Daniel Bradley, chef of 5280 Burger Bar: "If you're not willing to give up your life to the craft, don't do it"
500 16th Street Mall
This is part two of my interview with Daniel Bradley, exec chef of 5280 Burger Bar; part one of our chat ran yesterday.
Your three favorite Denver/Boulder restaurants other than your own:
I had dinner at Interstate the other night, and I have to say it was amazing, especially the calamari, which was the best calamari I've ever had. I'm also a sucker for the tea sandwiches and pork pâté at Williams & Graham, and I love Pho 555. I mean, who doesn't love pho at 2 a.m.?
Most memorable meal you've ever had:
Years ago, I went to a friend's Mexican restaurant in San Mateo, California, with my granddad. We had a few beers, some really spot-on food, and just talked about life. Three days later, he passed away. I'll always remember sharing that meal with him.
Most underrated restaurant in Denver:
Cafe Max. Although it seems like just a coffee shop, they have a great menu featuring both brunch and dinner -- and they also pour the best coffee in Denver.
Which living chef do you most admire?
Chef Jessica LaForge, my pastry chef at 5280 Burger Bar. She works so hard at making sure our buns are perfect every day, even though the demand is high, and it's tough to keep up with the production. Besides the burger buns, she also makes all the ice cream at 5280 Ice Cream. The flavors she comes up with are so amazing. As a young chef, there's a lot to deal with, and she handles it like a champ. I can't think of another pastry chef I'd rather have on my team. Her assistant is really talented, too, and all three of us have matching cat-themed best-friend necklaces. We're pretty much family.
Who is Denver's next rising-star chef?
Chef Justin Brunson at Old Major. He's doing some really awesome stuff over there, and I'm a big fan of all his charcuterie.
What do you expect from a restaurant critic?
Critics should be honest and put their personal feelings about the owner or chef aside. I've witnessed too many times a critic who dislikes a chef as a person and then seeks to destroy them. Leave the personal politics out of it and just get down to describing the food.
Best recipe tip for a home cook:
Use fresh herbs and have fun. You have to make love to the food. You'll be able to taste the difference.
What's the best food- or kitchen-related gift you've been given?
My girlfriend sends me this orange hot sauce from a taqueria back home. I put that shit on everything.
Favorite culinary-related item to give as a gift:
A paring knife. They're super-useful and also conveniently gift-sized.
What's your fantasy splurge?
I'd get a one-way ticket for my girl and me to go to a tropical island and never leave. We would sit on the beach with our toes in the sand eating grilled chicken and drinking beer...until, that is, I missed the pastry crew at 5280 Burger Bar so much that I'd have to come back.
If you could dress any way you want, what would you wear in the kitchen?
I'm very lucky, because right now, I get to dress exactly how I want to in the kitchen. I wear Dansko clogs, jeans, a snap-up cook coat, and a Tilit apron. I'm hooked on Tilit aprons right now.
If you could have dinner, all expenses paid, at any restaurant in the world, where would you go?
It wouldn't be a restaurant. There's an organic grocery store and deli in Half Moon Bay on the way to the beach, and I'd stop there to pick up some great food and drinks and then go hang out on the beach.
What piece of advice would you give to an aspiring chef?
If you're not willing to give up your life to the craft, don't do it. People don't understand the commitment it takes to be a chef. We pretty much live at our restaurants, especially if we're trying to open a new concept. It's hard work, and there's always so much to do.
If you could train under any chef in the world, who would it be?
Hubert Keller seems super-cool, and his food is wicked good.
What skills and attributes do you look for when hiring kitchen staff?
I like my cooks to have a sense of urgency plus a sense of humor. If you can't laugh in my kitchen, you're not going to make it. I'm pretty sarcastic, so if you can't hang, it's likely we're not going to get along.
If you had the opportunity to open your own restaurant with no budget constraints, what kind of restaurant would you open?
I'm so lucky to be the chef at 5280 Burger Bar. I've always wanted to open a high-end burger joint, and I took this position because this is my dream restaurant.
What's your biggest pet peeve?
Dirty work stations. Even a little smattering of pepper drives me nuts.
Your best traits:
My ability to sleep four hours a night and still work twelve hours the next day.
Your worst traits:
My constant state of sleep deprivation.
Which talent do you most wish you had?
Drawing. I have artistic traits, but I can't draw to save my life. We're talking stick figures here.
What do you enjoy most about your craft?
I love the kitchen, and making people happy by making good food is an amazing feeling. I get excited when I try out a new dish on someone and they really enjoy it. I also love having support from the owners, who give me the time and freedom to spend time making sauces, cheese, pickles and buns, all from scratch.
What are the most challenging aspects of being a chef?
Working eighty hours a week on very little sleep is a big challenge. Being a chef means having to give up a lot of your life, and sometimes the personal side gets neglected. In the end, it's all worth it, though. You appreciate the little things in life way more than most people. A simple walk down the street to me is a mini-vacation; I enjoy my friends, and I'm lucky enough to have some great friends who mostly work in the industry. That said, being a chef isn't for everyone. On a Friday night, I'm in the kitchen working, not out and about.
Biggest mistake a chef can make on the line:
Losing their shit on a busy night. You always have to keep your head in the game. And forgetting to wear pants. Pants are essential to good cheffin'.
What's been your worst disaster in the kitchen?
I was consulting for a restaurant in Las Vegas and had worked every single day for about a month. I was finally taking a night off, and I told the sous-chef to make sure not to burn the kitchen down. I had just sat down to have dinner when I got a call from the GM, who told me the kitchen was on fire.
Craziest night in the kitchen:
Last Christmas Eve, we had about 450 reservations on the books, but two hours before service, I had three cooks call in sick, so instead of five cooks, we had two. The three of us -- my two cooks and me -- pulled together and pushed out a little over 500 covers.
Biggest moment of euphoria in the kitchen:
The days where everything just comes together; it's awesome when the whole kitchen starts to hum and everyone is killing it.
Kitchen rule you always adhere to:
Cleanliness. There's no room for disorganized, sloppy cooking in my kitchen.
Kitchen rule you're not afraid to break:
I've worked in a lot of kitchens where music wasn't allowed, but music motivates me, not to mention the cooks, so I listen to a lot of punk when I'm prepping, because it helps me keep a good pace when I start my day off.
Would you ever send a dish back if you were dining in a friend's restaurant?
No! I never send food back. It's rude, and if a dish wasn't executed properly, maybe next time they'll nail it. Patience is key.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef:
Being a chef has made me confident not just in cooking, but in my personal life, too.
What's one thing that people would be surprised to know about you?
For many years, I played drums in punk bands.
Last meal before you die:
A super burrito from Pancho Villa in San Francisco.
If you hadn't become a chef, what would you be doing right now?
What's next for the Denver/Boulder dining scene?
I'd like to see more bars with better food; I think people like to eat in bars, because they're fun and casual. The last thing I want to do is sit in a stuffy dining room. I've seen a few bars by my house that have some great food, and it's nice seeing that there are bars out there that actually care about what they're serving and have some good chefs running the kitchens.
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.