This is part one of my interview with Brandon Foster, executive chef of Vesta Dipping Grill. Read part two of my Brandon Foster interview.
"Sweat Hog." Those are the words inscribed on Brandon Foster's deep-blue mechanic's shirt. "Oh, no, are you really going to make me tell you the story behind this?" he asks. Then the rapid talker who rarely pauses to breathe rolls his eyes, takes a swig of PBR and resigns himself to an explanation. "Okay, when we had our ten-year-anniversary party here, we all purchased Walkie Talkies, and my call sign was 'Sweat Hog' because, you know, I sweat a lot."
Foster's sitting at the bar at Vesta Dipping Grill, where he's the executive chef, and there's not a bead of sweat in sight. Then again, he has nothing to sweat about. It's his day off, and the ebb-and-flow in Vesta's kitchen is effortless -- as usual. "Working here rules," says Foster, who joined the line in 2004. "Right from the get-go, it was obvious how great the rapport is at Vesta. We call it the Vesta vibe: the ability to party like a pro and work like a pro." And even sweat on occasion.
Foster, who admits to an obsession with Dr. Seuss as a child and to making green eggs and ham with way too much green food coloring, has always been intrigued by cooking. His first introduction to a professional kitchen was in the ninth grade, when he tossed pizzas alongside his aunt at the long-gone Cucina Leone, where she was the chef. "We were just getting ready to move to Arizona, and I had some free time on my hands," he remembers, "so I spent some time in a chef's coat making pizzas, and at the end of the day, I was kinda like, wow, this is a lot of fun."
It wasn't until several years -- and many trials and tribulations -- later, however, that Foster solidified his culinary career. "I moved to Tucson, went to college and dropped out after a year, and then I got fired from my job," he recalls. "I was definitely headed down a bad path, until I got on a Greyhound bus and moved from Arizona to Summit County and got a job working in a hotel restaurant."
It was a fresh start for Foster, who started off busing tables and doing banquets. "My brother was in Dillon, managing the restaurant in the Best Western Lake Dillon Lodge, so he gave me a job and I've never looked back," reveals Foster, who eventually became the sous chef. But after five years in the mountains, he wanted more. "I could have stayed in that job forever," he says, "but I needed to push myself, and I needed to be better than a guy working at the Best Western, so I moved to Denver."
His first stint here was slinging pots and pans next to Tyler Wiard, now the exec chef of Elway's in Cherry Creek, then the executive chef of the Fourth Story. "I was working with tongs in one hand and a towel in the other, which was so foreign to me; I realized early on that I didn't know anything," he admits. But he was a quick learner, and by the time he left, he was ready to take on more challenges. "I learned an enormous amount from Tyler," says Foster, who followed Wiard to Mel's Bar and Grill, where he worked his way up to the sous job. He left that gig because he and Mel Master, who owned Mel's, "had differences of opinion," Foster says, but he paid attention to Wiard's words of wisdom his last day on the job: "Go and talk to Matt Selby at Vesta Dipping Grill," Wiard advised.
At Vesta, Foster interviewed with Selby and Brandon Biederman, Vesta's sous at the time (he's now the exec chef of Steuben's), and was hired as a line cook. "I took a pay cut and a cut in responsibility, but they told me that there was a lot of room for advancement and that if I got in here, worked hard and showed them what I had to offer, then there was the potential to move up," remembers Foster. When Steuben's opened in 2007 and Biederman vacated Vesta to command that kitchen, Foster was given the sous stint. And late last summer, he became Vesta's executive chef.
In the following interview, Foster talks about Jimmy Buffett Fridays, the yuck of a yam cake and the merits of the cheeseburger Big Bite at 7-Eleven.
Six words to describe your food: Thoughtful, inspired, worldly, porky, fresh and seasonal.
Ten words to describe you: Loud, happy, helpful, teacher, coach, father, driven, respectful, inquisitive and creative.
Best recent food find: 6L farms in Byers, Colorado. They provided us with all of our pork for our Harvest Week dinner, and their pigs are amazing. The Lane family is doing incredible work raising certified American heritage-breed pigs that are fed herb trimmings from a nearby herb farm, along with leftover whiskey mash from Leopold Brothers Distillery. The guys at Leopold Brothers were kind enough to let us develop a custom whiskey with our staff that's our own signature batch, and the pigs we used for the Harvest Week dinner ate some of that mash, which is way cool. The farm name comes from the fact that there are six people in the family, and their last name is Lane. They're just incredibly nice people who take extra-special care of their animals -- and it shows.
Favorite ingredient: Ramps. The four-to-six-week stretch every spring, when ramps are in season, is my favorite time of year. We buy as many as we possibly can and use them in as many ways as possible. Grilled ramps with a little oil, sea salt and pepper...yes, please. My sous chef, Kenny, and I, have been known to eat way more than is necessary for a single person in one sitting. If anyone shares my affinity for ramps, check out the info online about the ramp festival in North Carolina every year. And then take me, because I want to go.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: If I had to pick one, I'd choose tomatoes from either Verde Farms or Agriburbia. Tomatoes that are picked hours before they're delivered are the best. The duck eggs from Grower's Organic are near and dear to my heart, too. Try frying two eggs over easy and putting them on top of a slice of head cheese on grilled toast. Once you go for it, you'll never go back.
Most overrated ingredient: Anything within the realm of molecular gastronomy. I think it's messing with food too much.
Most underrated ingredient: Root vegetables, like turnips, parsnips and rutabaga. Root vegetables are some of my favorite things to work with, but they don't get any credit. Take my word for it: You haven't lived until you've had turnips poached in duck fat.
Favorite spice: These days, I really have a thing for smoked paprika. It's got some heat to it, which I like, but it has this really musty, earthy smoke flavor that I just can't get enough of.
One food you detest: Blue cheese. I've tried it, many times, and I still can't do it. It smells like feet.
One food you can't live without: Hot sauce. I eat it on everything.
Favorite music to cook by: Chuck Mangione, Michael McDonald and Jimmy Buffett. All three singers have specific ties to the Vesta kitchen, and it just wouldn't be the same without them. We have a habit of listening to Chuck and Michael repeatedly -- and I mean repeatedly, and Jimmy has his own special day: Jimmy Buffett Fridays are five straight hours of Buffett, pink drinks and Hawaiian shirts. It's glorious.
Rules of conduct in your kitchen: Take your job seriously, but don't take yourself too seriously. We're passionate about what we do, but the mood has got to be a balance of seriousness and fun. We have a very small kitchen, considering how much food we put out on a busy night, and keeping your cool is super-important. If one guy gets worked up, it throws the whole flow off. Since we're obnoxious kitchen guys, we crack jokes at everyone's expense, and for the most part, it keeps the mood light and fun. Thick skin and the ability to take relentless ridicule are two good qualities to have in our kitchen. I now refer back to my first statement to this question.
Biggest kitchen disaster: When I worked at a hotel in Summit County, my chef had left black beans on the counter to soak overnight -- and he specifically told the dishwasher to leave them alone. The dishwasher, for whatever reason, couldn't remember that, and he dumped them down the drain in the dish pit and didn't tell anyone. We had 25 pounds of uncooked black beans in the drain, except that we didn't know about it until halfway through breakfast service the next day, when the beans started to "cook" in the drainpipe. The maintenance guy had to disconnect the dish pit drain right under the sink, and we worked the whole day doing one rack of dishes at a time before having to dump a catch tub under the sink. We had 100-person banquets for breakfast, lunch and dinner that day, plus regular service, and it was just two of us. It was one of the worst days I've ever had in a kitchen.
What's never in your kitchen? Liquid Smoke or pre-fab anything. We do everything by hand or from scratch.
What's always in your kitchen? My friends and restaurant family. I spend more time with them than I do with my home family, and I really work hard at building those relationships. I rely on them just as much, if not more, than they rely on me, and I'm grateful every day for their hard work and dedication.
Weirdest customer request: We get lots of interesting requests at Vesta, but the one thing that really stands out is the number of people who have allergic restrictions. Most are relatively straightforward and easy to accommodate, but every once in a while, you get a request that makes you scratch your head. I had one guest about two years ago who told her server that she was allergic to coarsely ground black pepper. The server tried to inquire more about the restriction, and the woman held up the pepper shaker on the table and said that while that was okay, coarsely ground pepper was not.
Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: A yam cake. We shop a lot at Pacific Mercantile, and every time we go, I walk past one of the cold cases where they have yam cakes. Packaged individually, it looks like a weird gelatinous rectangle floating in some sort of brine, but after passing it up countless times, we finally decided to try one. It was pasty and gross.
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What's one thing about you or your restaurant that people would be surprised to know? When I was 22, I lived in Leadville, and my girlfriend -- now my wife -- and I owned a tie-dye shop. It was called the Grateful Hut, and it was a tiny -- and I mean tiny -- shop that only cost us $300 dollars a month for rent. We made all of our tie-dye stuff in our bathtub, and while we never made a dime, it was fun.
Hardest lesson you've learned, and how you've changed because of it: Before I moved to Summit County, I lived in Tucson and worked at a video store for about four years during high school and my first year in college. In my last year working there, I'd been stealing cash, and while it took them a long time to figure it out, they eventually did. I got fired and had to pay back $100 a month for a year so they wouldn't press charges. I was a dumb kid who didn't think it through, and I came super-close to spending some time in tent city with pink socks and underwear. I vowed to never pocket anything ever again. And then I moved to Summit County, where I changed my life, started cooking and met my wife. The rest is history.