Something’s Brewing with Chef Celina Tio at The Belfry

Chef Celina Tio shares her passion for craft beer at her new Crossroads venue

If you’ve never met Celina Tio, chances are you’ve just never been to one of her restaurants. The chef, who made a name for herself heading the kitchen at the prestigious American Restaurant, is the owner of Julian in Brookside and Collection in the Crossroads Arts District. But at any given meal service, you’re likely to see her on the restaurant floor, answering the phone to take a reservation, showing guests to their tables or chatting to them about the menu. As regulars come in, Tio greets each by name.

Thanks in part to appearances on “The Next Iron Chef” and “Top Chef Masters,” Tio’s stardom continues to rise on a national scale, but unlike some of her celebrity chef peers, she’s surprisingly approachable and friendly. In short, she’s the kind of person you’d like to sit down and have a beer with. And with the recent opening of Tio’s latest endeavor, the odds of doing just that seem pretty good.

The Belfry, which is adjacent to Collection at 16th and Grand, will partly serve as a venue for Tio to share another one of her passions with patrons: craft beer.

“I’ve always been a beer drinker,” says Tio. “I love drinking it and I love talking about it.”

And she certainly knows what she’s talking about. Seated at the bar, sipping a glass of one of Boulevard’s Foeder Projekt No. 1, Tio reflects on visiting the breweries and taprooms in Philadelphia when she was attending college and later working in the kitchen of the city’s Ritz-Carlton back in the 1990s, and how her appreciation for craft beer continued to develop along with her career.

These days, Tio’s interest goes beyond just drinking great beers—she’s involved in making them too. After a few chance meetings with Lauren Salazar, who heads the sour ale program at Colorado’s New Belgium Brewery, Tio was invited to Fort Collins in 2012 to blend her own beer. The first blend, Julian NBB Love, was available in KC exclusively at Julian, where local craft beer fans finished off the limited supply just a few hours after the keg was tapped. The following summer, her second blend, Julian NBB Love No. 2, was eagerly awaited and quickly finished off once again. She also has started brewing on her own and plans to add her concoctions to her restaurants’ beer menus once the necessary permits are in place.

In the fall, Tio proved her knowledge is as sound as her enthusiasm by qualifying as a Certified Cicerone, which is the beer world’s equivalent of a wine sommelier. The exhaustive exam for the certification covers everything from proper beer storage and service to identification of a wide range of beer styles and some of their history.

Becoming a Cicerone was an important step for Tio prior to opening The Belfry, she says. “If I’m going to put a beer on my menu or recommend it to someone, I want them to feel confident they can trust my choices,” she explains.

The Belfry will also offer patrons opportunities to learn more about beer if they want to become better at making those choices themselves. In addition to special events, such as tastings and beer-pairing dinners, the restaurant will offer what Tio describes as “mini Cicerone trainings” focusing on various styles of beer, covering their characteristics, history and basic information on how they’re brewed.

Tio’s aim is to help patrons discover and appreciate beer, not to create beer snobs. In fact, beer’s accessibility is part of its appeal to her. “You can have an amazing beer and it’s only $40 for a 750ml bottle instead of the hundreds or thousands you could spend on the best wines,” she says.

That said, The Belfry has plenty to offer beer snobs. Locals who already make it a point to seek out new beers and limited releases will be glad to see that Tio has brought on board Brad Isch, whose knowledge of the industry and connections with brewers and distributors enabled him to get the most sought-after brews on the shelves and on tap at Royal Liquors and Waldo’s Bier Station during his employment with those venues.

Keen newbies and seasoned beer enthusiasts alike will benefit from joining the membership program at The Belfry. The annual dues earn members their own pint or tulip glass custom-engraved with their names to be kept on the premises. When they stop in to make use of the glasses, members will receive discounts on selected beers, and each drink will be logged with a reward given after 99 distinct beers as an incentive to explore the gamut.

“You also get a specialty glass that I personally will engrave with your name and keep for you here at The Belfry, so when you bring your friends, they’ll know what a big deal you are,” Tio says.

As a chef first and foremost, Tio’s focus on beer hasn’t distracted her attention from the food. The menu offers a range of sophisticated bar snacks, such as pulled-chicken nachos and griddled farm-to-market breads with bacon-onion jam, to more substantial dishes like barbecued Duroc ribs and rigatoni with house-made Italian sausage. Even those who aren’t interested in beer will find something at The Belfry.

And that’s just what Tio wants to offer: a neighborhood spot that makes everyone feel welcome. “I want The Belfry to be to this area what Julian is to Brookside,” she says. A place where everybody knows your name? “It sounds corny, but yes.”

 Story by Lara Hale  |  Photographs by Cameron Gee and David Allison