By Gretchen Kurtz
By Mark Antonation
By Cafe Society
By Kristin Pazulski
By Chris Utterback
By Cafe Society
By Jamie Swinnerton
By Jamie Swinnerton
Just so you know: I'm Jason Sheehan, your hot-off-the-press, brand-spankin'-new restaurant critic and gustatory point man, and I'm co-opting this week's column for a little self-serving rant. I always promised myself that if I were ever given the chance to start fresh in a city where I was entirely unknown, I'd take a moment right at the beginning to introduce myself. To let you, the readers, and all the restaurant folk out there know who I am, where I come from, what I like and what I loathe. This isn't an autobiography, or by any means a comprehensive detailing of my tastes. Think of it as a critic's personal ad: Married white male, not yet 30, strongly opinionated and full of bias, sometimes mean, occasionally clever, seeks the restaurant of his dreams.
Feel the love, Denver. Here we go.
I don't like celery. It is -- in my considered opinion -- as nasty and evil a bit of flora as has ever put down roots. That said, I understand its necessity, and any classically prepared consommé or stock built up from a mirepoix without celery will always taste off to me. Critically speaking, I get snotty about that kind of thing, but as an eater, I still think it's the devil's vegetable.
I have no palate for sushi. It's not that I dislike it or misunderstand it: Unfortunately, I learned to love bad sushi first -- the fake, imitation-crab-and-red-dye-number-12 kind they used to sell fifteen years ago in little black plastic clamshells out of a refrigerated case at my neighborhood grocery back home in New York. I understand that my youthful recollections of loving something so strange as raw fish wrapped in seaweed are corrupted because I was loving the lowest form of a high art and have only these memories against which to judge the work of masters. It's a tragic hole in my culinary radar, I admit, but I'm working hard to patch it.
I hate food that is architectural purely as a matter of style, but I will love forever the stylist who understands that while art on the plate is important, it's secondary to the flavors of the food. Similarly, I'd never been a fan of the monstrous portobello mushroom caps that have become so ubiquitous in the trend-du-jour restaurant game until a friend prepared one for me -- and in simply treating the fungus with love and the kind of respect you'd give a Kobe tenderloin, he changed the way I'll think about mushrooms forever.
Today I have what you'd call a love/hate relationship with food. It's a contradictory, powerful feeling, created during more than a decade working in the trenches of kitchens across the country. I've spent years working all day, every day --twelve, fourteen, sometimes sixteen hours a day with food. From six o'clock in the morning, hunched over a stainless-steel prep table in the peaceful calm of a house not yet awake, to midnight and the wasted aftermath of a Saturday-night rush, food was my universe. My alpha and omega.
I've spent countless days up to my elbows in food: slicing, dicing, boning out mountains of chicken, slivering garlic, chopping shallots and forests of parsley, laying everything out like ammunition for a coming war, and I've passed thousands of nights in that rare and wonderful hell of a front line going all-out for a full house. Weeks could go by where food was the last thing I'd think about before going to bed and the first thing on my mind the next morning. If there were bills to be paid, I forgot them. Appointments to be kept? I blew them off. The rest of the world could go to hell as long as my kitchen was running smoothly, and when everything else in my life was falling apart, it was food that held me together.
Good food, bad food, fresh food, rotten food. I've challenged produce suppliers to bare-knuckle fistfights in my back parking lot over a bag of dead mussels or a flat of mushy strawberries. Once, in a fit of inspired hubris, I yanked all the salt shakers from a dining room because I no longer felt that customers could be trusted to add anything to my food. Had I been an accountant or a librarian or an orthodontist, no doubt my life would have been very different, but I wasn't any of those things. I was a chef -- French-trained, old school, but a punk nouveau-classicist at heart -- and food was my life.
Now I'm something different: a critic. Things have changed a little since I moved to the other side of the swinging doors, but not much. I sleep better now. Maybe I've mellowed a bit. Christ, I certainly smell better most of the time, and these days you're less likely to find me grabbing a smoke in some stinking back alley somewhere, covered in blood with a butcher's knife in my belt -- but that's not to say it'll never happen again. Every day brings its own surprises, right?
I'm still just as much of a prick when it comes to things like overcooked garlic, people who misuse the word "aioli" and celebrity chefs who forget that it's the food and not them up on stage when the plates hit the table. But then, I'm also less embarrassed to admit that on some nights, I feel like one more black-pepper-crusted ahi tuna steak might kill me and that I would be happier just sitting at home with a good fight on TV, having beef jerky, Mountain Dew and a bag of sour-cream-and-onion potato chips for dinner.