Big Game's Leo Harvey on pork belly (it's just bacon!), Denver's obsession with green chile and his own obsession with chicken stock

Big Game's Leo Harvey on pork belly (it's just bacon!), Denver's obsession with green chile and his own obsession with chicken stock
Lori Midson

Leo Harvey Big Game Restaurant & Lounge 1631 Wazee Street 303-623-1630

This is part one of Lori Midson's interview with Leo Harvey, exec chef of Big Game Restaurant & Lounge. To read part two of that interview, check back here tomorrow.

Leo Harvey is shaking his head, bewildered and befuddled by Denver's obsession with green chile. "The biggest challenge for me since moving to Denver in February has been getting that damn green chile right," confesses Harvey, the executive chef of Big Game, the big media lounge, restaurant and upscale sports bar that opened in May under the direction of restaurateurs Dan Smith and Zach and Jeffrey Chodorow. "For three weeks straight, we went from restaurant to restaurant trying to figure out which green chile was the best, and we finally had to step back, admit that we could sit here all day long and try to mimic what everyone thinks is the best green chile, or just do our own, which we finally did in the end - and it's a good one."

So, too, apparently, is the restaurant's matzoh ball soup, at least judging from one Jewish woman who stops in periodically to get her fix. "The first time she came in and ordered it, she was nearly turning the bowl upside down and licking it, which is a pretty amazing compliment for a guy who's never made matzoh ball soup before," says Harvey, laughing.

Born in Japan, the 27-year-old classically trained chef, who lived in South Korea, Germany and the Philippines before moving to the States when he was ten, hooked up with Smith and the Chodorows while living in Atlanta. "I had just gotten laid off from a restaurant and was offered a junior sous position at a steakhouse that the guys were working on, and from there, things just really took off," remembers Harvey, who went on to become the exec sous chef at El Scorpion, a Mexican concept that's also part of the Chodorow empire of restaurants, before eventually snagging the exec chef gig at Big Game.

"I love the freedom that I get from working for such a small company that's not uber-corporate," says Harvey, who graduated magna cum laude from Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Atlanta. "And I love food, cooking, experimenting and watching a guest's head bob up and down in approval. That's the best kind of confirmation you can get as a chef."

In the following interview, Harvey talks about the new restaurant, his most embarrassing moment in the kitchen, why pork belly is overrated (blasphemy!), trashy white cheese dip, his passion for cooking and how he nurtured a knife back to life.

 

Six words to describe your food: Simple, sexy, sophisticated, delicious, ambitious and bold.

Ten words to describe you: Passionate, ambitious, young, methodical, thoughtful, intense, crazy, driven, teacher and student.

Culinary inspirations: Anyone who's passionate about their craft inspires me. I've worked with a lot of passionate people, and seeing someone else's love for food and cooking motivates me to want to be better and learn more about my craft. My first sous-chef job was under a chef in Atlanta named Scott Donnelly, and he was the guy who really got me pumped about what I do, mostly because his brain was always coming up with these crazy twists on classic southern comfort food that just blew me away. He really helped develop my palate and taught me how to think outside the box when it came to flavors. My mom -- she's Filipino -- makes some of the most delicious food I've ever tasted, like Filipino-style egg rolls, which are delicious. She always cooked things from scratch, or from her garden, and I loved watching her. I think it was because of her that I always knew what good food tasted like.

Proudest moment as a chef: I have a few, actually. When I first started working as a line cook at this small wine bistro in Atlanta called Vine (it's gone now), the chef and sous chef weren't there on my first day on the job, so when I showed up and the people that hired me weren't there, I was completely confused, but I ended up staying anyway, because I love a challenge, and did what I felt I knew how to do best: cook. It was a small bistro with a three-man line, and I was working the grill station, controlling a line that was brand new to me, and executing a menu that I'd only glanced at once. But the night went well, and after service, the GM came over and told me that it was the smoothest night the restaurant had had in a long, long time. A week later, I was offered the position of sous chef. My second proud moment was when I was offered the opportunity to head up the kitchen here at Big Game. I've been with this company, TurnTable Restaurant Group, for the last two years and have always enjoyed it. The people that I work with are similar to me in that they're passionate about what they do, which makes work a lot of fun - and not like work. This opportunity was a tremendous challenge because of the size of the restaurant and the menu, so when I was asked to become the executive chef of the concept, I was beside myself, but I also knew I had the confidence to do it right. All the work and time I'd put into my profession was paying off, and to be considered for something as big as Big Game was, well, big. I felt like I'd been given an opportunity to see if I could run among these other great chefs whom I had aspired to be like.

Favorite ingredient: I know this is going to sound a little strange, but I love chicken stock. I've been focusing on my line a lot lately, and I often think about something a chef of mine once told me about chicken stock being a line cook's best friend and how a properly done, flavorful stock adds depth, body and flavor to dishes. Using a little stock to reheat a sauce or cook vegetables seems like a simple practice, but the simplest things are what make a dish. Chicken stock can seriously save a chef's life; it's a very useful tool.

Best recent food find: The salumi from Il Mondo Vecchio. When I first moved to Denver, I sourced out a specialty vendor and found Italco Foods. Nicolas, a sales rep there, introduced me to Il Mondo Vecchio, this great local company that cures their own meat. Chef Mark DeNittis sources his product locally and cures it right here in his own shop. That kind of thing -- being able to get delicious cured pork fresh from less than five miles away -- blows me away. Their pepperoni, which we use on our pizza, is really intense with a rich flavor, and you can just really tell that it's not mass-produced -- that's there's a lot of love in that pepperoni.

Most overrated ingredient: Pork belly. Blasphemy, I know, but hear me out: When pork belly finally blew up in pop food culture, everyone starting playing with it, and while it's good and all, there's only so many times I can eat that much pork fat in one sitting. I think it's awesome and delicious that this once-wasted product is now being treated with the culinary respect it deserves, but at the end of the day, it's just bacon.

Most undervalued ingredient: Fresh chicken, veal and fish stocks. I know I sound like an after-school special here, but for me it's all about the basics -- the foundation of it all. If your foundation is strong, you can build great things on it, but if the foundation of your sauces, braising liquids, and soups isn't good, then how can you expect the end result to be good?

Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: Fresh herbs from our own planters just outside the front door of Big Game; one of our staff members brings in herbs from her garden, too. And, just asking: Can I repeat myself here and give another shout-out to any salumi from Il Mondo Vecchio?

One food you detest: Huitlacoche, aka the Mexican truffle, a very pungent, black, slimy tar when it's in the can that tastes just as disgusting as it looks.

 

One food you can't live without: Rice. I grew up on the stuff. I love it -- eat it with everything. My mother is Filipina, and I was born in Japan, so right from birth I was surrounded by the grain. I'll eat it by itself with a little soy sauce or alongside a heaping portion of pot roast and veggies. It's gotta be jasmine rice, though, which is fluffier and tastier.

What's the best food- or kitchen-related gift you've been given? As a birthday gift one year, a girlfriend of mine gave me some really nice smoked sea salt and some expensive hand-picked black peppercorns. It was all about the basics of cooking, which include seasoning your food. As long as you season your food to taste, you can't go wrong. I love playing with spice combinations and trying to find those unique combinations that bring out the flavors in bold ways. Even the most basic seasonings, like salt and pepper, can do wonders for flavor if they're good quality.

What's never in your kitchen? A negative attitude. I can't stand to have someone in my kitchen that brings others down. If it gets too bad, I'll send you home. Working in a kitchen is supposed to be fun, and as the old saying goes, "One bad apple spoils the bunch."

What's always in your kitchen? Saffron. Every kitchen I've ever worked in has always had a tin of saffron somewhere in it. It may never get used, but it's always there. Same is true at Big Game. I have a tin of saffron stashed somewhere...just in case. Just in case of what, I don't know, but it never hurts to have a few tricks up your sleeve as a chef.

What you'd like to see more of in Denver from a culinary standpoint: I'm fairly new to Denver, but before I moved here, everything that I'd heard about this city seemed to suggest that it was very meat-and-potatoes -- simple people with simple palates. Now that I'm here, I'm finding out more and more that this is definitely not the case. People here really care about food and take pride in locally produced products and believe that you don't have to do much to fresh food to make it taste good. I've come across some very adventurous diners who are looking for the next best dish and the most creative chefs, which is great, except for the fact that I think we need more of both - more adventurous diners and more chefs showing off their creativity. We need to raise some eyebrows in the rest of the country. I'd also like to see more late-night dining options. There are a couple of places around, but it would be nice to see more options that aren't fast food. The one thing I liked about Atlanta was the late-night dining scene. You could get anything from excellent Korean barbecue to fine American cuisine and Ethiopian food up until the wee hours of the morning, and 24 hours in some cases. Oh, and I'd like to see less sous-vide and more hanger steak.

What you'd like to see less of in Denver from a culinary standpoint: Diners ordering a steak, asking for it to be cut in half and cooked two separate temperatures -- one rare, one medium well. It's just strange. And I've seen a lot of people eating most of what's on their plate, only to then complain that it wasn't good and send it back to the kitchen. We need less of that, too.

Weirdest customer request: I once had a guest request that one of our servers arrive on top of her banana cream pie. That was pretty strange.

Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: Squid jerky. When I was growing up overseas, in countries like Japan and Germany, snacks were very popular and my mother always took me with her when she went to Asian markets, and one of the snacks that I loved was squid jerky -- dried up pieces of squid that are salty, slightly sweet and have a mild fishy flavor.

What show would you pitch to the Food Network? Season to Taste, a show that introduces home cooks to the wonders of simple seasoning techniques that any fledgling cook can master and use to impress their guests. I figure, too, that since I have "Season to Taste" tattooed on my fingers, if it takes off then perhaps I could have them insured, like Hollywood's finest derrières.

Best culinary tip for a home cook: Keep it simple, keep it fresh and "season to taste." Oh, sorry, that's the Food Network calling me right now.

If you could cook for one famous person, dead or alive, who would it be? Muhammad Ali in his prime, because he was a bad mamma jamma.

Read the rest of Lori Midson's review with Leo Harvey.


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