Chef and Tell with Kate Horton from Black Pearl
1529 South Pearl Street
Kate Horton is a self-described late bloomer, Top Chef reject and has-been nanny. "Yeah, I tried out for Top Chef, but didn't make it past the first round, probably because I didn't do very well during the on-camera interview," muses the 35-year-old exec chef of Black Pearl, whose clogs had never touched the floor of a professional kitchen until five years ago. "The 22-page application wasn't very much fun to fill out either," she says, laughing.
Born and raised in Dubuque, Iowa, Horton, a former track-and-field athlete, briefly attended Simpson College - "I went there because I could run faster than anyone else on the track team," she remembers - before coming to the realization that "the academic setting of that particular college wasn't for me." She transferred to Iowa State, where she "partied way too much" before kicking college life to the asphalt and turning her focus to kids. "I was a nanny all over the place -- in New Jersey, Washington, D.C., Kansas City and Aspen, which is where I eventually became interested in cooking," she says. Horton, it turns out, was working for the owners of the Little Nell, Aspen's hoity-toity hotel that houses Montagna, one of the top restaurants in Colorado. "They introduced me to the chef, this guy who told me that the kitchen was no place for a woman, so I said 'fuck that,' picked up and moved back to Washington, got another job as a nanny and enrolled in culinary school," Horton says. "I remember thinking that if a restaurant kitchen was really that crazy, then I definitely wanted to check it out."
After graduating from the Art Institute of Washington, Horton, who had never worked in a restaurant in any capacity prior to culinary school, began staging at D.C. restaurants, and from the moment she stepped on the line, she was intoxicated by the adrenaline. "It was fantastic," she recalls. "I immediately knew that I wanted to be in the kitchen...the energy was so amazing."
In 2007, she relocated to Denver - a move precipitated by her brother, who had just landed a job at the Air Force Academy - and was hired as a pantry cook at Duo working under John Broening, who's also the exec at Olivea (Duo's sister restaurant). "John created a sous chef position for me to make it more challenging, but things changed when he left," she laments. "The kitchen became a lot more loosey-goosey, which isn't my style at all, plus there was nowhere for me to go."
A text message from a friend about an open exec chef position at Black Pearl turned out to be the next step for Horton. "I staged here for a couple of nights, and it was a great fit right off the bat," she says. "I feel at home in this kitchen, and I'm doing a lot of things differently from what was done here in the past - seasoning my food properly, tasting dishes before they go out to tables and doing dishes that are a lot more seasonal." In a nutshell, Horton concludes, "I walked into a great space with great service in a great neighborhood, but the kitchen needed someone to do amazing food, and I think what I'm doing here can complete the puzzle."
Six words to describe your food: Straightforward, seasoned, acidic, flavorful, approachable and comforting.
Ten words to describe you: Deliberate, proactive, loyal, efficient, witty, moody, passionate, risk-taker and assertive.
Favorite ingredient: Leeks. I love the texture, and I adore the flavor. Poached, creamed, grilled, whatever - I'll use them any way I can.
Best recent food find: The roasted red pepper and sausage pizza at Ernie's Bar & Pizza. It's hard to find good thin-crusted pizza with simple flavors in Denver, but the pizzas at Ernie's are really good.
Most overrated ingredient: Microgreens. I love them, but they're often nothing more than an excuse for poor garnishing. And I know it's been said time and time again, but I hate truffle oil. When I took over the kitchen at Black Pearl, there were a few items I wasn't allowed to change, including the truffle fries. Every time I smell that shit I get nauseous and yell at the server who sells those fries. Yuck.
Most undervalued ingredient: Whole nutmeg. I always have a whole nutmeg in my pocket when I'm at work; I'm sure there's some in my purse and car, too. I use it in everything. It's an incognito ingredient, plus I think it really complements dishes, whether they're sweet or savory.
One food you detest: Eggplant. I've never cared for the texture, or the flavor. I'll cook with it, but it just doesn't do it for me.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: Pea shoots from Verde farms. I love them raw, or quickly sautéed with a squeeze of lemon and a pinch of salt. I'm seriously thinking that my next tattoo might be pea shoots. I'm also a huge fan of Stranahan's Colorado Whiskey; I love to use it in sauces and ice creams paired with fruit.
One food you can't live without: Pasta. It's my guilty pleasure. There's nothing like a big bowl of hand-rolled pasta tossed with olive oil and garlic.
Rules of conduct in your kitchen: Conduct yourself in a professional manner at all times, respect this profession, and respect the food. I have a low tolerance for poorly executed items.
Most embarrassing moment in the kitchen: It was actually in the walk-in of Restaurant Eve, a restaurant I worked at in Virginia. The prep lady had been shucking peas for, what, three or four hours, and I knocked them all over the floor. There were peas everywhere, and the floor of the walk-in was a textured aluminum, like something you would see on the bed of a pick-up truck. I was in that walk-in trying to gather all those little peas for a good 20 minutes, and just when I thought I had gotten all of them, my chef goes into the walk-in, comes out and asks how all of the peas ended up on the floor. It was my first week on the line and I was mortified, but I 'fessed up to it, which shocked him.
What's never in your kitchen? Laziness. I am not into short cuts that take away from what goes on the plate. Do it right from start to finish, and do it to the best of your ability.
What you'd like to see more of in Denver from a culinary standpoint: Better late-night eating options. I love to go out for a good late-night meal - ideally something like what you'd get at Rioja - but those options are few and far between. Most of Denver's late-night dining is geared toward bar food. I don't want bar food; I want a really well-composed salad and a great bowl of pasta.
What you'd like to see less of in Denver from a culinary standpoint: Diners who special order. A chef deliberately creates a dish to be a certain way, and diners should respect that. Here's a perfect example: When I was at Duo, we had a roasted root vegetable mash - celery, carrots, sweet potatoes - that we served with a chicken dish, and then we served regular mashed potatoes with the pork chop. You wouldn't believe how many people always wanted the mashed potatoes instead of the vegetable mash, which totally throws all your mise off. When diners do that, it means you're screwed during service.
Current Denver culinary genius: I spent two years as the sous chef at Duo and had the pleasure of working with John Broening. To this day, I'm not sure where some of his flavor combinations come from, but they all seem to work. I'm also a huge fan of Jen Jasinski. I had the privilege of staging there, and I was blown away with the way that kitchen, and the restaurant as a whole, is run. Jen just has an amazing presence.
Weirdest customer request: When I was cooking at Duo, a woman ordered quail. When the server brought it to her, she stared at it, petrified. Apparently, she had an aversion to bones, so why she wasn't a vegetarian, I'll never understand. In any case, she asked if I would debone it for her. I declined her request, so her husband did it for her. She clearly shouldn't be eating animals. I mean, what did she think she was going to get when she ordered a bird?
Favorite Denver restaurant(s) other than your own: Rioja. The execution there is perfect every single time. Jen, the food, the space, the service - it's outstanding all the way around.
Favorite celebrity chef: Paula Deen. She isn't afraid of fat.
Celebrity chef that should shut up: RachelfuckingRay. Ugh. Need I say more?
What's next for you? I'm not ready to think about my next step yet, because I'm still getting settled at Black Pearl. At some point, though, I definitely want to be a chef-owner. I'd really love to do an all-risotto restaurant.
This is part one of Lori Midson's Chef and Tell interview with Kate Horton; click here to read part two of that interview.
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