This is part one of my interview with Ben Davison, chef de cuisine at Bistro Vendôme; part two of our chat will run tomorrow.
It's good -- really good -- to be back home again," says Ben Davison, pausing after a long sip of coffee. "I was in Cleveland -- Cleveland's not a great restaurant town -- for quite a few years, and I can't even tell you how much I've missed Denver, how much it's changed in the time I was gone, how exciting it is to be a part of such a growing restaurant scene. It just feels good." So does his position as chef de cuisine at Bistro Vendôme, a job he landed in March after Dana Rodriguez, Bistro's former chef, departed to lead the line at Work & Class, a restaurant on Upper Larimer that's slated to open later this year.
Davison grew up in Colorado but was born in New Orleans and spent his summer vacations in the Big Easy, where his love affair with cooking began at the picnic table. "As soon as we hopped off the plane in New Orleans, we'd have a huge picnic table full of crawfish, crab and shrimp, and we'd just to go to town -- and if it wasn't that, then my grandmother would make her gumbo and red beans and rice, and I was the one who was always following her around in the kitchen," recalls Davison, who got his first galley job at fourteen as a dish rat and prep cook at the Pinery Country Club in Parker. "They had me putting cheddar cheese on apple pie, and I thought it was one of the weirdest things ever, so I'd always look at the guy next to me and ask why we were putting cheese on pie, and he'd just tell me to shut and up and do what the chef said," quips Davison.
But he wasn't particularly interested in what the instructors had to say at Colorado Mountain College, which is where he chose to go to school...briefly. "I like to say that I was pursuing a degree in skiing, but that didn't work out too well," he admits. Instead, he transferred to Colorado State University and got a gig cooking at Bennigan's. Fort Collins ultimately had "too many other interesting things to do," he says, so he dropped out of school, then wound up moving to Denver and prepping and slinging pizzas at an Old Chicago. By the time he got there, he'd settled on cooking as a career. "I knew by then that I was actually pretty good in the kitchen and that I really enjoyed working with my hands, and I realized, too, that if I applied my talent to doing better food, I could do really well," explains Davison, who then took another stab at earning his degree, this time at the Art Institute of Colorado, where he sailed through his culinary program and graduated.
By now he was also entrenched in the kitchen, nabbing cooking posts at the long-gone Sfuzzi, Pacific Star and Michael's of Cherry Creek, Castle Pines Country Club and Mel's Bar and Grill, a Cherry Creek institution that shuttered in 2010. "I had the chance to cook at Mel's as the sous chef, and you were no one in this town unless you worked for Mel Master, so I jumped at the opportunity," says Davison, who would later join another Mel's alum -- Goose Sorensen -- at Solera.
But after several years of cooking in Denver, Davison got antsy. "I needed to move and evolve, and I wanted to work in bigger houses and get some experience on the East Coast," he recalls. He moved to Philadelphia, where he got his wish, cooking at prestigious restaurants like Alma, the Striped Bass, the Happy Rooster, and Le Bec-Fin, a now-closed, then-restaurant powerhouse that was commanded by Georges Perrier, a French chef with a French temper. "I forearmed him to get my endive out of the refrigerator, and he yelled 'Fuck you' in my ear for twenty minutes one night while I was stirring risotto and snails," recounts Davison, who has since pardoned the chef for his tirade. "After he yells and screams and pushes you in the oven, he's the nicest guy in the world, and he'll give you the shirt off his back."
After putting in his time in Philly, Davison returned to Denver, securing the position of opening chef de cuisine at Elway's at the Ritz-Carlton, a position that was later eliminated. Davison stayed with the Ritz hotel chain for more than five years, cooking in various capacities at several properties, including Miami, St. Louis and, finally, Cleveland, where he worked his way up to exec sous chef of the hotel's culinary operations. And he would have stayed with the ritzy chain, he says, were it not for the corporate environment and...Cleveland. "I was hoping for the potential to move internationally with the Ritz, but the international properties weren't really importing that many American chefs, and I was kind of done with the corporate world; I missed being behind a cutting board. Weeks went by when I didn't pick up a knife, and I missed cooking," he says.
So he and his knives made their way back to Denver this past March, and not long after, Jennifer Jasinski, chef-owner of Bistro Vendôme, Euclid Hall and Rioja, reached out to Davison; Rodriguez was leaving, she told him. "I did a stage, a tasting, another stage and then got the job, and I couldn't be happier or more grateful for the opportunity," says Davison, who in the following interview admits that sourpusses have no place in his kitchen, recalls the exhilaration of cooking at the Oscars, and gives a shout-out to a Vietnamese restaurant that deserves to be on everyone's radar.
What do you enjoy most about your craft? Ben Davison: There are so many things that I enjoy about being a chef: the travel, good food, industry discounts, and being able to taste things that I wouldn't normally be able to afford. While working at Le Bec-Fin in Philly, for example, some guy bought the entire kitchen a round of Louis XIII. It was amazing. If I had to choose the one thing that I enjoy the most, though, it would be seeing the smiles on people's faces when they taste something delicious. It makes all the hard work worthwhile.
Describe your approach to cooking: I like to keep things simple, let the ingredients speak for themselves and keep them seasonal and local whenever possible. Simply put, I try not to complicate things too much. I mean, squash should taste like squash, right?
What are your ingredient obsessions? It all depends on the season, but now that it's fall, I'm really into different types of squashes, gourds and pumpkins. And no matter what time of year it is, a constant is chiles, although they don't have a place in Bistro Vendôme's cuisine. Nonetheless, I love all different kinds of chiles and peppers: aji amarillo, aji panca, rocoto, and even the hot guys like jolokia aji panca, and Trinidad Moruga scorpion chiles. They all have such unique flavors -- after you get over the heat, of course.
What are your kitchen-gadget obsessions? My knives. I'm a purist, and I love them. I know that all the rage is liquid nitrogen and thermal immersion circulators, but my knives are my livelihood. I love to take care of them and sharpen them, and it's a great day when I can stand behind a cutting board and butcher proteins, chop vegetables and slice herbs. That's my happy Zen place.
Favorite local ingredients and purveyors: I probably should say Colorado lamb -- it's delicious -- but I have to go with Palisade peaches. They're so juicy and wonderful, and they make Georgia peaches green with envy. Sorry, Georgians, but we've got you beat on this one. Growers Organic is one of my favorite purveyors for all things Colorado -- they're a great company for organic, local produce.
One ingredient you won't touch: I really can't think of anything I won't touch. When I was a kid, I wanted everything that everyone else was eating. My dad would give me liverwurst or pickled herring, and I loved it. That said, I don't really like tapioca pearls. I don't want snot in my tea; I just want some tea.
One ingredient you can't live without: I use onions in everything. I love how something so simple can have such an impact on flavors, depending upon the cooking technique.
Food trend you'd like to see more of: I think the farm-to-table movement is really amazing, and that we as chefs have a responsibility to the planet to use local and seasonal ingredients whenever possible.
Food trend you'd like to see disappear: Low-grade reality cooking shows. I admit that I'm a junkie for a good competition, and I think that some of the cooking shows on TV are pretty good, but the silly ones -- America's Worst Chef or whatever -- those need to go. It's pretty easy to spot the shows that are dedicated to a good competition between qualified contestants compared to the ones that are a battle between a personal trainer and avid home chef and a line cook from the Waffle House.
What specific requests would you ask of Denver diners? Don't fear change. Variety is the spice of life, and chefs have been given the task of using the same ingredients in different ways to keep our guests happy. I love seeing new things on menus, and while I'm sad to see my old favorites go, the replacements are usually just as good, or better.
Most underrated Denver restaurant: T-Wa Inn. I remember going there years ago, and even now, it's still going strong. It's kinda like the Vietnamese version of El Taco de México, but while El Taco de México gets credit for being a Denver institution, I don't see T-Wa on the must-eat places list for Denver, even though, in my humble opinion, it should be.
Who's the most underrated chef in Denver? Since I've been out of town for ten of the last twelve years, I really don't know who's underrated. I just remember all the friends who I used to cook with back in the day, and now that I'm back, I'm amazed and super-proud of the growth that I've seen in Denver. I'm just happy to be back here to throw my hat in the mix of it all.
What advice would you give to an aspiring young chef? The first thing I tell anyone who's thinking of becoming a chef is to get a job in the industry before you go to culinary school. If you love to cook at home and you watch a lot of cooking shows and think that you want to do this for a living, then go work at a restaurant -- any restaurant -- for six months. If you still want to be a chef after putting in some real time, then go ahead and sign up for culinary school, or just stay at the job and try to work your way up. A lot of really wonderful chefs have never had a formal education. The school of hard knocks is still one of the best educations you can get.
What skills and attributes do you look for when hiring kitchen staff? I look for someone who's eager and wants to learn, and having a good attitude and being generally happy is also a plus, but you have to realize, too, that there's more than one way to skin a cat. Don't be set in your ways because this is the way you did things at so-and-so restaurant. Learn, adapt and absorb as much knowledge as you can.
What's your biggest challenge as a chef working in Denver? This town has turned into a hotbed of amazing people doing amazing things, and I just hope I can keep up.
Biggest mistake a chef can make on the line: Not communicating is the easiest way for your ship to sink. Open communication from the line to expo to service staff helps everyone know where they're at. If the line gets smacked, and we know that the tickets that just got fired by the servers won't actually make it to the pan within the next fifteen minutes, the servers can plan around that. Servers can bring guests an intermezzo so that their wait doesn't seem as long, or use their skills as salespeople to offer a glass of wine to go with the dish -- just something to keep the guests happy. If a chef isn't honest and open about what's happening in the kitchen, it can get ugly, fast.
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Greatest accomplishment as a chef: In 2004, I had the opportunity to work a charity party at the Oscars. It was a benefit for Children Uniting Nations, and we cooked for about 2,500 people. A free trip to L.A. for a week during the Oscars and staying at the Le Meridien Beverly Hills -- that was pretty cool.