James Van Dyk, exec chef of Lucky's Cafe, on the weird people who don't want eggs in their omelets
James Van Dyk
3980 Broadway, Boulder
This is part one of my chat with James Van Dyk, exec chef of Lucky's Cafe in Boulder. Part two of our interview will run in this space tomorrow.
Back in the '60s, when James Van Dyk was growing up on the East Coast with a single working mom, dinner was cheap. "We were buying the least expensive things we could find at the supermarket -- lamb's brains, veal kidneys, lots of organ meats, calamari, all the things that no one else wanted," he recalls.
It's funny how things come full circle.
But Van Dyk, now the executive chef at Lucky's Cafe in Boulder, never balked at his mom's cooking -- or at what was on his plate. "She was a great cook when she had the time, and I loved what she made...even if she did have to change the names of what she was cooking so she didn't freak me out," he jokes. Plus, he says, the veal kid-neys were a small sacrifice, considering that he frequently had the opportunity to visit fishmongers, butchers, bakers and food stalls in Barcelona, where his grandparents lived. And his father, who had a homestead in Vermont, taught his son all about farming. "We raised almost all of our own food; we slaughtered, we butchered, we milked goats, and we did quite a bit of canning and pickling," remembers Van Dyk, who says his father "reckoned that it was a great way to keep a troublemaking teen out of trouble."
But it was a chef at a Swiss restaurant -- the first restaurant where Van Dyk worked -- who convinced him to pursue a culinary career. "I was washing dishes," re-calls Van Dyk, "but I wanted to cook, and the chef said he'd make a deal with me -- that if I could do my job in half the amount of time that it was taking me to do it, then in the remaining time, he'd teach me how to cook. And he did."
Van Dyk stayed for a year, cooking every day after school and leaving only after his chef pushed him out the door to explore. "He told me that he'd taught me every-thing he could and that if I was serious about cooking, I should go out and work for a bunch of different chefs," recounts Van Dyk. And the chef ushered him out with a few additional words of wisdom: "He told me to be choosy about where I worked and to be a sponge and then move on. It was fabulous advice."
In the years that followed, Van Dyk, who has a degree from the CIA in New York, would sharpen his knives in some of the top kitchens in the country -- and the world. He cooked at restaurants in Texas alongside Jean LaFont and François Soyer, two of the globe's most revered French chefs; he was the first American chef to receive a working visa to Japan, a country in which he cooked for four years in an American restaurant; he landed an exec chef position at China Grill, Jeffrey Chodorow's renowned dining emporium in Manhattan; and he staged at Chez Panisse under Alice Waters, who offered him a line-cook job. He didn't take it. Instead, he accepted a full-time stint at Santa Fe Bar and Grill, another Bay Area restaurant that had opened with Jeremiah Tower at the helm; when he departed, Van Dyk filled his shoes. "I was only 26 and scared shitless," admits Van Dyk, "but I was very ambitious, and I wanted the challenge."
Along the way, he somehow found the time to get married, but the long hours weren't conducive to domestic bliss, and he eventually moved to Boulder -- a city where he'd lived once before, in 1985, when he opened Morgul Bismark, Colorado's first restaurant with a wood-fired oven and, coincidentally, the same space where Oak at Fourteenth now resides. "I wanted to acclimate my wife to a more accessible American experience," explains Van Dyk, who snatched up a job not in Boulder, but at Cliff Young's. "I walked into Q's at the Hotel Boulderado, where Dave Query was cooking -- we had worked briefly together in San Francisco -- and while he wasn't hiring, he picked up the phone and called Cliff Young, who hired me sight unseen as the exec chef for his namesake restaurant in Denver."
A year later, after Young had a falling-out with his partners and left, Van Dyk exited as well, but instead of heading back to a professional kitchen, he took some time away from the burners to teach classes at the Colorado Institute of Art. "The school was just opening, and I was part of the team that put the first class through the school's restau-rant program," he says. Six months later, he became the co-owner of the Greenbriar Inn in Boulder. His partners bought him out in 1997, and later that year, he and his wife opened the Gateway Cafe in Lyons, a restaurant they operated for thirteen years. "My wife was running the front of the house but wanted to go back to school, so we sold it in 2010, and I went back to Boulder and opened Happy Noodle House, which was then part of the Bitter Bar, with Dave Query," recounts Van Dyk. He left soon after, but he and Query are still friends, and it was Query who introduced him to the owners of Lucky's Market and Lucky's Cafe in Boulder.
"It's a great breakfast-and-lunch spot, and in the year that I've been there, I've transformed the menu into all scratch-made foods. Everything is made with integrity," says Van Dyk, who in the following interview weighs in on the world's dwindling sea of fish, militant vegans and guests who ask for omelets without eggs.
Six words to describe your food: Simple, fresh, umami and rooted in classic European technique.
Ten words to describe you: My coffee table is covered in cookbooks and cooking magazines.
What are your ingredient obsessions? I look forward to the changing seasons so I can revisit ingredients again. I'm amazed at the quality of vegetables and fruits produced in Colorado, mainly because you would never expect it from looking at our dirt. I'm from the East Coast, where the soil is so dark and lush that you almost expect what you eat to reflect that, but perhaps plants have to work harder in these parts. And I also love stocks.
What are your kitchen-tool obsessions? My Japanese can opener (silly, right?) and my copper pots. And a good, sharp knife that you've worked with for many years is like an old friend.
Best recent food find: Incanto in San Francisco. The chef there, Chris Cosentino, is a chef's chef -- he's innovative, but his food is very approachable. Having Harold McGee sitting two tables away was a great sign that I was in the right place -- and a bonus, too.
Most underrated ingredient: Soy sauce. There are some amazing small producers in Japan that are slowly being introduced in this country.
Food trend you wish would go away: All of them. I hate labels. All serious chefs are using fresh and locally sourced foods as well as international ingredients. Can't we move forward and away from trends? There is way too much talk about product and fads and not enough about technique.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: Matsutake mushrooms. If I told you where I got them, I'd have to kill you.
Favorite spice: Shichimi togarasi. It's a great finishing spice.
One food you detest: Natto. I have tried and tried to acquire a taste for it...always unsuccessfully.
One food you can't live without: Salt. When it's used responsibly, it really brings out the flavor in food. I tend to use molten sea salt more than anything else.
Rules of conduct in your kitchen: Be on time; no open-toed shoes; make sure your fingernails are clean (I check); put things back where you found them; taste and clean up as you go; concentrate on all of your surroundings rather than just the immediate job at hand and use all of your senses in the process. It's okay to make a mistake; just don't serve it. I run a tight ship in my kitchen -- like the military. I don't even like music in the kitchen anymore.
What's never in your kitchen? Natto, chatty people and people who aren't obsessed with and passionate about food. What else is there to talk about?
What's always in your kitchen? Immersion blenders, tilt kettle cookers, my sous-vide machine, French omelet pans, pepper mills and a wok.
Favorite dish on your menu: Our burger. Wayne, our master butcher at Lucky's Market, makes an amazing grind. I'm a sucker for a great burger, and I'm also a proponent of the patty being cooked on a griddle, hence keeping the flavor pure and maximizing the Maillard effect.
Biggest menu bomb: Our pot roast is not long for this world.
Favorite childhood food memory: My mother's cannelloni. She would save money all year long so we could pay our relatives in Spain to send us an entire lobe of foie gras. My mom would include the foie in the forcemeat, along with veal and pork -- that was the filling -- and she'd top it with a Mornay sauce without the Swiss. It would took her two days to make, and we only had it at Christmas.
Favorite junk food: Hot dogs. It's nearly impossible for me to drive by Mustard's Last Stand and not hang a U-ie. I have such an obsession that there are times that I'll deliberately take a different route just so I don't tempt myself by driving by.
Weirdest customer request: Someone once asked for their gazpacho, a cold soup, served heated up. I've also been asked for omelets with the eggs on the side, poached and with a whole mess of substituted ingredients. They don't want an omelet: They want the filling and poached eggs on the side.
Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: Still-beating turtle heart.
What's your dream restaurant? My own, with truckloads of investment dollars.
Last meal before you die: Tonkotsu ramen with shaved Alba truffles.
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