The hospitality industry is full of multifaceted, talented, adaptable individuals. We’ve certainly proven that over the last few months and with the challenges this year has brought, the importance of creative pursuits that sustain us outside of our day-to-day work is more crucial than ever. In this series, we highlight people who stand out not only for their contributions to our industry, but also for the passion projects that fuel them creatively.
Even though no one is sitting at the bar in front of Chad Larson, the dining room of Park Hill spot Neighbors is still buzzing with ambient restaurant noise: Guests toast one another over bubbles; plates of delicately placed meats and cheeses are set on tables as staff give the grand tour of what’s what; music plays softly; occasionally, a cocktail shaker goes into action; and every now and then a clap of boisterous laughter erupts. In what can feel like an endless loop of dinner service, interactions often meld together. Thanks to COVID, they’re becoming more transactional, since staff are inherently checking in less, sanitizing more, and restaurants are crunching numbers to determine how many turns they need on how many tables in how much time to possibly, maybe turn a profit.
One thing that has not changed is that at our core humans still crave interaction with others and value creating and sharing experiences. Larson uses any downtime behind the bar to connect with Neighbor’s well-established crowd of regulars, and uses this same focus on the individual to build his photography business, Chad Larson Photography.
Bartending and photography are already related, as is evident in the hospitality industry’s need for cocktail photos, ambience shots, and its increasing need for headshots. Larson stands out as both a bartender and as a photographer because of the ease and calm with which he approaches both as well as his genuine and obvious interest in the individual.
Behind the bar, this is most prevalent on a busy Friday night, the kind of night when it’s easy for even a skilled bartender to get stuck only making drinks or only talking to people. It’s not easy to juggle both while remaining calm. Larson often runs Neighbors’ bar solo, balancing guest interactions with making drinks, moving through the space with a watchful eye on every guest as well the flow of the restaurant. Watching this kind of bartender in action makes you realize a great bartender is not only a mixologist who understands technique and knows recipes, but also forms bonds with strangers in a short amount of time.
Larson knows how to do this behind the bar—not by forcing it, but by giving guests time and space to ease into their experience and letting their time at the bar develop organically. After three decades in the industry, he’s present but never overbearing and in conversation, it’s obvious he’s genuinely listening. It’s this attention that makes people trust him, whether it’s with their evening or a series of headshots.
Larson’s walls at home are decorated with his own and others’ photos. “The nice thing about being a photographer,” he says, “is you can have endless decorations hanging up, and if you need or want something specific, you can create it.”
Most of his photographs, especially portraits and headshots, are taken in Larson’s own home. A typical shoot includes an afternoon of hanging out (and perhaps sipping a cocktail) while he quietly lets the photo moments develop. Maybe they are prompted by an outfit change or a walk from the living room to the backyard. Larson is there, along the way the way and within the moment, to play with natural lighting and other techniques. He never forces the production (of course, there are exceptions like wedding and business photography), but his portraits have the spirit of letting someone’s personality come to meet his own and capturing that in a photograph, just as he does when he’s behind the bar or waiting tables.
Larson views photography as both a creative pursuit he builds his life around and as a potential career transition, citing the very real mental and physical wear-and-tear of the service industry. “When I am either out on a photo shoot or just doing things at home, I get a sense of calm and my creativity is going at 110%,” says Larson. “It is kind of my mental reset, especially during these last several months with COVID.”
Jen Mattioni started working in bars and restaurants as a Philadelphia high school student and never left the industry. She moved to Denver in 2008 and in 2018 opened Q House with chef/business partner, Chris Lin. Outside of the restaurant and completing her MFA degree, she spends her time eating as many breakfast sandwiches as humanly possible, creating oddball cocktails with ingredients she’s never used, fiending for dumplings, and reading too many books simultaneously.