Jack-n-Grill's Jack Martinez on red and green chile, kitchen drama and alfalfa sprouts
This is part one of Lori Midson's Q&A with Jack Martinez, owner/exec chef of Jack-n-Grill. Check back here tomorrow to read part two of that interview.
For eight years straight, Jack Martinez hauled his weathered pick-up truck up a desolate New Mexico roadway and across state lines to a small patch of land on Federal Boulevard. This was his ritual every weekend between August and October, when scores of capsicum warriors motor up and down Denver's lionized length of asphalt in search of New Mexican green chiles. "We'd leave Albuquerque after work on a Friday, arrive in Denver in the wee hours of Saturday morning, get some sleep and start roasting organic Socorro chiles by 8 a.m. Saturday morning," recalls Martinez, the chef/owner of Jack-n-Grill, the New Mexican restaurant he founded a decade ago on Federal, which now has a second location in Littleton -- and will soon add one in Westminster.
Martinez, a New Mexico native, finally moved to Denver in 1994 and opened a small chile shop later that year. "I had a lot of family here, which was an incentive, but I really wanted to bring New Mexican green chile to the Mile High City," he explains. "I wanted a permanent location to sell our chiles during harvest time, and I wanted a place where people could come in and buy hot sauces, salsas and chile products, because at the time, no one else in Denver was doing anything like that." But hawking hot sauces doesn't pay the bills, so Martinez landed a gig selling cars at a John Elway auto dealership -- a move that turned out to be one of the best he'd ever made.
"I was standing outside one day with a few of the guys, including a Texan who was hankering for chili con carne, and I told him that while chili con carne was just fine, he hadn't lived until he'd tasted green chile from New Mexico," remembers Martinez. A showdown ensued the following weekend, and Martinez emerged victorious: "The Texan brought a crockpot of his chili with crackers, and I brought a vat of green chile with freshly made flour tortillas, and not too many people touched his, but mine? Everyone had a bowl and loved it."
Martinez become the official green chile king of John Elway's car dealerships, spending each Saturday feeding staffs of forty, fifty and more, usually running out of product. Until one Saturday, when he'd had enough of cars and summoned his family to the chile shop for a New Mexican eating orgy. And suddenly, it wasn't just his family. "As I was cooking everything," he remembers, "the scent starting wafting up and down Federal, and people just started showing up, asking how much for that green chile cheeseburger, or for a couple of those tacos."
Eureka! Martinez applied for a vending license, got it and began cooking in the parking lot of his chile shack on Saturday and Sunday. Business was brisk, so he left the car dealership and told his wife that he would never sell another car. "It was time to stop selling cars and start selling myself," says Martinez. Within a week, he had designed a restaurant concept and menu and come up with a name: Albuquerque Jack's.
The name didn't stick. "My wife stopped me and said that it should be called Jack-n-Grill, and the rest is history," says Martinez, who opened the Federal store in March 2000.
In the following interview, Martinez talks about building more restaurants, both in and around Denver and in his home town of Albuquerque, his respect for fellow chef Sean Yontz, and the gift he's never gotten.
Culinary inspirations: When I first started to walk, I stood by my grandmother while she made fresh flour tortillas in the kitchen, and I always made sure that I was first one in line to get one, which is saying a lot when there were seven boys in the family. The way that she cooked -- with raw emotion, passion and no measurements -- inspired me to want to cook as well as she did. My kids inspired me, too. Coming from a poor background and raising three kids, I created different meals with what we had in the cupboards -- there wasn't much -- and I'd look at their little faces, and I promised them that they'd never go hungry. They encouraged me to duplicate my grandmother's cooking. And living in New Mexico, I was always inspired by the local foods in the different neighborhoods of Albuquerque, especially all the ways of preparing green chile.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef: When I was a guest chef and speaker for a culinary class at the Career Educational Center, the entire class was completely fixated on the way I prepared my food. I loved their enthusiasm and how they were so absorbed by what I did in my everyday work. I made them tacos, calabacitas and breakfast burritos -- and they loved it all.
Favorite ingredient: Red and green chile, naturally, because comida sin chile no es comida. In other words, "A meal without chile is not a meal."
Favorite spice: Black pepper. You can't eat corn on the cob without black pepper, and you can't make a green chile without black pepper. It brings out the flavor, just like salt.
Most overrated ingredient: Way too many chefs tend to overpower their food with cumin. A little bit goes a long way, and it's a spice that should be used sparingly.
Most underrated ingredient: Curry, because it's one of the oldest spices known to man. It's full of flavor and should be introduced into more Southwestern dishes. I currently have a recipe in mind for curried enchiladas.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: Pueblo chiles, especially mirasol chiles, which have a particularly distinct flavor and grow upward from the plant looking toward the sun -- hence the name. I get them from Pueblo.
One food you detest: I cannot and will not ever understand the flavor -- or lack of flavor -- of alfalfa sprouts. They're nasty. I swear they smell like semen.
One food you can't live without: I eat green chile with just about every meal.
What's never in your kitchen? I won't tolerate negative attitudes. Leave the drama at home.
What's always in your kitchen? Positive mental attitudes; red chili pods; organically grown green chiles from Socorro, New Mexico; fresh taco and tostada shells; and the dangerous ingredients that go into my nuclear-waste green chile.
Rules of conduct in your kitchen: Smile, smile, smile; be clean and work clean; bring excitement to your job; learn English (Americans should also learn Spanish); and the cooks have to tell jokes to keep everyone laughing. I also don't allow my cooks or prep staff to bring their personal problems into the workplace; any kitchen is too small for drama.
Biggest kitchen disaster: When my eight-foot griddle broke down before the lunch rush, I had to cook all my hamburgers on three portable Teflon-coated pancake griddles, which isn't easy. The kids kept telling me to close, but I wouldn't do it. Instead, we improvised. Still, when your griddle goes down and you rely on 95 percent of your food being cooked on it, you're in a deep world of hurt.
What's the best food- or kitchen-related gift you've been given? I'm still waiting for that gift. We recently had a party of folks from Las Vegas, New Mexico, in the restaurant, and the elderly lady asked me if I was the owner. When I introduced myself, she told me that her chile was better than mine, to which I replied, "Señora, I'm sure it is. However, I'm somewhat at a disadvantage, since you have tasted mine and I haven't tasted yours. Next time you're in town, please bring in your chile so I can taste it." I'm still waiting to try her chile.
Favorite dish to cook at home: Poor man's goulash, with canned corn, green beans, peas and carrots in a tomato sauce with hamburger meat, all the spices in the kitchen, including bay leaves, and Saltine crackers. I cooked this dish all the time for my kids when they were younger, and to this day, they still ask me to make it for them. What a way to live, eh?
Favorite dish on your menu: My New Mexico enchilada plate with red and green chile -- Christmas.
If you could put any dish on your menu, even though it might not sell, what would it be? I'd like to introduce lobster enchiladas and tacos to my menu, even though I know they'd be expensive -- and nothing on my menu is expensive.
You're making a hamburger. What's on it? Freshly ground chuck, a mozzarella-stuffed chile relleno, purple onions, lettuce, tomato, mustard, ketchup and a blend of three cheeses: cheddar, Monterey Jack and mozzarella.
You're at the market. What do you buy two of? Frito-Lay hot bean dip.
Guiltiest food pleasure? Potatoes. I love them boiled, mashed, baked, fried, broiled, chipped or au gratin.
Last meal before you die: A thick T-bone with rock lobster and a big bowl of New Mexican posole with red and green chile. I'd have all of it. Who cares? I'm dying anyway.
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