"I get such an adrenalin rush when I'm in the kitchen and there's great satisfaction in making it all happen in a very small and hot environment and having people leave happy about their decision to eat here," says Sheila Lucero. The newly promoted executive chef of Jax Fish House, in both Denver and Boulder, is hanging out in a booth at the Denver store, eavesdropping on her staff discussing the city's restaurant scene. "I love cooking in Denver, I love to cook what I eat, and making people happy with my food motivates me," explains Lucero, a Denver native who began her culinary career at Jax-Denver eleven years ago, less than a year after Dave Query, owner of Big Red F Restaurant Group, the company that includes Jax, docked his house of aquatics in LoDo.
A Denver native, Lucero received a scholarship to play soccer at Florida International University, where she also studied biology, but her father, whom Lucero credits with turning her on to food, encouraged her to pursue her passion for cooking. She did that at the Colorado Institute of Art, while simultaneously working in bakeries and delis. "I discovered the love and energy and enthusiasm that kitchens can have," reveals Lucero. "It's a lot like being on the soccer field, working as a team to reach our goals."
And Lucero knows a thing or two about achieving her goals. "I love a challenge and motivating myself, and after eleven years working for Dave, I was ready to make the jump from chef of Jax-Denver to Jax-Denver and -Boulder," she says, referring to the role she assumed when Jax-Boulder executive chef Hosea Rosenberg, winner of Top Chef New York, took a sabbatical. "At first I was just going to help out in his absence, and then he had to travel and show up at all these appearances -- he can't say no -- so my role kind of evolved, but it was a good and natural progression." But it hasn't been without a few obstacles, especially in Boulder. "Boulder is much more challenging than Denver, with a lot of different expectations," she explains. "Boulder is more adverse to change, which is weird, but at the same time, they're more inquisitive about where their food is coming from and how it's prepared."
The 35-year-old Lucero, who describes herself as an introvert, opens up in the following interview about her admiration for Thomas Keller, an awkward marriage proposal, her new obsession with pig's ears and how she's come a long way since "rolling out pizza dough and melting cheese on bread at Tony Rigatoni's and making gallons of Caesar dressing at Paradise Cafe."
Six words to describe your food: Seasonal, seasoned, fresh, bright, focused and trained.
Ten words to describe you: Hardworking, diligent, driven, loyal, soft-spoken, quick, efficient, clean and punctual.
Favorite ingredients: Pork. Oh, I love pork. I love using every part of the pig. Right now, my favorite part is the belly, although I've recently kind of become a fan of the ear. I went to a head-to-tail cooking seminar in Wisconsin that this chef named Tory Miller -- he's the chef at L'Etoile in Madison -- was teaching, and the pig ears part of it was just killer. I also love cooking with arugula because it always fits in somewhere, no matter what I'm cooking. And I can't cook without fresh thyme -- I use it all the time. I like that's it not super overbearing, and it fits well with a lot of the seafood that we do at Jax. It's the same thing with citrus: I love the way citrus creates an acidic balance on the plate, especially with seafood.
Favorite music to cook by: Eazy-E, Radiohead, Coltrane and '80s music, especially Journey.
Most overrated ingredient: Truffle oil. It's always overused and tastes nothing like the real thing.
Most undervalued ingredient: Salt. It brings out so many other flavors and makes flavors that you didn't even know existed stand out more. I also think that fresh citrus juices, especially from limes and lemons, are underused. I love to use both the zest and juice for a little acidity and balance.
Favorite local ingredient: Everything from Colorado's Best Beef Company, a small farm out of Boulder that we source for all our beef. They're awesome to deal with, and they've got an awesome product.
Rules of conduct in your kitchen: Respect your food, each other, yourself and the kitchen. That's it.
Most embarrassing moment in the kitchen: I was recently in Milwaukee cooking a James Beard dinner with Hosea Rosenberg, and while we were cutting pork belly, the fat was getting all over my hands, and the knife suddenly slid off the belly, and I ended up slicing the tip of my index finger off about two hours before service. I wrapped it and wrapped it and even had a blue finger condom on it, and it still wouldn't stop bleeding. I have pictures -- want to see? There were a lot of heavy-hitter chefs there that were laughing at me. It was a mess. And it was brutal.
What's never in your kitchen? Bad attitudes. If you have a bad attitude, beat it. And my kitchen never has stock bases of any flavor.
What show would you pitch to the Food Network? Probably none. I'd say, "Here, I'll give you Hosea's phone number." Seriously, I'm not one for the camera. I have serious social anxiety. That said, I loved Daniel Boulud's After Hours show on MoJo. He'd go to a city and hang out with other chefs and then they'd have a huge family-style meal with a bunch of eccentric people who would all sit around and shoot the shit. It would be a blast to cook with some other chefs and invite some friends and family and just hang out and eat at the restaurant late at night with talking about food and life. I wouldn't mind doing something in that style, I guess -- something that would focus around everyone else but me.
Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: Deer tail extract. Ick. It was kind of oily, with a really pungent smell and a sweet flavor. It wasn't good.
Weirdest customer request: A group of guys came into Jax-Denver and asked if I'd come to the table, which I don't like to do. But I walked over, all nervous and fidgety, and one of the guys asked me if I wanted to marry his friend. Yep, a marriage proposal. That was awkward.
Best culinary tip for a home cook: Talk to your butcher, fishmonger or produce guy and find out where your food comes from. Any more, people take food for granted and are so wasteful. Use as much of the animal as you can, experiment with new ingredients, especially beef, because a lot of the cuts that aren't used very often have a lot more flavor. Anything on the bone has a ton of flavor -- just cook it slow and low. Essentially, just use great ingredients. With produce, buy stuff that's in season. Go to Oliver's or Marczyk for your protein -- even Whole Foods if you have to.
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Hardest lesson you've learned: It's a lesson I'm still trying to learn. My new role as chef of Jax Fish House Denver and Boulder has created some new challenges for me, mostly learning how to relinquish a lot of control. I'm learning the hard way about letting go, delegating and empowering my great staff to step up and be great in my absence. I'm a doer and a big-time control freak, and I used to insist on doing everything myself, but in the long run, it ends up being more work for me and no one learns anything new along the way. I'm learning that it's actually satisfying to let go of some of that control.
What's next for you? Sheila Lucero: executive chef/owner. Right now, I'm really getting ahold of the two Jax restaurants and streamlining them a little bit. I want to get them both really solid. And then? Maybe more Jax Fish Houses. And definitely some traveling, researching and eating out a lot.
To read the rest of Lori Midson's interview with Sheila Lucero, click here.