Like most Colorado transplants, Under the Sun’s executive chef Nick Swanson came to the Centennial State to ski — well, he came to go to University of Colorado Boulder, but as we all know, skiing is more fun.
After his first year at school, the Massachusetts native did the smart thing to do when you’re not that into something: he took some time off from college. Swanson “ski bummed for a little bit.” He worked at Sports Authority for a while (and met the woman he would eventually marry), but when he needed some extra money, he took a job as a bus boy at the now-closed Bácaro Venetian Taverna on Pearl Street.
That’s when Swanson realized what he wanted to do with his life.
Working his way up from bus boy to prep cook to sous chef, Swanson had found his calling. His talent and passion for cooking were so evident that the chef of Bácaro sponsored the 20-something Swanson on an internship (called “staging” in the culinary world) in Italy at the Michelin-starred Relais Villa d’Amelia.
After three-and-a-half years at Bácaro, Swanson made his way to the French Culinary Institute in New York.
He honed his skills, built relationships and continued to work at upscale restaurants in New York after graduation. He earned such a name for himself that he was preparing meals for Hugh Jackman, Nicole Kidman, Jim Carrey and Calvin Klein on his days off.
But the Boulder Valley has a way of calling folks back — for a variety of reasons. In Sawnson’s case it was family.
“But if I wasn’t going to live on the East Coast, Colorado is my second home,” he says.
He notes the ease of living in Boulder, the laid-back life style, the slower pace, the mountains at our doorstep. But there are things that make Colorado specifically appealing to a chef.
“Colorado has become a great place for artisanal food,” Swanson says. “We have people right down the road raising pigs, sheep, goats, chicken. The farmers’ market has absolutely blown up. From a chef’s perspective it’s pretty awesome. We have pretty much everything at our disposal,” he takes a quick pause. “Minus seafood. The ocean is still far away and there’s nothing we can do about that.”
Swanson worked for a little more than two years as the kitchen manager at Mountain Sun on Pearl Street, but made the move to south Boulder’s Under the Sun last June. He’s since worked slowly to revamp the pizzeria’s menu.
“Our menu was all over the place when I started,” Swanson says. “We had a pulled pork sandwich, we had fish tacos; there really was no clear direction with it. I wanted to take those things off and try to gear it in one direction a little bit more.” Folks at Under the Sun warned Swanson he would get “kick back” for pulling menu items, but the chef held his ground.
“I kept saying, ‘I’m not taking it off just because — I want to put something better in its place.’ That’s been my mentality. Not changing just to change.”
After nearly a year of constant tweaking, Under the Sun has a fresh dinner and brunch menu, both of which are geared toward seasonal offerings. The spring dinner menu rolled out in early May with noshes like grilled asparagus with roasted Hazel Dell mushrooms, a poached egg, Grana Padano cheese and lemon zest. Swanson retained staple entrée items like roasted chicken, but infused them with seasonal vegetables to give the dishes updated flavors that can change with the weather.
Served only on weekends, Under the Sun’s brunch includes classics like chicken and waffles, eggs Benedict and the wacky sounding Cap’n Crunch French toast — “The Cap’n” as Swanson says they call it in the kitchen.
“That was one, when I first read it on the menu, I said, ‘This sounds insane. I need to take it off right away.’ The staff was like, ‘People love it. Wait and see.’ And they do. Every week we sell tons and tons of that French toast.”
It’s this kind of faith in his team’s judgment that seems to make Swanson — and Under The Sun — so successful.
“I can’t take credit for our menu, I opened it up to the team,” he says. “I’m very open with them and their ideas. It’s definitely all of us and I’m definitely really proud of all of them and I’m proud of this.”