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A conversation with John Broening, of Duo and Olivea

"We'll have head cheese at Olivéa on Friday — I expect to see you there," summoned the e-mail. The note, short and to the point, was from John Broening, the executive chef at Duo and Olivéa — the former a restaurant in Highland with a field-to-plate, seasonal approach to food, the latter a three-month-old restaurant in Uptown that embraces the same elemental philosophies but pushes the culinary envelope by serving, among other things, head cheese, a gelatinous loaf comprised of the brains, tongue and head parts of a pig. There are very few Denver chefs pimping head cheese, and that, right there, is why Broening is not your pig-in-a-blanket chef.

Growing up, he lived in France, the Soviet Union and, eventually, Portugal, where his father was a foreign correspondent for the Associated Press. (Broening is a writer, too, occasionally penning food stories for the Denver Post.) But his cooking career didn't launch until 1988, when he went to culinary school in New York, a move that was followed by numerous kitchen spells in the Big Apple, San Francisco and Paris, where Broening was a poissonier under Guy Savoy at Bistrot de l'Etoile Niel.

He moved to Colorado in the late '90s to command the kitchen at Primitivo in Colorado Springs, and then in 2003 was lured to Denver to run the line at Brasserie Rouge, now the Icehouse Tavern. He then did time at Udi's on Broadway, where he met his wife, Yasmin Lozada-Hissom, the pastry chef at Duo and Olivéa.

Broening is an erudite chef who keeps to himself, preferring the lights in his kitchen to the limelight of the front page, but he's also remarkably candid, sticking it — hard — to steakhouses, taking umbrage at Top Chef judge Tom Colicchio and admitting that he'd like to bump Emeril Lagasse all the way to BAM! and back.

Six words to describe your food: Clean, traditional, not stuffy, fresh, seasoned, deceptively simple. That's eight words, but who's counting?

Ten words to describe you:

 Uh, introverted, cerebral.... I don't know — you'd have to ask somebody who knows me.

Culinary inspirations: My wife and my mother. Besides being Denver's best pastry chef, Yasmin, my wife, who's also the pastry chef at Duo and Olivéa, is a great home cook. She lived in Italy for four years, so she makes Italian food the way Italians make it: simple, flavorful pastas and the best super-refined risotto I've ever had. Actually, she makes a porcini risotto that starts with a pinch of saffron, and then she finishes it by folding in a little whipped cream. Wow! And since she's half-Peruvian and half-Venezuelan, she can cook the food of both countries. I love her arepas filled with butter and white cheese or with braised skirt steak, plantains and sweet black beans. Right now, my favorite dish in her repertoire is her tuna saltado — tuna braised with soffritto, stir-fried with potatoes, vinegar and soy sauce and served over rice. It's a dish that shows the happy influence of the ethnic Chinese on Peruvian cooking, and it's making me hungry just thinking about it. Escoffier preferred his wife's cooking to his own, and I feel the same way. When I first met my wife, I was a French chef who finished everything with butter, tortured vegetables into small, even shapes and specialized in long reduction sauces. Among other things, Yasmin showed me the importance of acidity in food.

  I never touched a pot growing up, but I did love my mother's cooking. She learned to cook when we lived in France in the '60s. She'd take ingredients that she'd find in the market and, with the help of Craig Claiborne and Julia Child, interpreters of French food for several generations of Americans, put together a repertoire of dishes that are still my touchstones for what a good vichyssoise, roast chicken, boeuf bourguignon or apple tart should be.

Proudest moment as a chef:  In order to make a living, I cook to please the general public, but in my heart, I cook for my peers. Any time I can cook something that makes another chef happy and excited, I'm proud. And any time one of my former cooks or sous chefs makes their mark in the world, it fills me with pride, especially if we've had a contentious work relationship, which is more often the case than not.

Favorite ingredient: Fennel seed or anything anise-flavored, including fennel, anise seed, sambuca, tarragon and Thai basil.

Best food city in America: New York (though Chicago is a close second), simply because of technique, ingredients and innovation. New York also has the best dining audience — not just great, sophisticated and adventurous diners, but also the best food writers and critics in the country.

Favorite music to cook by: Glenn Gould playing Bach. I also like Sidney Bechet and Steely Dan.

Most overrated ingredient: Ingredients for a cook, like specimens for a scientist, are either good or bad quality. They aren't overrated as much as they're over-used or misused. Cream is over-used by most chefs, and so are bell peppers and balsamic vinegar, especially in sticky-sweet balsamic vinegar reductions.

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