This is part one of Lori Midson's Q&A with Aaron Youngblood, exec chef of Dixons Downtown Grill. Part two of the interview will run tomorrow. Aaron Youngblood needed a job. Any job would do, as long as it entailed hard labor. "I was in high school and got my driver's license, and for the privilege of driving, I had to get a job, which I did at a fast-food joint that I won't mention," says Youngblood, now the executive chef of Dixons Downtown Grill, a post he's held for nearly three years.
"I never really pictured myself as a chef," admits the 32-year-old Denver native. But after declaring his major in hospitality management at Colorado State University -- and subsequently dropping out -- Youngblood developed a taste for life in the kitchen, starting with Johnny Carino's, where he was initially hired as a pizza cook before getting an upgrade to sous chef and then taking a gig as corporate trainer, which allowed him to jet around on Johnny's dime. "I went to different cities to do soft and hard openings and train the staff -- and then I'd leave them on their own. And then I left, because I got sick of it, and I was an egomaniac in my twenties," he confesses.
But not such an egomaniac that he wouldn't take a job on the line of some of Denver's most lauded kitchens. He nailed down a line-cook gig at the long-gone Zenith, easily one of Kevin Taylor's best restaurants, where he sweated blood and tears alongside Sean Yontz. When Zenith closed post-9/11, Youngblood joined the crew at Restaurant Kevin Taylor. "I was a hothead and got fired, big time, but I can't even tell you what a wonderful learning experience it was working with Kevin and Sean," he says, "and along the way, I also got to meet a lot of other people who've worked their way up in the industry."
Youngblood was soon back on his feet, kicking around kitchens at the now-defunct Chinook Tavern in Cherry Creek and the Garden Terrace at the Inverness Hotel and Conference Center, but then he took some time off to soul-search. "I had started to really question what I wanted to do with my life, and it wasn't until I turned 25, in 2003, that I started to come into my own and take things more seriously," he says. He secured a sous chef position at Epicurean Entertainment, the catering company for Invesco Field at Mile High, and in six months was promoted to exec chef. "That was a cool job," recalls Youngblood. "I ran the kitchen for two football seasons, catering weddings on the field, doing buffets for 6,000 people and sit-down dinners for 3,000, and catering suites and private parties at Mike Shanahan's house."
But the hours got the best of him. "I was working so much that I became a horrible, miserable person," he confides, "and I knew it was time to leave." He was taking some time off from the kitchen when a friend put him in touch with Lee Goodfriend and David Racine -- an introduction that led to Youngblood's joining the staff at Dixons. "This is such a great company to work for, with fantastic owners who treat everyone like a huge family," he says. "I love cooking here, and I'll be here for as long as they'll have me."
Or until he eventually opens his own restaurant, a desire that Youngblood talks about in the following interview, along with his grilling prowess, the day the kitchen closed down at Dixons, and the clearly out-of-touch customer who waltzed into the restaurant and insisted that the chef cook the food she brought...from home.
Six words to describe your food: Innovative, real, inspired, fresh, fundamental and intentional.
Ten words to describe you: Passionate, decisive, friendly, introspective, anxious, supportive, precise, tolerant, rigid and diligent.
Culinary inspirations: Hands down, my grandmother, Gloria Foster, who ran a catering business with her brother. She passed away about fourteen years ago, but she left an indelible belief of rich Italian tradition with the rest of us that I've continued to carry on. It's the sole reason that I treat food as a means to enjoy the little things in life every day. Her sauces, pastas and ability to entertain guests have inspired me to do the same in my professional life. But I don't duplicate her recipes, since that's impossible. Instead, I try to interpret the work she was doing and make my own creations.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef: It's not one of status or professional achievement, but one of necessity. The realization that you can't know or control everything is my crowning accomplishment. It's about being proactive and reactive, and dealing with the many challenges that we face in this business. I've learned to adapt, which is an accomplishment for the sole reason that it helps me stay alive in this cutthroat industry.
Favorite ingredient: Without question, tomatoes. I eat them right off the vine. They're so versatile, and with heirloom varieties everywhere, the possibilities of that dynamic fruit are endless. I love them charred, roasted, dried, raw, stewed and fried. They can be incorporated into every type of cuisine and almost any dish; it's as if they've always belonged there. They're the perfect balance of sweetness and acidity.
Most overrated ingredient: Saffron is the most overrated ingredient on the planet. It's so overused and so expensive, and while chefs have great intentions when they use it, more often than not they tend to overuse it, which winds up destroying what was otherwise a very good dish. I tend to stay away from it.
Most underrated ingredient: Fresh herbs, man. Especially fresh flat-leaf parsley. Adding parsley in different stages of cooking really helps in layering flavors in food, especially when you're roasting meats. It's so wonderful and aromatic, and yet it's been relegated to garnishing scalding-hot plates at chain restaurants around the country.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: Summit Creek all-natural lamb, which I buy directly from the source. Colorado has the best lamb in the world, and I cook it a lot at home for my dinner table. I love a great lamb shank with bourbon demi-glace.
Favorite spice: The amazing vanilla bean. It's not much cheaper than saffron, but the uses are incredible. It's sensual and exotic and can be used with savory ingredients as well as in traditional sweets like crème brûlée. I like to steep the bean in cream and then use the cream to flavor mashed potatoes or a potato gratin. It also kicks up the flavor in spicy black beans.
Best recent food find: There are many, but I recently paid my first visit to El Diablo and had the pork carnitas -- the best I've ever tasted. I'm a pork fanatic, and these were so perfectly cooked. I ate so much that I could've popped -- and I still wanted more. Don't miss this one.
One food you detest: I hate sea urchin. It tastes like salty dishwater, and I can't get past the rotten-mushroom-like consistency.
One food you can't live without: I can't -- and won't -- live without roasted garlic cloves. I absolutely love them. I can eat them like popcorn, with cheese, pasta, tomatoes or bread. They give you dragon breath, but they're so good. And good for you -- or so I'm told.
Biggest kitchen disaster: A grill fire at Dixons -- what a horrible day that was. In the middle of lunch service, during which we had sold an untold number of steaks and burgers, the coals caught fire, as did the drip pan and pilot gas line. The fire got so hot that it melted through the small-gauge pilot line and started burning everything. And that's when the kitchen began to mimic a firefighting episode: I grabbed the extinguisher and emptied it, the alarms went off, and cops and firefighters showed up and finished the job. We had to close down, clean up the fire retardant, dump all the food, prep, reset the line, and get the okay from the health department to reopen for dinner. What a nightmare.
What's never in your kitchen? Mussels and calamari. I can't for the life of me figure out why I can't get them out the door once I get them in, so I just don't bother with them anymore.
What's always in your kitchen? Bourbon. I use it in my barbecue sauce, veal and pork sauces, marinades, steak chili, flambés and custards.
What you'd like to see more of in Denver from a culinary standpoint: We need more street vendors in this town -- not just hot dogs, but really good street tacos, kebabs and gyros. Authentic Middle Eastern or Indian food would be amazing. Where are the heart and kidney skewers? Those would be a nice change from dirty-water dogs. Plus, I do most of my eating standing up anyway. We have such a melting pot of cultures in Denver; I want to eat what they're eating at home.
What you'd like to see less of in Denver from a culinary standpoint: I'd like to see less fried food. I know it's probably redundant, but braised and grilled foods are so much better. I'm not talking about outlawing fries and wings, but there are a lot of fried foods that should just go away. Fish and chips, for example. It's fried fish on top of fried potatoes. You shouldn't feel like crap after you eat.
Weirdest customer request: I've had a barrage of ridiculous requests, but the one that really stands out is the woman who came to me, with rice and vegetables in hand, demanding that I cook the food that she brought from home. When I cited health codes and explained that I couldn't accommodate her, she went on a tirade about me being inconsiderate. She didn't understand that I couldn't do it. I was pretty miffed about the whole ordeal; it wasted half an hour of my life that I'll never get back.
Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: I was at a restaurant in the Caribbean and explored the sea-turtle option on the menu. I know it was horrible of me, but I was terribly curious, and since it's frowned upon in the States, I decided to give it shot. It was tasty, but I probably wouldn't revisit it.
Current Denver culinary genius: That's a rough question, although two names come to mind constantly: Jennifer Jasinski and Frank Bonanno. They're doing completely different concepts, but their innovations have taken them to the pinnacle of culinary artistry. They've never disappointed me. Let's just say that they've got seven restaurants between the two of them, all of which are in my top ten.
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If you could cook for one famous chef, dead or alive, who would it be? I'd probably cook for Mario Batali. His mastery of regional Italian ingredients and local dishes makes him the expert. I'd want him to teach me all about them while telling me everything that I'm doing wrong. He knows the regions, traditions and cultural intricacies of Italian food that most people jumble together as pasta, meatballs and garlic bread.
Favorite celebrity chef: Anthony Bourdain, even though he mostly travels and writes now. He has perfect technique, takes food very seriously, and was also a menace as a young chef with an attitude that I can only imagine. It would've been really fun working with him as a peer.
Celebrity chef who should shut up: Gordon Ramsay. He needs to get over himself. Nobody should have to put up with him; it's horrible. He needs to take a break and figure out why he's so angry.
Best culinary tip for a home cook: Spend the money and buy a really good set of pots and pans if you do a lot of cooking at home. All-Clad and Cuisinart both offer affordable, high-quality sets that are awesome. Good pots and pans make all the difference in the world.