"I was fourteen, working at a French bakery in Castle Rock as a dishwasher, and near my dish station, there was a picture of a chef's kitchen in France...and there was something about that picture that always intrigued me and made me feel like it was my destiny to have my own professional kitchen," remembers Olav Peterson.
Fourteen years later, at the age of 32, Peterson got his wish. But the executive chef of Bistro One, the French-influenced, modern American food temple at 1294 South Broadway, nearly gave it all up before he finally got his own galley. Early on, he kicked around the kitchens of Enoteca Wine Bar and the long-defunct Bella Ristorante and Cucina Leone before taking off for Europe in 1997 to broaden his culinary horizons. It was in Italy, recalls Peterson, that he "learned to appreciate the old traditions of making duck confit, handmade pasta and the beauty of unpasteurized cheese." He returned to Colorado, where he did a few short stints in the mountains, and then took off, scholarship in hand, for Johnson & Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island. Degree accomplished, Peterson returned to Denver - and to Bella, where he became the exec chef - before ditching the south suburban Italian for a downtown Denver newcomer.
He took the executive chef position at Gene Tang's 1515 -- a job, says Peterson, that gave him a recognizable name in chef circles, but after four years, he was done. "I had served my time at 1515, and while I learned a lot from Gene, there were all sorts of events that led up to my leaving; it was definitely time to go," he says. He soon landed the exec job at Euro, a Cherry Creek restaurant that never really found its footing, despite Peterson's best efforts. "I worked so hard there and put everything I had into making it work, only to get fired because they couldn't afford my salary," he explains. "It was such a wild ride and such a mess that I decided I was done with the restaurant business. I just couldn't see going through this kind of shit again."
But the six months he took off to remodel rental properties didn't quite fuel his passion like cooking, so he took a deep breath and started hunting for work. "It was the first time in my life that I couldn't get a job," he remembers. "Even with all the contacts I'd made, I'd fallen off the radar." Six more months passed before the tide finally started to turn and prospective restaurants began to show interest. But it was an ad on Craigslist for an executive chef that eventually led Peterson to his professional kitchen. "I responded to the ad, met with Alex Waters, the owner, and we started on this project called Bistro One -- a project that took a year to complete." Bistro One opened on Memorial Day 2008.
Six words to describe your food: Creative, inspired, eclectic, artisanal, unique and playful.
Ten words (or whatever it takes) to describe you: Artistic, passionate, confident, caring, secretly sensitive, abrasive to outsiders, practical joker, happily married and loyal.
Favorite ingredient: Whiskey. At the end of a long day, it allows me to start creating again -- in other words, it pushes the pain right down. I also use it in sauces, and especially to deglaze, because it's not as sweet as a brandy. I'm using it in an apple demi right now that I serve with the pork belly.
Most overrated ingredient: Truffle Oil. Doesn't everyone know it's just a chemical?
Most undervalued ingredient: Butter. It just makes everything taste better. It has so many versatile uses, and it adds so much richness to a dish, even to something as simple as a steak. I don't think we have a dish on the menu that doesn't have butter in it.
Favorite local ingredient: Fresh vegetables from my rooftop garden. We grow lettuces, squashes (but only for their blossoms), a lot of heirloom tomatoes, baby carrots, cucumbers and lots of herbs. I might even try for Meyer lemons this year. By the way, we also make all of our own pastas and cure all of our meats.
One food you detest: Stuffed peppers. My mother was an awful cook, and she used to force me to choke stuffed peppers down my throat. The steamed spinach with pickle juice was even worse. Who knows why she did it? Needless to say, I was forced to stand on my own in the kitchen at an early age.
One food you can't live without: Pork belly. Need I say more?
Best recent food find: Here, at the restaurant, it's Cremodan 64, a sorbet stabilizer. We use molecular gastronomy when it's necessary, like when I'm making a champagne sorbet and don't want to cook the alcohol out of it. The addition of Cremodan 64 will allow the sorbet to freeze without compromising the alcohol. Outside the restaurant, I recently discovered the pressed pork shoulder at Table 6, which was fucking awesome.
What you'd like to see more of in Denver from a culinary standpoint: I want to see more honest critiques of restaurants by people who have an actual understanding of the restaurant industry. The user review sites have way too many amateurs without any restaurant experience or knowledge writing reviews. And there are way too many non-professional food bloggers out there that think they're the next restaurant critic or Tony Bourdain.
What you'd like to see less of in Denver from a culinary standpoint: Chefs who don't care enough to learn the ropes before they get the key to the kitchen. I call it the Kitchen Manager Syndrome: Young guys coming out of culinary school, trying to run without first learning how to walk, and far more interested in getting the pristine white jacket than learning how to actually cook.
Rules of conduct in your kitchen: Have a sense of humor, work hard, believe in the vision and be an active member in the kitchen -- not a bystander. And if I give you homework, study.
Most embarrassing moment in the kitchen: My first Mother's Day at 1515 restaurant. Long story short: Two of my guys boozed it up really bad the night before Mother's Day brunch and didn't get to the restaurant until 8 a.m. -- just two hours before service. And I'm late, too, because I had to go to their apartment and haul their asses out of bed. The buffet is set up with half the amount of food there should be, and for the next four hours straight, it was either completely empty or only a quarter full. We were constantly playing catch-up with 400 people on the books -- and not one of them happy. Gene Tang, the owner, sat me down at the end of the day and said he was docking 50 percent of my paycheck because of all the comps. It was the worst day I've ever had. I fired the drunks soon after that.
What's never in your kitchen? Cornstarch. I believe in all-natural reductions and not taking the easy way out.
Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: Dried pig's ears. For the record, they weren't my dog's tasty treat.
Weirdest customer request: I've blocked most of them out, because there've been so many, but I can't forget the guy who said that his girlfriend didn't like squid, so could she have more calamari? And the latest one: I'm allergic to onions, but I can eat garlic.
Current Denver culinary genius: Ian Kleinman. He challenges me to rethink everything I know about traditional cooking.
Best culinary tip for a home cook: Instead of just trying to feed yourself, teach yourself to enjoy the experience of eating.
Favorite Denver restaurant(s) other than your own: D Bar. I love that we actually have a classic patisserie in Denver. My wife and I always get cake and a shake, which is the perfect ending to any meal.
Favorite celebrity chef: David Burke. Every time I see a dish of his, it's pure inspiration. There's always integrity to his food, but there's also a whimsical weirdness about him. If he's doing a suckling pig, for example, he might put an earring in the pig's ear. Playful or not, there's always a purpose to everything he puts on the plate.
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Celebrity chef who should shut up: Rachael Ray. She was never a chef. And Bobby Flay? Are you fucking kidding me? Not everything should go on the grill.
What's next for you? There could possibly be something down the line, but right now, I'm really happy where I'm at, and I'm still not finished accomplishing what I want to do here. I want to make this as successful as possible. Beyond that: Valentine's day; a new spring menu; turning 34; making sure dinner service goes really well tonight; another drink; and a good night's sleep.
This is part one of Chef and Tell with Olav Peterson; click here to read part two of the interview.