The Cattails Golf Course has seen many chefs come and go through its doors but now it looks like one is here to stay. Dante Tripi, 35, brings 20 years of industry experience to his new restaurant, Rhybax Kitchen, which opened at the golf course on Dec. 28.
Tripi was born in Florida but moved with his family to Montrose when he was 13. When he was 15 his sister Carissa, now an orthopedic surgeon at San Luis Valley Health, waited tables at The Elkridge restaurant. One Friday night they didn't have a dishwasher so she called him to help out.
"I just kind of fell in love with it," Tripi said. "I remember sitting there and taking in the chaos of the kitchen."
Two years later he convinced his mom and dad, a nurse and general surgeon, respectively, to allow him to drop out of high school and attend culinary school. Tripi went on to be the youngest student accepted to the New England Culinary Institute (NECI) in Vermont.
The school, which claims the Food Network's Alton Brown and Spoon and Stable's Gavin Kaysen as alumni, is more hands-on than others such as Johnson and Wales or The Culinary Institute of America. After six months of studying, students work for six months at restaurants in Burlington and the surrounding area before returning the next year to start the process over again.
"On day one they put you into a four-star, three-diamond hotel and you're expected to cook." NECI also expects pressed jackets, pleated pants, polished shoes and a cleanly shaven face.
"If you missed one class you were out," said Tripi. "It was a tough school but I wanted to make sure I got the most out of it. It's an incredibly difficult world. If you don't love every part of it, like the 15 hour days and everything else, save your sanity and find something else."
After graduating as valedictorian he went to work at the Four Seasons Hotel in Hawaii under George Mavrothalassitis. Chef Mavro, as he's called, is known for cofounding the fusion style of Hawaii regional cuisine along with Alan Wong, Roy Yamaguchi and other chefs. Mavro gave Tripi the opportunity to cook with him for an event at the James Beard House in New York.
"It was amazing. That is when I realized that this is the food I wanted to do."
The Hawaii roots are why Rhybax's ribeye ($25) comes with rice, gravy, a fried egg and a side of macaroni salad in the style of the loco moco plate lunch. The pork Osso Buco ($16) is served with Korean barbecue sauce instead of something more traditional.
The pork shank is Tripi's favorite dish along with the Alamosa striped bass ($18) that comes with roasted butternut squash and handpicked greens.
"I've worked with seafood so much throughout my career from sushi to everything else and hands down it's one of the most amazing fishes I've ever seen in my life. We have the best fish in the world and it's right here in our backyard."
Even though Colorado is nowhere near the ocean, Tripi can get the fresh ahi tuna he needs for the poke salad ($9) in under 24 hours because of his fishmonger connections. He plans to eventually add sushi to the menu.
"We pay more for it, but it's worth it," said Tripi. "There's no beating the quality we get and I don't have to worry about where it's coming from."
For the roughly six years that Tripi was in Hawaii, he lived above an eatery called Eggs'n Things that would open between 11 p.m. and 4 a.m. to serve those in the restaurant industry. There he would hang out with Wong and Yamaguchi, eventually convincing Yamaguchi to hire him for his new restaurant in Tampa.
Though he gave up his job to start fresh as a line cook in a new city, Tripi would go on to be an executive chef partner and open up five of Roy's restaurants.
Yamaguchi would put a few of his staples on each location's menu but then it was up to the other chefs to fill in the gaps. "We had limitless creativity," said Tripi. The only requirement was that it changed every month. Rhybax's menu is scheduled to be refreshed roughly every two months.
When he worked in Florida, Tripi was exposed to Yamaguchi's principals called Roy's Way. The staff would read about values such as humility, mastery, and respect each day. Yamaguchi was such an instrumental teacher that when Tripi was at the Greenbriar Inn in Boulder he told his staff to try to get a job with him rather than going to culinary school.
In Tampa he also met his mentor, Rand Packer.
"He pushed me daily and made me want to quit daily," Trippi said of Packer. "I'm thankful that I didn't. We still talk today. He's a huge influence on the opening of the restaurant."
Packer now lives in Evergreen and works at the TAG Restaurant Group, which manages eight restaurants throughout downtown Denver.
Along with Yamaguchi and Packer, Tripi considers his father to be one of his main inspirations. His father grew up in a poor household and he volunteered to be enlisted in World War II so that he could go to college on the G.I. Bill and become a surgeon.
"He had nine siblings and they had to share a pair of shoes to go to school, rotating who could go to school that day and who couldn’t. He's an amazing man who taught us that family comes first and that there's no such thing as a free lunch."
Eventually more of Tripi's family moved to Alamosa. When his father got older they moved him from Florida to the Valley so that he could be closer to his grandchildren. About three years ago Tripi's wife Holly left Denver first to help out the family and then, seeing an opportunity to provide unique food, realized that Dante should move down to open up a restaurant.
"I don't want to badmouth anybody but it's a culinary wasteland here," Tripi said. "It hurts me to see it. I realize where we're at in the Valley, but at the same time I don't feel like that should be an excuse to not push the boundaries and to not give the guests something exceptional like you can find in Denver."
They looked for suitable spaces at where Nino's and the Thai Hut are now on Main Street and even where Quincy's is now in Monte Vista. Rather than stop cooking altogether while trying to start a restaurant, Tripi created the UChef vending machine located inside SLV Health.
The machine works like any other vending machine but instead of chips and candy customers can find refrigerated gourmet meals. It was created so that staff working long hours would still have access to food when the hospital's cafeteria closed. The same polenta lasagna ($13) recipe used at Rhybax can also be found at UChef.
Early morning golfers can use a vending machine before the restaurant opens and the system allows for ordering from a mobile app so that meals are ready after the final hole.
"We don't want them to feel like this isn't their place," Tripi said, "because after all they were here first. It's a beautiful course and there's no reason why we can't all get along."
Tripi is working on opening machines at Adams State University and the CrossFit Acclimate gym. He also plans on starting a delivery service and may franchise UChef locations in the future.
UChef's success helped Tripi get the restaurant at the golf course. Tripi wanted to open in the beginning of December but the two-month-long renovation process pushed the date closer to the end of 2016.
"If you have to force it, it's not right. You only get one chance to open. We wanted to make sure it was right. It was stressful but I'm happy we waited."
Those family values instilled by Tripi's father explains the restaurant's unique name. Rhybax is the combination of names of Tripi's 10-year-old Rhyas and 5-year-old Baxley.
"It's not uncommon for my kids to be sleeping in here waiting for me to get off work." Tripi realizes that his kids don't see him as much as they should, but hopes he can teach them the same work ethic of his father and give them a legacy.
"I have to start something that I can pass down to them, something that can help them achieve their dreams."
Tripi hopes his dreams resonate with the community.
"Food is about passion, it's about excitement, and about all the hard work that went into it," Tripi said. "I want that to be expressed in a dish. I like to break the boundaries a little bit and make something memorable because food and memories go hand in hand. I want to create memories every time you're here."
This interview was originally published in the January 7, 2017 edition of the Valley Courier.