, I am not comparing myself to Mick Jagger, but they are like, "Are you tired of playing [(I Can't Get No)] Satisfaction yet?" Yeah, I'm more than just fancy toast, but we are talking about it now, so there's something there. And I love it. I love bread, it's super fun and I have great baker at Fox and the Hen.
In fact, I want to have a full Fancy Toast section. The Fancy Toast everyone knows, the one I did on the show, which I called The Top, which showcased the best part of French onion soup. It won, and it's good, and I want to give people what they want. I will move things around seasonally as well.
What are other highlights of the menu?
The sausage rolls: I have been working on the dish for 10 years. That version [at the fourth pop-up], was the first time I fried them. It was very much like a Korean corndog version, but with breakfast sausage, pancake batter and cereal.
Sounds like you have a lot of fun creating dishes...
I think that's a cool thing about Juan and that group too: I have the freedom to try, to imagine something and give it a go. Then I have brilliant chefs like Blake [Edmunds] and Max [MacKissock] to bounce ideas off of. Blake and Max's food is so different from mine. Max's is very classic and French, and Blake is all about Latin flavors, so you put us all working on a dish, there are so many great ideas.
What's it like opening a new restaurant during the chaos of supply chain issues, inflation and labor shortages?
The supply chain is getting a little easier. Now the inflation of eggs — we couldn’t possibly be opening an egg-forward restaurant at a worse time. We are a for-profit business. If eggs are 50 cents each, are the customers ready to pay for expensive eggs? I hope so.
It's hard to get people to pay more money for things they think should be cheap...
Somewhere along the line people got this notion that food should be cheap. But you get what you pay for. People think a cheeseburger should be $10 or less. If it's a small little burger, maybe. But beef and cheese and bread are some of the most expensive staples right now. For us, we don't want to serve our customers garbage. I want people to know I am buying the best ingredients for them. I want them to feel good when they are done.
We can't chat without bringing up Top Chef, which you did in 2017. Now, six years after being on the show, has it impacted your world in the kitchen?
It changed everything. Never, in 1,000 years, was it my dream to be on TV or a celebrity. It was never the goal. But when Top Chef found me and I went on the show, I don't know how I did good or ended up being good under pressure.
I went from just being a cook, doing a good job and being proud, to helping to make my restaurant even more successful. The restaurant [at the time of airing Baird was helming Bar Dough] got busier. I started traveling, and the people on the show truly became friends and confidants. We are always in touch and always ready to have each other's backs. Not just the season 15 crew, once you're in the Top Chef gang, you are in.
Did you like being on Top Chef?
I think the people who enjoyed it the most were the people who did the best. People who were homesick or don't thrive in those conditions didn't do as well. I went to summer camp as a kid and I love sleeping in bunk beds, and can share bathrooms and am able to just go and go and go. The people who can't live like that ... It's a grind, it's a three-day cycle.
Day one you shoot the Quick Fire challenge, which is pretty fast. It takes like six hours and since it's union you have to break for lunch. But the elimination challenges, those are 12 to 16 hours. The third day you have to do interviews and narrate what you did. You have to remember what you were thinking and speak in real time. We didn't really sleep, just any chance you got. I remember sleeping under tables, in cars, in hotel lobbies. It was over two months, and you only can call home once a week and [the call] is on camera.
That first episode I did poorly. I was on the bottom. I remember almost nothing, I blacked out. I remember saying I am not doing that again, I am going to cook smarter, cook something easy that tastes great. I never wanted to be on the bottom again.
Would you do another cooking show?
I did Beat Bobby Flay. That was fun. I beat him, so it was good experience and it was a fun day. Funny story: I got on an American Airlines flight maybe two years ago. I was still wearing a mask and I had on a beanie. The TVs on the flight came on and it was me on every TV. I hadn't seen it by myself, so I wanted to watch it. I was just hoping the woman next to me wouldn't notice I was watching myself. I don't think she did.