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"I got my ass kicked, but man, did I learn a lot," recalls Tyler Wiard, talking about the early '90s and his days as a line cook for Dave Query and John Platt at Q's Restaurant in the Hotel Boulderado. He must have been up to the task, because Query pulled him off that line and into the fray of Jax in Boulder before Wiard was eventually lured to Denver by Cliff Young, a former Mile High City restaurateur who opened Napa Cafe and stationed Wiard at the helm.
But while Wiard, now the executive chef at Elway's in Cherry Creek, has spent time in some of the best kitchens in Denver, including the Fourth Story and the original Mel's Bar and Grill, he credits his success to hard work, a passion for cooking...and taking the path of least resistance.
I caught up with Wiard in the bar at Elway's, where he dished on culinary students with attitudes, a horrible experience at Tom Colicchio's Craftsteak in New York, his admiration for Dave Query and Mel and Janie Master, and the very real possibility of more Elway's concepts.
Six words to describe your food: Intense, bold, flavorful, creative, balanced and clean.
Ten words to describe you: Uncompromising, caring, funny, hyper, passionate, creative, curious, intense, giving and cynical.
Culinary inspirations: My wife, Jen, because she really gets what I'm trying to do in the kitchen and she totally appreciates my cooking, some of which I learned from my mom, who was an excellent cook. She made the best fried chicken and roast beef, and she'd let me experiment in her kitchen when I was a kid, which made me love cooking. On the other hand, my dad wasn't into me becoming a chef at all, and it took him a while to come around, but now whenever I cook for him, he really spurs me on and we even cook dinner together. Mel and Janie Master really inspired me, too, by always telling me to read and to buy cookbooks — even the ones you don't think you want to read. They were so instrumental in showing me what great food was and sending me to the best restaurants in the world. And they taught me how to become a better human being. They pissed me off by being so demanding and crazy, but by being that way, they helped me to grow as a chef and in my own personal life. But even before that, back in the early '90s when I was at college at the University of Colorado, John Platt and David Query gave me a job at Q's as a line cook — and those guys kicked my ass. They knew that I was green, but I was also a sponge, and they taught me how to create menus and produce, produce, produce. It was an awesome experience working with such passionate and progressive chefs.
Proudest moment as a chef: When I won the National Pork Award in May of 2008. I had won the state pork competition in December 2007 and went on to San Diego to compete against twenty other regional or state winners, and I won the contest and $5,000. I made cumin-roasted pork loin, braised pork shoulder and a green chile pozole cake with a smooth avocado sauce and red chile. I was completely on my own, while everyone else had at least one or two other people helping out. I knew that the only person I could blame if I screwed up was me, but I was totally in the zone and so in tune with myself that day; I knew I was doing the right thing, that everything was coming together and that there was no second-guessing myself. I have no doubt that being in that state of mind translated into winning.
Favorite ingredient: Any type of onion, whether it's chives, a scallion or a yellow, white or red onion. The onion is the most essential ingredient in my kitchen. Raw, cooked, braised, confited, charred, grilled — it doesn't matter. Onions are the spice of my cooking. There's no way in hell I'd ever make a soup without an onion. I don't care if it was Thomas Keller's soup. If he didn't have an onion in his soup, I'd put one in — I'm not kidding.
Best food city in America: There are more great restaurants in New York than any other city in the United States. San Francisco is up there, too, but New York has absolutely everything. You can get a killer hot dog for two bucks and then go to La Bernardin for one of the best meals in the country.
Favorite music to cook by: Widespread Panic! Their music is so soulful, passionate and groovy. It totally gets me going in the kitchen.
Most overrated ingredient, and why: Lobster. It's so overpriced for the limited flavor you get out of it. I understand that people can eat it all day long, and that's cool, but it's just not my gig. I mean, look at it: It's nothing but a sea roach. I would much rather eat a grilled spot prawn or a poached Mexican white shrimp.
Most undervalued ingredient, and why: Parsley is my unsung hero. There's a reason why the Italians, French and Spanish use so much parsley. It's an amazingly balanced herb that brings out so many great flavors in other foods.
Rules of conduct in your kitchen: This is not just a job; it's a way of life. If my cooks don't love to eat, cook and learn, then they don't work for me. Someone once told me to shut the fuck up and cook, and that's sort of the theme in my kitchen. I also insist that it doesn't matter who walks through the door at Elway's: The house salad should be just as amazing as the porterhouse. If you slight a customer because they order the burger instead of a steak, then you shouldn't work for me. Every single person who walks through our door deserves the best, and my rule is that we give it to them.
Favorite New York restaurant: Chanterelle. From the moment I walked in to the moment I left, it was an amazing dining experience. It's so obvious that the staff loves what they do and wants to share that passion with their guests. I was blown away when I ate here, and I can't wait to go back.
One food you detest: Peanut butter. I detest the texture and the flavor. I can't even stand the smell of it.
One food you can't live without: Salsa. I eat it almost every day. The combined flavors of tomatoes, onions, chiles and lime are unbeatable.
Most embarrassing moment in the kitchen: I was working at Mel's on a busy Saturday night with three new line cooks, and we were completely in the weeds. No one, including me, knew that two of the ovens weren't working until we had over twenty plates come back to the kitchen at the same time because nothing was hot. I had a major meltdown tantrum and blamed everyone but myself. I should have owned up to all of it, but I didn't. Instead I blew up and lost it and humiliated myself. Talk about a humbling experience. I learned a lot from that night...
What you'd like to see more of in Denver from a culinary standpoint: I'd love to see a real farmers' market, one that's totally focused on agriculture. I'd also like to see more butcher shops, more cheese shops and more ethnic grocers.
What you'd like to see less of in Denver from a culinary standpoint: Less arrogance in the industry as a whole, but especially in the kitchen. These fresh-faced culinary students are skipping the first ten chapters of becoming a line cook or a chef. They're going straight from a culinary degree to being a chef, so that they're missing all of the blue-collar parts of the job. They'd rather take the path of least resistance. Aspiring chefs need to realize that they need to get their hands dirty. They need to clean, wipe and scrub; that's part of being a professional in the kitchen. I'll pearl-dive if I have to. I'll bust suds. In my kitchen? No pain, no gain.
Denver has the best: Underrated food scene in the country. We have so much passion and creativity here. We have the ability to get the same ingredients that the best restaurants in the country have access to. The caliber of chefs that have been here a while have continued to raise the bar. Just look at guys like Sean Yontz, who's built this amazing Hispanic food culture in Denver.
Denver has the worst: Comfort food. Aside from Steuben's, there's just not any killer diners in Denver. Breakfast King is good, but it ain't that good. I'd love to see a 24/7 diner that served the best chicken-fried steak and eggs. I can't find good chicken-fried steak and eggs in this town. And believe me, I've looked.
Favorite cookbook: It's a tie between Chanterelle: The Stories and Recipes of a Restaurant Classic, by David Waltuck and Boulevard: The Cookbook, by Nancy Oakes. Both books speak to my food philosophies. The recipes and flavors make sense to me because they're simple and not overworked.
What show would you pitch to the Food Network? Chefs and Cooks vs. Managers and Servers. I'd have the chefs and cooks running the dining room and the managers and servers running the kitchen for dinner service. It would be so chaotic that it'd make for great entertainment, especially the part about me not being able to serve food.
Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: As a kid I tried poached beef heart. I don't remember liking it at all.
Current Denver culinary genius: David Query. He may be more recognizable in Boulder than in Denver, but he has the best group of independent restaurants in the country. He's amazing at getting more out of people than they ever knew they had.
You're making a pizza. What's on it? Charred ramps, cured and grilled fresh anchovies, green olives, extra virgin olive oil and Pecorino. Salty goodness.
You're making an omelet. What's in it? White truffles, grilled asparagus, melted leeks and fresh mozzarella.
After-work hangout: Old Milwaukee Tavern. It's Corky Douglass's place, and he works the room beautifully, just like he did when he owned Tante Louise. I love the strong drinks, and they make a perfect vodka and soda.
Favorite Denver restaurant other than your own, and why: Fruition. It's simply a small beautiful restaurant where the food and service are a cut above. This is the kind of restaurant that most chefs would love to have. I know I'm a little jealous.
Favorite celebrity chef: Mario Batali. He's serious about being a chef, but he doesn't take himself too seriously. I ran into him during the Aspen Food & Wine Classic one year, and he was just such a great guy. He's down-to-earth, humble and fun-loving, and I love his spirited, fun approach to food.
Celebrity chef who should shut up: Tom Colicchio. He has such an elitist attitude. My wife and I went to Craftsteak in New York, and it was shit. We barely ate anything, and when we got the bill, I was just angry. The guy just has no humility.
Hardest lesson you've learned: Assuming that everything's good, all the time. You have to trust the people that you work with, but at the end of the day, the person you have to trust the most is yourself. And you've got to take responsibility for your mistakes. I've learned that I'm only as good as my last plate of food and that I've got to take criticism without getting angry. Humility is so important. I tried to be perfect in the kitchen, but you know what? I'm not, so I make mistakes, learn from them and don't take anything for granted next time.
What's next for you? We're in the initial stages of coming up with new concepts for Elway's. We're playing around with a burger or a fish concept, even Southwestern food. We're definitely looking to expand our brand locally and nationally, and whether we do a burger joint or a bistro or another steakhouse, I definitely want to be involved.