This is part one of my interview with Biker Jim, chef-owner of Biker Jim's Gourmet Dogs. Part two of our banter will run in this space tomorrow.
"I'm too young to have this much history," quips the 54-year-old Army brat who was born in California and bumped around Morocco and Spain, Omaha and Albuquerque, Alaska and Boulder before eventually settling in Denver, where he's become a national phenomenon, all thanks to a hot dog cart that grew into a sausage-slinging empire with multiple carts, a tricked-out food truck, a brick-and-mortar and another storefront in the pipeline.
Not bad for a former repo man who spent his youth as a self-described "asshole drug addict" and eighteen years in Boulder repossessing pickup trucks and Pintos before launching his booming wiener business on the 16th Street Mall.
But Jim Pittenger, aka Biker Jim, was always intrigued by food and cooking. "My mom was a pretty shitty cook, so food wasn't that important, but she belonged to the cookbook-of-the-month club for thirty years, and because I didn't like the way she cooked, I started reading her cookbooks as a teenager, and that's how I got started in the kitchen," says Pittenger, who recalls making oyster-stuffed steaks, wilted spinach salad and Grand Marnier soufflé out of a Vincent Price cookbook.
But at fifteen, while he was living in Alaska, his parents booted him not just out of their kitchen, but out of the family home -- "I was a terrible kid," confesses Pittenger -- and his on-the-cheap diet (mostly ramen and eggs) forced him to improvise. "I did what I could to make the eggs taste better by making Saltine-cracker omelets -- I could steal the Saltines from restaurants -- and my dinner was nearly free," he jokes. He eventually got a stinky job shoveling fish at a fish-processing plant in Anchorage, but after months of reeking like ocean scum, he jumped ship. "I smelled so horrible that I couldn't ride the bus -- they kicked me off -- and I couldn't hitchhike for the same reason, but I could stand my pants up and drape my shirt over the top," he deadpans.
For the next seven years he tended bar, until, he says, he got clean and sober, which he's been for the past three decades. After snagging a part-time job doing TV production and camera work, he eventually became an operating engineer, which gave him license to operate a broadcast station anywhere in the country -- and he moved to Boulder in 1987 to study journalism at the University of Colorado. He got the degree and, when he graduated, a job racking up mileage en route to driving off in someone else's Chevy. "I was the big repo man on campus, a job that I did for way, way too long," confesses Pittenger, who estimates that he "stole back" 12,000 cars.
In 2005, the same year he gave up legal car thievery, he went back to Alaska, where he met up with a friend who'd been hustling Alaskan sausages for more than a dozen years. "He told me that I'd be good at it and have a good time, and that was a defining 'What the fuck?' moment for me," says Pittenger, who returned to Denver, bought a street cart and started the process of sourcing his sausages. "I knew I wanted a reindeer sausage, because no one else in Denver was doing that -- it was a novelty -- and I started working with Continental Sausage almost immediately. I loved their sausages, I loved their ideas, and I loved their customer service."
And the sausages commanded lengthy lines from the get-go, inspiring Pittenger to pump up his menu with as many exotic wieners as he could wrangle: pheasant, boar, elk and even rattlesnake. "It became a wild-game carnival," he says. "So many things have happened to help me continue to do this, and while I started this business with $8,000, and there are days when I wish I still had $8,000, I love what I do, I love the people, and I love hobnobbing with my culinary heroes, with great journalists and with great chefs. I'm the luckiest guy in the world."
In the following interview, Pittenger busts out a bread haiku, bitches about boba and spills details on the new place that he hopes to open by Thanksgiving.
Six words to describe your food: Familiar, twisted, flavor-y, handheld, meaty and delicious.
Ten words to describe you: Understanding, wily, friendly, boorish, guileless, habitual, entertainable, hungry, sober and toothsome.
What are your ingredient obsessions? Butter, garlic, onions, salt and pepper. The '70s may have ruined any chance I might have had for a sophisticated palate, but I think there are but a few dishes that can't be made better with these.
What are your kitchen tool obsessions? My Vitamix and my KitchenAid mixer, both of which I use almost continuously. There's probably no other kitchen gadget that can hide the appearance of zucchini in a dish better than a Vitamix, plus it's versatile enough to make me a smoothie for breakfast and turn the same ingredients into soup for lunch. As for the mixer, I've had mine for more than a dozen years, and although it might sound a little funny these days, it can still knead the toughest dough, whip an egg white higher than my high-school graduating class, or help make another 1,000 cheesecakes. I've used up several meat grinder attachments (which they'll replace for free), and now I need the fruit and vegetable strainer. Perhaps it will complement the coffee grinder attachment I never use.
Most underrated ingredient: Bread. Yeah, it might not be that underrated, but it's so important to me. A good roll or crusty slice can be the perfect appetizer. French onion soup is just plain old onion soup without that crostini on top; okay, maybe the cheese helps, too. Bread can totally elevate a sandwich, a burger, or, in my case, a hot dog from good to great. I spend so much time on finding and preparing the best rolls I can get, and while I think we have some really good ones right now, I'm sure there are some better ones out there...or maybe if we toasted the ones we have rather than steam them, or maybe I need to toast and steam them. I love bread, and would probably sing praises to it if I could sing. Instead I shall recite a bread haiku: It's white and has crust whether from egg or water crust is oft not white Ta-da!
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: Pasture-raised chicken and duck eggs from Eastern Plains Natural Foods Co-op. My wife worked at one of the co-op's ranches for a year, raising everything from chickens to ducks to turkeys and geese; she would bring home eggs every week and the flavor was perfect -- fresh and rich. The yolks were often a bit dark from the feed, and once in a while you'd get a slightly green one. They were the best. Take that, Sam I Am. This is food that packs a nutritional punch...and it only takes one duck egg to make an omelet. Eating food from animals that are loved is really hard to beat.
Favorite spice: Smoked paprika. I love almost all kinds of paprika, mainly because I really enjoy the fact that I get a nice sweet smokiness with my heat. I've grown to love sriracha on almost anything, but paprika is the perfect dry spice for anything from chiles to omelets to cassoulet to casseroles. Being a wimp from Alaska, however, I don't like things that are super-hot. In fact, the first time I tried the green chile from the Curtis Park Creamery, it almost killed me.
One food you detest: Uni. Why? Four words: custard-of-the-sea. Nope. I like my custard with a burnt-sugar crust, thank you very much.
One food you can't live without: Rice. Perfectly cooked rice is like candy -- candy that you can wrap up in seaweed and toss on a tuna, candy that you can bake with a pork chop, candy that you can stuff in a pepper with some tomatoes and paprika and bake into a perfectly good representation of a vegetable side dish. Chipotle has made billions using rice. And don't forget about the fucking risotto. Where would paella be without it? My favorite way to make easy rice is to finely dice half an onion, sauté it with butter and olive oil until it's clear, and add a cup of short-grain white rice. Then I sizzle it for a minute or so, add a teaspoon of garlic chile paste, add two cups of chicken broth, bring it to a simmer, cover it and toss it in a 350-degree oven for twenty minutes. It rests for about ten minutes. Baking the rice gives it a texture you can't get from steamed rice -- it's fantastic. Okay, enough with the recipes. Sorry.
Food trend you wish would disappear: Boba drinks. I don't get it. It's like drinking a phlegm cocktail. Then again, I don't drink it, so I guess I really don't care if it disappears or not. It's not like I get stuck in traffic while people are jamming the highways going to the boba cafe, and I've never seen an attack ad by a candidate running on the boba ticket, and, come to think of it, I really don't remember ever getting into an argument about boba...or even a discussion about it until now. Never mind -- it can stay.
Most memorable meal you've ever had: French toast I made for my wife after she spent our first date at my house. I had used the cheesy pick-up line, "Hey, do you like French toast?" the day before, and when she said "Yes," it was only natural to respond, "Why don't you come over tonight and we'll have some for breakfast tomorrow?" I'm not saying she fell for it, but she went for it. Besides, I make really good French toast. That date was more than twenty years ago, and I still think about it every time I eat that stuff.
Favorite childhood food memory: Mom used to pick me up from school with an ice-cold orange Nesbitt's soda. Second grade was a bitch, and there's nothing like an ice-cold Nesbitt's to cap that sucka.
What's the best food- or kitchen-related gift you've been given? Well, I did get an OED loan from the city and opened a restaurant with it. Does that count? Honestly, the likes of me owning a restaurant is crazy-good fun.
Favorite junk food: Fat Boys, dude.
What's one thing that people would be surprised to know about you? I once blew up a guy's car over a drug deal. Oh, wait, that might not be that surprising to some people.
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What's your best piece of advice to culinary-school grads? Cooking food may just be the hardest you'll ever work for easy money.
Biggest compliment you've ever received: Anthony Bourdain once called Denver a "culinary wasteland," but after coming to my hot dog cart, he claimed that he'd "been to the mountaintop"; he'd been "enlightened." And then during that same trip, when he was doing a lecture, he opened his jacket and revealed a Biker Jim T-Shirt. He said that Biker Jim's Gourmet Dogs was something that nowhere else in the country had. I had to wait for my hard-on to go down before I could leave.
What do you have in the pipeline? Right now it's putting some more Biker Jim food trucks on the road, and we're also just starting to scratch the surface for another brick-and-mortar. I'm looking hard, and I'd like to get the doors open before Thanksgiving. And like this one, it'll be pretty wiener-centric. There are three things I want to re-create: an open kitchen, because I like the interaction between the hot dog cooker and the hot dog eater; I want the indoor-outdoor thing with the garage doors; and I want to do another burn-out party. We'll have our core items -- pheasant, elk and reindeer -- but I also want people to have the opportunity to get something that they can't get in this restaurant. Surprises!