Head down 32nd Avenue in Highland, and you're likely to find 25-year-old James Rugile in the kitchen at Venue, turning out some of the most incredibly delicious food in Denver (if you haven't tried Rugile's shrimp and grits, go now). The studious young chef, who grew up in Basalt and attended Johnson & Wales University, where he graduated cum laude with an associate's degree in culinary arts, has already had an impressive career as a cook and chef, beginning with Vesta Dipping Grill, where he worked the line with Matt Selby and Wade Kirwan, and later at Black Pearl, where he was chef de cuisine.
Rugile traveled to Chicago for a two-day stage at Alinea -- an experience that encouraged him to reconsider why he was cooking in the first place. "It was a very intense environment using incredibly progressive techniques," Rugile remembers. "I felt that a lot of the cooking placed an emphasis on altering and manipulating ingredients rather than highlighting and complementing them, and I realized that it's not about manipulation, but showing appreciation for fresh, seasonal ingredients and using proper technique and precision to highlight them.
"What I'm really passionate about -- what really excites me about food -- are old-school techniques like braising and confit, things like taking inexpensive cuts of meat and transforming them into delicacies," confesses Rugile, who opened Venue with owner Holly Hartnett exactly one year ago. "Having the patience to trim and sear a cut of meat, putting it in the oven for four to five hours and letting it rest and cool in its own juices...that's the kind of food I love."
Rugile, who was born in Queens, says his fascination with cooking started young. "I found a passion for cooking through my mother's influence," he explains. "She always had a great appreciation for the dinner table and the importance of family." And Rugile admits that he likes to cook to the music of -- gasp -- Michael McDonald, a choice his mother would probably appreciate. In the following interview, he also laments the dearth of delis in Denver, talks about the new Highland Chefs' Collaborative project that he's spearheading, and sings the praises of Portland's food scene.
Seven words to describe your food: Simple, refined, technique-driven, seasonal, rich and comforting.
Ten words to describe you: Passionate, humble, determined, focused, funny, attentive, meticulous and rock & roll.
Favorite ingredient: It's hard for me to identify a single ingredient, but I love pork cuts, especially pork shoulder, which is like $1.10 a pound and so, so good. I dig using something cheap and transforming it into something extravagant and delicious.
Most overrated ingredient: Truffle oil. I can appreciate it in small quantities from time to time, on appropriate dishes, but it's overly used on a lot of menus. Plus, it's not even a true ingredient; it's factory-manufactured perfume.
Most undervalued ingredient: Fat. Duck fat, pork fat -- whatever. Typically the fat is trimmed and thrown away by home cooks rather than rendered down and utilized for other applications, which is such a shame, because it adds so much depth of flavor and richness to dishes. We'll use the duck fat for duck confit, but we save bacon fat to use in vinaigrettes and pork belly fat for pork rillettes on the charcuterie plate.
Favorite local ingredient: Our coffee from Copper Door is some of the best I've ever tasted. I get it from a local Highland resident who roasts it all from his home. You can buy it from St. Kilian's, right around the corner from us, but we're the only restaurant he sources, and we're very grateful for that. It's delicious. I also really appreciate the beautiful greens that Josh [Halder] grows at Verde Farms.
What's never in your kitchen? Beef tenderloin. It's expensive, it's overrated and flavorless. No marbling, no fat...just tender mush inevitably accompanied by mashed potatoes.
What you'd like to see more of in Denver from a culinary standpoint: I'd like to see more independent restaurants serving simple dishes. So much of the food out there is overdone and unnecessarily complicated. I like places that highlight their ingredients with a small, seasonal menu -- restaurants like Potager and Duo.
What you'd like to see less of in Denver from a culinary standpoint: Kitchens that cook without passion and heart -- and a kitchen staff that cooks for a paycheck and nothing more. That said, I think that Denver is starting to build a really great restaurant community. I'd just like to see more of those small, chef/owner-driven restaurants -- places that exude heart and passion and dedication and warmth and everything that you could want in a neighborhood joint.
Culinarily speaking, Denver has the best: Ethnic food, for sure. You can venture into so many different neighborhoods in this town and experience amazing global cuisine, everything from Indian and Ethiopian to Vietnamese, French and South American. I think Denver as a whole is a very well-diversified dining city.
Culinarily speaking, Denver has the worst: I always have a hard time finding good sandwich spots. There's a handful in town that I actually enjoy, but I'd love to see more neighborhood delis that sell great hoagies. A few more New York-style delis would be great, too.
Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: I'm pretty adventurous, and I'm willing to try just about anything, but for some reason, sea urchin really disgusts me. It's not that weird, but it's got a visual-textural thing that throws me off.
Current Denver culinary genius: I really respect Matty Selby at Vesta Dipping Grill and Alex Seidel at Fruition. These are influential guys who've been in the game a long time, yet they have remained humble and truly passionate about what they're doing. Matty is like the Godfather of Denver Dining; everybody respects him and waits for his next move. He gives so much of his time and energy to different charities and events -- it's really admirable.
You're making a pizza. What's on it? Cheese. I'm a purist when it comes to pizza. I like a nice, thin crust, New York-style pizza.
You're making an omelet. What's in it? Bacon, jalapeños, onions and a good bit of cheese.
Best culinary tip for a home cook: Trust your instincts. So many home cooks abide by the recipes they find in cooking magazines or cookbooks without understanding that each cooking environment is unique. The "medium" heat on your stove might be different from the one referenced in the recipe you've just read. If you feel something isn't right, adjust it. If it smells burnt, it probably is. So many home cooks are intimidated about cooking, afraid they might botch the recipe or something might not turn out right. Guess what? It happens. That's how you learn and progress as a cook, at home or in a restaurant.
Favorite Denver restaurant other than your own: Fruition. The food is really honest, and Alex is so humble. He doesn't need to self-promote himself, because his food does it for him. I also really love Colt & Gray. I love that I can go there and eat pig's trotter and great charcuterie and a great terrine of foie gras -- things that cooks like to eat and stuff that you don't see on every other menu. Plus, they have a really great staff of industry pros who are very good at what they do.
Favorite celebrity chef: Gordon Ramsay. Does he operate the way a professional chef should? Absolutely not. If he did, there wouldn't be a TV show. He's so incredibly over the top, so belittling and aggressive, that it makes for good entertainment, but at the same time, he pushes people. He pushes them to the extent of their mental and physical capability, and he strips them to their core to find out what they're made of. Do they appreciate their ingredients? Do they understand technique? Can they master consistency? Aside from the loud, raucous exterior, he has a lot of good points.
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Celebrity chef that should shut up: I don't have cable, so I can't say I watch many televised cooking shows, but Rachael Ray comes across as very fake to me. She shot a couple of her shows at Vesta Dipping Grill while I was working there, and she didn't seem very appreciative of what we were doing to help. She never even said "Thank you." She complained most of the time, packed up her stuff and left. It just rubbed me the wrong way.
What's next for you? There has been such a boom of good Highland restaurants opening in the past few years, and I thought it would be great if we could collaborate with one another, so I chose a handful of my favorite restaurants in the area and got in touch with the chefs to see if they'd like to be a part of the Highland Chefs' Collaborative, which is a new project that I just started. There are five restaurants involved: Venue, Squeaky Bean, Duo, Colt & Gray, and Shazz, and we'll be hosting five dinners, one at each restaurant. I'd also like to open a second restaurant down the road, but something more low-key than Venue -- maybe a diner or breakfast joint. That would be cool.
To read part two of my Chef and Tell interview with James Rugile, click here.