There’s an overflowing stockpot of synonyms for “intense” that would describe most chefs and restaurateurs — “laid-back” is not in the pot. In a sea of peers who log 15-hour days and shoulder the stress that accompanies them, there floating in the shallows on an inflatable crocodile and sipping a vermouth cocktail is Cafe Aion’s Dakota Soifer. His laid-back is the kind that allows him to operate a successful Boulder restaurant while logging maybe four lunch shifts a week, spending more time “hanging out with my bros.” His is the kind of laid-back that affords him the ability to spend time with his family and go rock climbing. And his kind of laid-back is why Cafe Aion stands apart as an actually casual European-style bistro, instead of a carefully curated and heavily financed imitation of one.
Soifer’s easygoing nature — and how that connected to food — was born out of lessons learned in his childhood.
“My dad actually was a chef and manager at some restaurants. My mom was a college professor, but they decided to check out of the city life and move to rural Maine to be hippies and raise kids,” Soifer says. “We had chickens and goats at various times and a really huge garden and all these dogs and cats.
“A lot of picking rocks out of the garden and weeding and helping with the chores was part of growing up, but also canning and baking. Food was central to home life,” he says.
Food became a way to make money, too. During summers, Soifer worked for his uncle’s catering company in New York City. When he came to Boulder to attend the University of Colorado and study architecture, Soifer says Dave Query (of Big Red F) hired him to work through college and became “a really wonderful mentor.” Continuing to work in the restaurant business made sense, Soifer says, because he could work at night and “it didn’t interfere with going to school or going rock climbing or whatever, which I thought was important.”
When Soifer graduated college, he realized he wasn’t too excited about “what it takes to become a professional architect” — graduate school, internships, tests. “I was ready to be done academically for the time being,” he says. So he moved west to San Francisco, where Query advised him to get a job at the James Beard Award-winning Zuni Café. He lived on his cousin’s couch while indulging this itch to “see more and learn what was going on” in the food scene.
It was a brief, but fruitful time, it turned out.
“It was an amazing experience but I was 22 or 23, and I was there for maybe six months and I thought I deserved a raise and to become a manager, so I got a job up in Napa Valley where I got more money and a fancier position,” Soifer says.
The experience in Napa provided the counterpoint to what Soifer’s cooking interest (and Cafe Aion) would become. Though he appreciated the toughness and athleticism of high-end kitchen cooking, he saw the many obstacles in the way of producing at that level.
“I had never worked in a kitchen where it was ‘Oui, chef’ and everything was copper. It was really serious,” Soifer says, adding that he lamented “all these really little details that if they went wrong could make a huge impact.”
So Soifer returned to Boulder and got a job at The Kitchen. There, working in the Upstairs restaurant, he was able to experiment with flavors and dishes that would eventually comprise parts of Cafe Aion’s menu. Eventually he switched over to Burnt Toast, the restaurant that preceded Cafe Aion in its Hill location, and when rumors of the owners’ interest in selling the place reached his ear, Soifer got three friends and a loan from the bank and bought the restaurant.
Early success did not come as easily as the group had hoped.
“We were so naïve,” Soifer says. “We were all like, ‘Yeah, we’ll make like $100,000 a year. Just four dudes and we’re all going to be driving Audis and wearing fancy jeans. It so didn’t happen.
“So it was a big learning experience. I felt very comfortable cooking and had a lot of experience there, but none of us really had a business degree. We had someone who was a great front-of-house guy, but no one had ever really, I think, looked at a payroll.”
The menu originally consisted simply of 15 rotating tapas, and the restaurant was open only four nights a week. That didn’t attract as many people as was hoped, and one by one, the three partners backed out of the restaurant. What ensued was a learning process that produced a varied menu, a more accommodating schedule and a relaxed staff structure.
“Now we’ve found a happy medium,” Soifer says. “We have a burger on the menu, we’ll do a pasta sometimes and things that seven years ago, when I was a young chef starting his own place I was like, ‘No, I will not,’ and I had this idea that the restaurant would serve what I want. And that’s totally ridiculous.”
Now, Cafe Aion is best known, probably, for its paella — a big rice, tomato, saffron and protein (or vegetable) dish that’s made for communal eating. The rest of the menu features Moroccan and Spanish dishes tweaked to accommodate local palates and to feature local ingredients. And, more than anything, what binds the dishes on Cafe Aion’s menu is the casual approach that creates “older, rustic things… burnt edges over sous-vide.”
The menu, now, doesn’t change much. That may cause some folks to lose interest, Soifer says, but he says his approach was validated on a recent trip to Spain and Morocco.
“It was cool to see these restaurants and cafes where we had these awesome experiences and there weren’t waiters,” he says. “The bartender would come out and be like, ‘What do you want?’ There were no white tablecloths and the silverware wasn’t polished. And it was great to have an experience that didn’t necessarily correlate to a high level of service or, you know, a really advanced technique in the kitchen or something like that.”
Another clarifying experience for Soifer’s approach to running a restaurant was his time on Food Network’s cooking show Cutthroat Kitchen, in which chefs are required to cook three meals despite being dealt obstacles. Though he won his episode, the experience soured Soifer on what was an initial desire to become a celebrity chef, while also confirming that, no, he doesn’t want to lead an actually cutthroat kitchen.
“It’s a huge set, and you go through it, and you’re cooking and they’re yelling at you because just standing there cooking doesn’t make good television,” Soifer says. “They’ll be like, ‘Oh, what do you think of Jim over there?’ Like encouraging some shit talk. It was fun, I mean it was a positive atmosphere, but it was definitely… it didn’t come naturally to me.”
To that end, Soifer says he thinks it’s impossible to both strive to be a celebrity chef and also be a successful kitchen chef. He cites Judy Rodgers from his time at Zuni Café as a case in point; Rodgers, the chef and owner, was at the restaurant every day, never left for pop-up or guest chef appearances and always tasted everything.
That said, Soifer still prefers his pulled-back schedule. He trusts and values his small team. And he says with no plans to move off the Hill (and appease CU-phobic Boulder diners), he’s content with where he and the restaurant are.
“We don’t get listed in 5280’s top restaurants anymore. For a few years we did,” Soifer says. “But we’re also a little more, business-wise, successful now. And I’m a lot happier now, you know what I mean?”
For more with Soifer, listen below.