Amos Watts, exec chef of Jax-Denver, on Casa Bonita, English peas and cheese
The French Laundry, Thomas Keller's culinary temple in Napa, gets plenty of accolades, but Cyrus, a petite restaurant in the artsy Sonoma town of Healdsburg, is even better, insists its legion of junkies. And before he was crowned executive chef at Jax Fish House-Denver earlier this year, Amos Watts was cooking at Cyrus, alongside Food & Wine magazine Best New Chef Douglas Keane.
"I was cooking in Miami for a long time, and I loved it there, but it wasn't a great place to raise a family, and I wanted to go to a city with a great culinary scene, so I moved to San Francisco and was lucky enough to get my foot in the door at Cyrus," says Watts, who admits that it took patience and tenacity to get that foot in. "I'd read about Cyrus when I was in Miami, and I was determined to learn from the best, so I bugged Doug like crazy to give me a job, and I just kept calling him and calling him until a spot opened up. I started on the hot line, eventually worked all the stations, and then he promoted me to sous chef after about a year and change."
Not a bad streak for a guy who didn't start out thinking about becoming a chef. Born in southern Illinois and raised in Omaha, Watts grew up in a family of good cooks, but it wasn't until he was a college student at the University of Nebraska that the idea of becoming a chef began to swirl around in his head -- and that was only because his father was fed up with his son's waywardness. "I wasn't interested in anything in college," Watts recalls, "and I never, ever thought I'd be a chef, but I dropped out of college, and my dad told me to go cook."
Fine, he said, but if he was going to cook, it wasn't going to be in Nebraska. So he headed to Chicago, where he got a gig as a pastry assistant, a job that was considered the "bottom of the barrel," he says, and "perfect for someone like me, who knew nothing." And when he left that job, he still wasn't sure that cooking was his calling. "I stayed for less than a year, mainly because I realized how hard cooking really was. I was so green," admits Watts, who retreated back to Lincoln to finish his college degree, but dropped out again. Then he applied to culinary school at the Johnson & Wales campus in Denver -- intent on determining, once and for all, whether a cooking career was in the cards.
It was. "I learned a ton, and when I graduated, I eventually got a job at the Denver Jax, and I realized that I liked studying all about cooking and playing with food a lot more than anything I ever did in college," confesses Watts.
From there he headed out on the culinary tour that included a stop at Cyrus before he landed back at Jax, several years later. "I'm really happy that it all worked out," Watts says, "and by the time I moved from California back to Denver to take this job, I'd developed good habits -- like not slamming the ovens shut -- confidence and precision. I'm in a really good place, and I love this job."
In the following interview, Watts rants on Alice Waters, ballyhoos Denver's beer culture and admits that he recently choked down what passes for food at Casa Bonita.
Six words to describe your food: Seasonal, fresh, balanced, precise, simple and high-quality.
Ten words to describe you: Patient, punctual, hardworking, diligent, self-starter, teacher, husband, father, outspoken and friendly.
Favorite ingredient: Wild ramps. I pickle the bulbs to use throughout the year, and we also use the fresh leaves. I like to slice the bulbs really thin and top our oysters with them, and we do a radicchio salad with the bulbs, as well. Ramps are a great beginning to spring, and since I didn't grow up eating them, I was super-excited when I got to taste them for the first time.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: Jimmy Nardello -- or frying peppers -- from Isabelle Farms in Lafayette. I used them a lot at Cyrus, and we just pickled forty pounds of them this summer to use throughout the rest of the year at Jax. They look really spicy, but they're sweet rather than hot.
Favorite spice: Garam masala. We use it a lot to dust fish, and it gives a great background note to things like eggplant.
Best recent food find: I recently went to an Indian market with my wife, who's half West Indian, and found these dried English peas. I'd never seen them before, and we cooked them like black-eyed peas with ham, bacon and carrots for our Jax special the next night -- and they were awesome.
Most overrated ingredient: Pre-packaged salad greens. They're becoming more and more industrial, so we've started getting most of our greens from farms and mixing them ourselves.
Most underrated ingredient: Beets. Usually, when people think about beets, they still think of canned beets, but when you have fresh beets, and especially when you roast them, they're really cool.
One food you detest: American cheese. I ate it for the first time on a burger when I was 25 at an In-N-Out, and I just can't get down with it.
One food you can't live without: My wife Jessica's West Indian chicken curry. It's best when she makes it on a day when I'm working, and I come home to leftovers in the fridge after service.
Favorite music to cook by: I usually let the cooks pick what they want to play in the kitchen, because I learned early on that not everyone wants to listen to Phish all day.
Rules of conduct in your kitchen: I really try to create a culture where everyone is always trying to do their best, and I always keep in mind that everyone in the kitchen is in this line of work because it's fun and they love to cook. I don't mind a lot of talking in the kitchen because I'm pretty chatty myself, and if, at the end of the night, the food went out perfect and everyone had a good time, then it was a successful day. We have a really good kitchen crew, so I don't have a ton of rules -- only that I prefer that my cooks peel ingredients over a bowl rather than over a trash can or on a cutting board, and all the knives have to be really sharp, too. I'm a stickler for sharp knives, and I check them constantly.
Biggest kitchen disaster: When I was working on New Year's Eve at Cyrus, I was in charge of the lobster soufflé for the first course, and I mis-weighed the ingredients, so for the whole first turn, the soufflés were falling over or exploding. I had to make a whole new batch from scratch while service was going on -- and I definitely learned the real meaning of the phrase "Go back and check" after that episode.
What's never in your kitchen? Produce that's not in season, cell phones and beards. It's an inside joke.
What's always in your kitchen? Lots of jokes and laughing and plating spoons, otherwise known as "Gray Kunz" spoons. I prefer them, especially when cooking fish, because you tend not to damage the flesh like you can with tongs. We also baste most of the proteins we cook with butter and garlic.
Favorite food from your childhood: My grandmother's blackberry cobbler. My grandparents have a farm in southern Illinois, and when I was growing up, my dad or grandfather would go out with my brother and sister and me to pick blackberries. That night, we'd have an awesome cobbler using everything we'd picked that day.
Favorite dish on your menu: The whole trout from E&J Fish Farm in Fort Collins is really good, and they're less than a day out of the water when we get them. We grill them whole, and it's truly the best trout I've ever had. It's also really great to have local fish at a fish house in landlocked Colorado.
What do you cook at home that you never cook at the restaurant? I have a sourdough starter that I've kept alive for the last five years. I make sourdough bread for my son at least once a week.
Last restaurant you visited: Casa Bonita. I'm not kidding. My eight-year-old son heard about it at school, and we took him and my daughter last week. The cliff divers were my favorite part; the fajitas, however, were not. Before that, my wife and I had a great meal at Luca D'Italia.
Last supper: I'd like to go to Japan and eat in some of the best restaurants there. I've never been to Japan, and I'd like to try something new before I die.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Denver dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.