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Chef and Tell, part two: Jorge de la Torre on vegetarians, knives and offal

Chef and Tell, part two: Jorge de la Torre on vegetarians, knives and offal
Lori Midson

Jorge de la Torre Johnson & Wales University www.jwu.edu

This is part two of Lori Midson's interview with Jorge de la Torre, dean of culinary education at Johnson & Wales University. Part one of that interview ran in this space yesterday.

Favorite restaurant in America: The Shed in Santa Fe has never varied since it opened, and the No. 5 -- blue-corn chicken enchiladas with red chile and a fried egg on top -- is fantastic. La Posata in Marlton, New Jersey, is in this nondescript strip mall, but it's the restaurant that made me realize what true Italian-American cooking is all about. Until I ate there, I never understood what people were talking about when they said that you couldn't get good Italian food in Denver. I also love the Tadich Grill and House of Nanking in San Francisco, Lotus of Siam in Las Vegas, Shake Shack in New York and JJ Chinese here in Denver. These are the places that never disappoint my wife or me.

Best food city in America: New York. I love authentic ethnic foods, and you can find anything you want there, and it'll probably be just as good as being in that country. It's not unusual for me to try at least seven restaurants in a day when I'm in New York -- and I still haven't even begun to enjoy what's available. The last time I was in New York, the group I was with was really into the Foursquare thing on their phones, and I was embarrassed that people might see that I was at four restaurants and three bars in something like a four-hour span. Technology isn't all that. I still want to eat under the radar.

Favorite Denver restaurant(s): JJ Chinese. They treat me like family, and every dish I've had there is great.

Current Denver culinary genius: Wow, there are so many, but mine aren't the usual suspects. Have you ever had the stuffed chicken wings at Saigon Bowl? Genius. The xiao long bao at Lao Wang Noodle House? Genius. What I really appreciate are the chefs who give my students the opportunity to work in their kitchens, help them and stay mindful of the fact that they're just starting their careers. I've also noticed that our chefs are very charitable, and I'm always amazed at the top-quality chefs that are at every event I attend.

If you could teach any class, even though it might not be popular, what would it be? Teaching the fifth quarter -- in other words, the offal. When you kill an animal, every part needs to be used -- the heart, the liver, the gizzards, the kidneys. They're delicious and flavorful. Those things are special, and they shouldn't be thrown away, but I think a lot of students would be afraid to take a class on offal.

One book that every chef should read: When you're a young chef, Daniel Boulud's Letters to a Young Chef; Charles Carroll's Tasting Success; The United States of Arugula: How We Became a Gourmet Nation, by David Camp; and for a little history, Fernand Point's Ma Gastronomie. As an older chef, read Anthony Bourdain's books and Eat Me: The Food and Philosophy of Kenny Shopsin -- both will make you laugh. And every chef should take a look at La Technique from Jacques Pépin every once in a while just to refresh.

What show would you pitch to the Food Network, and what would it be about? If anyone does this I'll cry, because I want to have a show where I travel around the world going to food markets and farmers' markets and then cook what we found at those markets. Everywhere I've traveled, there's always been a beautiful market.

You're making a pizza. What's on it? Anchovies, pancetta, basil and an egg in the middle.

 

You're at the market. What do you buy two of? Greek yogurt with honey. I'm addicted to that stuff and the whole family likes it, so I need to make sure we're always stocked.

Weirdest student request: We had a vegetarian student who didn't want to be around meat or participate in the meat-cutting class. I told her that she didn't have to eat it, but that she needed to know how to cook it and at least be around it. She didn't get it. I've had other students say that they're deathly allergic to flour, and then they want to take the pastry and baking program. And then last year, I had a student who was completely freaked out by knives; he'd quake and quiver whenever he had a knife in his hands. He's no longer in the program. If you're afraid to use knives, you may want to think about another profession.

Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: At the night market in Taiwan, I had cobra heart with a shot of its blood in some liquor. It was oddly sweet.

Guiltiest food pleasure? People are always amazed at how much I love Pop-Tarts -- specifically cinnamon and brown sugar or strawberry. That's my problem: I'm shameless and guiltless. I should work on that and shed some pounds.

Best culinary tip for a home cook: Keep it simple and remember that if you're having guests over, it's about the general experience of getting together -- and not about whether the fish was cooked perfectly. Also, give some other vegetables in the store a try. I feel bad when I see parsnips, rutabagas and chayote hanging out there all on their own.

If you could cook for one famous chef, dead or alive, who would it be? Ferran Adrià. He seems so interesting, and I'd make sure to serve the simplest of foods, because I'm pretty sure that's what he enjoys eating on his day off -- some cheese, olives, some salumi, a properly cooked chicken, nice bread, good beer and wine, all served at a leisurely pace.

Favorite celebrity chef: Jennifer Paterson and Clarissa Dickson Wright, the two fat ladies who are getting play again on the Cooking Channel. They're fantastic. My wife and I are also big Nigella Lawson fans; she makes it okay to eat what you want, and I always learn something new from Alton Brown.

Celebrity chef who should shut up: I used to bristle at Bobby Flay, but now I kind of respect the fact that he puts himself out there in his show and loses gracefully. That said, he's still kind of obnoxious.

 

Are chefs artists, craftsmen or both? You need to know the technique first -- the craft part -- before you can add your artistic flair to it. Unfortunately, some chefs want to be artistic before having a solid foundation.

What's your favorite knife? I collect knives for all occasions, but if I had to pick one, it'd be the Wüsthof chef's knife that I bought for myself for my first cooking job. It has sentimental value.

What's the best food or kitchen-related gift you've been given? Any spice or food product that someone gives to me from one of the places where they've traveled. I'm just so appreciative that they thought of me.

Favorite music to cook by: When I cook with students, they're always intrigued, appalled and excited about what I listen to. My iPod has everything from Britney Spears to Dave Brubeck -- and there's even some country thrown in there.

Hardest lesson you've learned: I've learned that a calm voice and being even-keeled has much more sway than shouting and kicking. That way, when you do raise your voice, it's a rare occasion and people know you mean business. I've also learned that I'm but a cog in the machine, and I need to make sure all parts are well taken care of. It makes everyone look good.

What's next for you? I really enjoy my position here. I mean, how many dean of culinary education positions are there in the world? I'm very fortunate. I just want to keep striving to find new ways to better the culinary world through better-prepared graduates and giving my students all the tools that they need to succeed. And maybe that Food Network farmers' market show will work out...if they read this. But right now I'm in a great place, where I can spend time with my family and have balance in my life. I'm thankful every day.

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