It's just after eight on a Tuesday night when Chuck James slides into a booth after a long day on the line at 1515 Restaurant. He lets a heavy sigh escape before he springs into conversation. "This is the highlight of my career," he says. "I mean, seriously, I'm going to cook at the James Beard House. I'm not sure I've been this excited about anything, maybe ever."
Three hours later, James is carefully pulling out a vat of veal stock from inside his walk-in; it will soon become a hazelnut demi-glace for his sous-vide buffalo. He offers a taste and anxiously waits for feedback. "It rocks, don't you think?," he asks, bobbing his head up and down. He already knows it's a killer stock, and he's right.
In anticipation of July 22, the day James will cook for an elitist crowd of heavyweight gastronauts in Manhattan, he's been tinkering with his Beard House menu, creating an old-school/new-school multi-course board that bridges classic preparations with experimental molecular gastronomy methods. "The menu that I'm doing in New York is really fun -- foie gras cotton candy with the buffalo tenderloin, black truffle chips and a macadamia nut powder, a lobster cloud and coconut caramel dust -- but it's sensible, too," says James, who began dabbling in the chemistry of cooking soon after he joined 1515 as an executive sous chef in 2009.
"The chef before me, Chris Laramie, was doing a little bit of molecular gastronomy when I came on board, and I started slow, doing things like molecular caviar balls," recalls James. By the time he'd become the executive chef, he was making stabilizers, powders and thickening agents, and getting up close and personal with liquid nitrogen. "I really dig this stuff," admits the California native who did time at the Broadmoor, Cheyenne Mountain Conference Resort, French 250 and the Palm before taking over the kitchen at 1515 -- a gig he calls "a ton of fun."
But while James loves dabbling in molecular gastronomy, he hates the name. "I wish someone would come up with something better to call it," he sighs. "When you hear people say 'molecular gastronomy,' it makes everyone think about just the chemistry and science, and while that's certainly part of it, it's also just as much about cooking from the heart."
In the following interview, James talks not just about the Beard House, but Miracle Fruit tongue trips, his obsession with cheeseburgers, the technical intricacies of a microwave, and why he thinks Alinea is the best restaurant in America.
Six words to describe your food: Contemporary, eclectic, cutting-edge, global, fresh and sexy.
Ten words to describe you: Tall glass of water, blunt, goofy, passionate, innovative, genuine and radical.
Culinary inspirations: Thomas Keller, for his reach for perfection, and all the chefs -- the guys that I've worked with over the years -- who have given me good advice and guidance. The Fat Duck and Alinea cookbooks inspired me to pursue more cutting-edge techniques and to delve into molecular gastronomy. And springtime in California gave me the inspiration to get my hands on things that are fresh and in season.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef: Being invited to cook at the James Beard House in New York City is by far my greatest accomplishment. It's a huge deal to be a part of that culinary movement, and Beard is a chef that I've followed for a long time and whose books I've always read and studied.
Favorite ingredient: Good European butter -- the one that has a high fat content. Cooking with butter is cooking with love, and the cream and high fat content makes such a big difference in my cooking. It also makes a huge difference in creating great flavors.
Best recent food find: Miracle Fruit. It's still relatively new, so not a whole lot of people know about it, but I love how it's such a tongue trip and the way it messes with people's heads. There are so many fun and interesting things that you can do with it, but it's expensive, so it's not something I have on my menu -- not yet. But I'm all over it; it's awesome stuff
Most overrated ingredient: Dandelion greens, because they're so unbearably bitter, and microgreens, because they're so overused as garnish. So many chefs seem to think that if the plate needs something, they may as well throw some microgreens on there, but to me, it just says, "Hey, I'm just another lemon twist." Don't use them unless they actually add something of substance to the plate.
Most underrated ingredient: Love. If you forget to put love into your food, you're not cooking. And fresh thyme, because it makes love to the food that it's with; it's wonderful in sauces and has a great nose on it. Chives are underrated, too, and they shouldn't be, because they're delicate enough that you can do so much with them.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: Fresh arugula. I harvest the arugula from my rooftop garden daily. It's part of my morning routine.
One food you detest: Rocky Mountain oysters. I'm just not a big fan of balls.
One food you can't live without: Cheeseburgers. God, I love cheeseburgers. I pretty much die if I don't have one or six. I love a good In-N-Out Burger, and locally, I like Smashburger. I eat and cook the other stuff all at the time, so at the end of the day, I really like a great burger.
What's never in your kitchen? A short electromagnetic wave (longer than infrared but shorter than radio waves) used for radar and microwave ovens and for transmitting telephone, facsimile, video and data. You know, a microwave oven.
What's always in your kitchen? Fresh foie gras and fresh European truffles.
Rules of conduct in your kitchen: Respect the food. If you wouldn't serve the dish to your mom, don't sell it at all; remember that you're only as good as your first and last plate; if you have time to lean, you have time to clean; sauces have to have perfect consistencies and form, so the dots, smudges, rakes, pools and foams have to be arranged just right on the plate; and eyewear and gloves are a must when you're doing anything with liquid nitrogen.
Favorite restaurant in America: Alinea in Chicago. I just love how it's run and all the wicked food they put out. Grant [Achatz] doesn't just think about the food aspect, though; he really thinks about how to build the dish and how to make it a part of the plate, part of the garnish and, ultimately, part of the whole presentation. His plates are specifically custom-built for each of his dishes, and the plates actually form around the food. There's an immense amount of thought and brain power that goes into his food and presentations. It's so well thought-out.
Best food city in America: Right now, Chicago has some of the best cutting-edge restaurants in America. Aside from Alinea, I'm a big fan of Moto. They're doing a lot of really cool flavored vapors with different types of foods and wines. They're all regular guys who aren't pretty chefs, but they're really great cooks having fun doing some really wild stuff.
Favorite music to cook by: When it's busy, I like listening to Miles Davis, and when I'm prepping during the day, it's punk rock. But I'm so rounded in my music, so who knows what's playing? Is that Milli Vanilli's "Blame It on the Rain" in the background?
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Biggest kitchen disaster: I was once attacked by another line cook from behind on the cooking line -- we'd gotten into a scuffle about food -- and I had to use my cage-fighting skills to calm things down. The dude totally went off on me, and here's the thing: You get in a fistfight in the kitchen and it's a big deal. It disrupts everything.
What's next for you? I'm going to continue to work my way to the top with my team. In the future, I want to have my own spot -- something similar to what I'm doing here, food-wise.