Ian Clark, chef of BRU: "Whatever happened to cooks being able to execute a perfect braise?"
This is part one of my interview with Ian Clark, exec chef and head brewer of BRU Handbuilt ales & eats; part two of our chat will run in this space tomorrow.
More than a decade ago, when he was still in culinary school, Ian Clark mapped out his future career goals, one of which included vehemently adhering to the six-month plan. "I wanted to move to a different city and a different kitchen every six months so I could see and experience as much as I could," says Clark, today the chef-owner-brewer of BRU handbuilt ales & eats, a restaurant and brewery in Boulder that he opened in June.
And to his credit, the 33-year-old chef and self-described "beer snob," who was born in Maine and spent his high-school years sneaking off to the apple orchards to buy fresh-pressed cider that he would ferment into alcohol, stayed true to his quest, graduating from the New England Culinary Institute and cooking, for six months at a time, in restaurants, bed-and-breakfasts and inns in Vermont, Maine, California, Hawaii and Boulder before eventually kicking the six-month habit to settle in Boulder for the long haul.
Clark, who says that he's always been infatuated with vocations that require the use of his hands, got his first job at sixteen, making sandwiches, and while he admits that he "fell in love with the intensity of the line before falling in love with food," multiple years in different kitchens have changed his tune. "I've learned to love food more and the adrenaline less. I don't have to be the fastest guy on the planet; I like to move slow," says Clark.
But it wasn't always that way. When Clark was living in Hawaii, he had his eyeballs set on cooking in a specific kitchen: Chef Mavro, Honolulu's top-rated fine-dining restaurant. "I knew this is where I wanted to work, and for six weeks straight, I showed up every single day at the back door with a résumé. I was determined to get a job there, and I wasn't going to stop until I did," recalls Clark. Forty résumés later, George Mavrothalassitis, the chef-proprietor, finally caved and allowed Clark into his galley. "I did a stage, he hired me that same night, and I worked there for six months, because, you know, that was the plan," quips Clark, who then went on to cook at the Ritz-Carlton in Laguna Niguel, California. His tenure? Six months.
Clark had spent some time in Boulder earlier in his career, cooking at Q's in the Hotel Boulderado, and in 2002, he returned to the college town and to Q's as a p.m. line cook. And that's when his six-month subscription ran out. "I started dabbling in home brewing, and I met a girl," he says. The "girl," now his wife, is Bryce Clark, the founder of Hatch Boulder, a marketing, brand development and PR company. "Once I met her -- actually, I stalked her -- I kind of gave up on the six-month plan, plus I wanted to really focus on my career," Clark says. After Q's, he landed a sous-chef position at Jax in Boulder and then became the chef of Rhumba, now Centro, where he was the executive chef, and continued to brew beer out of his home garage. "I started taking home brewing a lot more seriously, and really saw it as an extension of cooking," says Clark.
After several years behind the burners at Centro, a restaurant to which Clark admits he was "attached," he briefly returned to spearhead the kitchen at Jax, where he might still be cooking had it not been for a restaurant-and-beer concept that he'd been conceptualizing for four years: BRU. "I was as much in love with beer as I was with food, and I'd already opened BRU in my garage, so I started looking for spaces to open a restaurant and brewery, and not long after I started back at Jax, I signed the lease," he says. "BRU is about creating a unique experience for our guests and creating a family-oriented work environment for our staff, and everything is built -- and made -- in-house," adds Clark, who in the following interview extols the virtues of bacteria, petitions for the dismissal of immersion circulators, and reveals that BRU will soon be expanding its beer production.
Lori Midson: What do you enjoy most about your craft? Ian Clark: What's not to enjoy about working with your hands and creating and building something that uses all of your senses, and then getting the chance to watch someone else enjoy your craft as much as you do? Seriously, what's not to love?
What's your approach to cooking? Simplicity. The older I get, the simpler my cooking gets. I like to accentuate natural flavors rather than overpower them with heavy spices or seasoning. When I was younger, I liked to put as many flavors and techniques into a dish as possible, but as I -- and my cooking -- have matured, I've come to appreciate creating and crafting food the way it's meant to be crafted, only putting in flavors that make the dish taste the best, or using the best techniques to make each ingredient shine.
Ingredient obsessions: This may sound weird, as I don't think most chefs think of them as ingredients, but wild yeast and bacteria, such as lactobacillus. These little bugs and fungi provide us with some of our favorite things, beyond just beer and wine. Cheese, yogurt, natto, kefir, kimchi, sourdough bread and certain hot sauces are just a few things we owe to these invisible ingredients.
Favorite kitchen-gadget obsessions: I can't seem to do anything without spoons. They're just such perfect tools, even more so than a chef'a knife. They're one of the most versatile tools in the kitchen, and I use them for everything, from cooking to plating to tasting.
Favorite local ingredients and purveyors: The blue oyster mushrooms from Turtle Springs Farm, in Longmont. Nick Arnold, whose mushrooms are incredible, owns the farm, and I love that they're also grown on the spent grain from the brewing process at BRU. And for anything specialty in the way of dry goods, Dave Nigh from Nigh Imports is the guy you want to talk to about getting specialty oils, unique spices, heirloom beans or various olives; whatever you need, he has it. And if he doesn't have it, or hasn't heard of it, he'll fly to whatever part of the world it's from, find the best and procure it for you.
One ingredient you won't touch: Water chestnuts. Their crunch reverberates down my spine, making it feel as though someone is vigorously shaking my brain. It's awful.
One ingredient you can't live without: This may sound very un-chef-like, but I love onions. They transcend all cultures and culinary genres, and they appear in most savory dishes in one form or another. To me, they're simultaneously the most used and most underappreciated ingredient we have.
Food trend you'd like to see more of: The progression of food-and-beer pairings. Seriously, we've only just scratched the surface. I'd love to see beer-and-food pairings taken as seriously as wine-and-food pairings. Unfortunately, people have been programmed to think that the only food that pairs with beer is burgers, wings and barbecue, but the truth is that beer is a complex drink that deserves to be paired with an equally complex food.
Food trend you'd like to see disappear: Immersion circulators. These things are crutches. Whatever happened to cooks being able to execute a perfect braise? Cooks are getting praise when they can't even execute the basics because they rely too much on technology.
What recent innovation has most influenced the restaurant industry in a significant way? I don't know if it's an innovation as much as a regression, but cooks are getting back to their roots and cooking with things like wood to create more flavor.
Favorite culinary-related gift you've been given: My custom-made Japanese knife from Dave Query. It's a beautiful knife, and I absolutely love using it.
Favorite culinary-related item to give as a gift: Spoons.
What's your fantasy splurge? A trip to space. Ever since I was a kid, I've wanted to go to space. I mean, who doesn't?
What cookbooks and/or food-related reading material do you draw inspiration from? I just finished Cooked, by Michael Pollan. I love reading about the history of food, the how and the why behind it, plus looking at the past inspires me to look toward the future and explore all the ways I can reinvent food.
What's in the pipeline? More BRU. We're increasing our brewing capacity and expanding our distribution more into Denver and the Front Range. Expect to see more BRU beers on the shelves in the coming months.
What's next for Denver's culinary scene? More chefs opening passionate and intelligent fast-casual restaurants. I see more attempts at elevating the fast-casual restaurant than ever before.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Denver dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.