This is part one of my interview with Darrel Truett, exec chef of Barolo Grill. Part two of our chat will run tomorrow.
Darrel Truett has spent the entire morning on the horn, negotiating the price of black truffles. They've suddenly jumped from $400 a pound to $1,400 a pound, or so says his wishy-washy purveyor, a guy that Truett now believes is gouging him. He eventually finagles a decent price from another purveyor, though, and moves on to sourcing veal cheeks, which will be part of his menu during truffle week at Barolo Grill, where Truett is the executive chef.
Working for Blair Taylor, who owns Barolo Grill, has its perks, and Truett, who's been cooking in that kitchen for eight years, admits that he has what many would consider one of the most enviable chef gigs in town -- one that gives him the opportunity to play with truffles and travel to Italy once a year on culinary research missions, where he gets to eat at Michelin-starred restaurants and drink expensive bottles of Barolo wines. "I feel like the luckiest person in the world," says Truett, who began his cooking career at fifteen at a steakhouse in Greeley, where he spent the majority of his childhood.
"I started out washing dishes, but I always kept my eye on the line, and eventually I was promoted to pantry. From there, I moved up pretty quickly, eventually becoming the head cook," recalls Truett, noting that he stayed at the beef barn for seven years. "I loved the environment -- cooking isn't your typical job -- and I was having a great time and learning a lot in the process."
And he was working for an owner who not only recognized his talent but strongly encouraged him to refine it. "He thought I was pretty good at cooking -- that the kitchen was running smoothly with me in charge -- so he suggested I go to culinary school," remembers Truett, who agreed and became one of the first students to graduate from the Denver campus of Johnson & Wales, completing a one-year accelerated program in culinary arts.
Truett had the opportunity, too, to do an externship at Charles Court, one of the many restaurants at the Broadmoor, and it was during his time there that he began to fully grasp what could lie ahead. "While I was in that kitchen, I really started to see all the possibilities of what I could do with my future," he says. "I was working with awesome ingredients and a staff that created beautiful presentations, and I knew that I wanted to continue working in a restaurant that provided that kind of attention to detail."
He found all that and more at the long-gone Tante Louise, where he started as a pantry cook, ultimately climbing the ladder to the sous-chef position. "I learned so much about technique while I was there, especially with sauces, and that's where I started to get involved with charcuterie, terrines and ballotines," recalls Truett, who left a few months before the French restaurant shuttered. "It was getting slower, and I knew it was time to move on."
Barolo Grill, however, was anything but sleepy, as Truett soon found out when he joined that kitchen in 2004, cooking alongside then-chef Brian Laird, who departed the line two years ago. "As soon as I started at Barolo, the Italian obsession kicked in, and I'll never forget my first trip to Italy," says Truett. "I knew then that I'd love Italian food for the rest of my life." Those jaunts to Italy give him inspiration. "The guys and I typically sit together on the way back to Denver, and we talk about everything we loved -- and how we can we do that at Barolo without straight-jacking it," he says. "And then two weeks after we get back, we always roll out a new menu."
While eight years is a long time to be in one kitchen, Truett insists he's never been happier. "I know I have a good thing, and one of the reasons I've been here for so long is that I strongly believe in Blair's vision of this restaurant," he says. "When he offered me the exec-chef job, I didn't think twice."
In the following interview, Truett weighs in on the best and worst food trends of the year, explains why egos have no place in his kitchen, and admits that Pizza Hut is one of his favorite cheap eats.
How do you describe your food? Classic Piedmontese/Northern Italian with a modern twist. The menu always has traditional Piedmont dishes -- vitello tonnato and agnolotti, for example -- and, of course, the famous Barolo-braised duck. We also try to bring back fresh ideas from some of the trattorias and Michelin-starred restaurants we visit on our annual trips to Italy. We often take traditional dishes and new ideas, use seasonal ingredients from local purveyors, and then use creative, modern techniques to do our own updated, artistic versions. Piedmontese cuisine is pretty simple, but I think we've elevated it presentation- and flavor-wise, and on our Italy trips, we do extensive eating at some really nice places, and being able to replicate some of those dishes here really helps us keep things fresh.
Ten words to describe you: Focused, passionate, calm, caring, understanding, hardworking, dedicated, creative, loyal and a procrastinator -- I work well under pressure.
What are your ingredient obsessions? This time of year, it's white truffles. If you're in the restaurant from late October to mid-November, you'll catch whiffs of white truffles wafting from the kitchen. They only come from Alba, Italy, which is fifteen minutes from the town of Barolo.
What are your kitchen-tool obsessions? Juicers. I like using fresh vegetable juice to make purees, sauces or gelées. Freshly juiced vegetables and fruits give you super-vibrant colors and pure flavors.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: Right now, it's the red kuri squash from Grant Family Farms. It has this amazing deep-orange color after it's been roasted, and I use it a lot for making soups, sauces or pasta fillings; it's just so eye-appealing.
Best food trend of the year: I don't know if it's a trend, but something I've noticed this year while dining out is that chefs are putting far more thought into presentation, and those first impressions are important, because we eat with our eyes. Dishes are brighter, more colorful, sprinkled with microgreens, and one ingredient on a plate is showcased in several different ways. At Barolo, for example, our beet salad has sautéed beets, a beet gelée and petite beet greens, all on one plate.
Worst food trend of the year: Bacon everything. I respect the pig, and bacon is delicious, but when you start blending it up in a milkshake, you've crossed the line.
One food you detest: Raw oysters. I like them fried and I like them baked, but when it comes to slurping down a raw oyster, I'll typically pass.
Most memorable meal you've ever had: This past summer on our annual trip to Italy -- it was on my birthday, actually -- we ate at the famous Piazza Duomo, and it was just insane. Before we even ordered, we'd been given seven different amuse-bouches. The attention to detail, meticulous food, enormous variety of microgreens, harmonious flavors and impeccable service made this restaurant the total package. The salad we had was called "Insalata 21, 31, 41, 51," and the numbers represent the number of ingredients in the salad based on the season; we were there in the summer, and the number was 41. It had every type of microgreen available, plus pickled ginger, three types of crackers, dried fruits, flowers and nuts, and we were even given tweezers to eat it with. It was a great birthday present.
Favorite childhood food memory: I come from an Italian family, and I remember my mom cooking lasagna or stuffed crepes for big holidays every year. The house always smelled great with sauce simmering on the stove, and we'd always ask my mom to make lots of extra so we could have leftovers for a week.
Favorite junk food: Nutty Bars. Ever since I was a kid, Nutty Bars have been one of my favorite go-to snacks. I love that chocolaty fudge, peanut butter and crispy wafer.
Favorite cheap eat in Denver: I love pizza -- cold or hot, for breakfast or for dinner. If I had to choose a place, I'd say Old Chicago or Pizza Hut. Their pizzas fill me up and make me happy.
Favorite Denver/Boulder restaurant(s) other than your own: Elway's Cherry Creek. When I first got started in the industry, I worked at a steakhouse, where we served prime rib, sirloins and filets. Now when I get a steak craving, nothing satisfies me more than the 42-ounce bone-in ribeye with a side of au gratin potatoes from Elway's. They always take great care of my family and me, and I love participating in their annual slider competition. We do it every year, because it's one of my favorite events.
Favorite dish on your menu: Right now, it's the beer-braised rabbit, but we're getting ready to change up the menu, and one of my favorites is coming back: It's dried fruit-stuffed pork tenderloin with pancetta potatoes, fig balsamic sauce and spinach and pickled red onions. The stuffing is cranberries, golden raisins, sliced figs, and cherries rehydrated with sage and grappa. It hits all the elements on the palate -- acid, sweet and savory.
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Biggest menu bomb: I can't think of anything that's been a total bomb, which makes me lucky. I test dishes, tweak them and sometimes change up components before they're put on the menu.