This is part one of Lori Midson's interview with Jay Spickelmier, executive chef of Japoix. To read part two of that interview, check back here tomorrow.
Jay Spickelmier is wrist-deep in a large, deep, flat-bottomed wooden bowl swelled with vinegared rice. It's a hangiri, he says, vigorously stirring and scraping the grains from the sides. A hangiri, it turns out, is a staple in Japanese kitchens that's used to season and cool sushi rice, a huge batch of which is commanding Spickelmier's attention. He's in his kitchen at Japoix, and the lounge crowd, a Sunday congregation of Denver Broncos believers, is ordering sushi up the ying-yang.
So far, so good, Spickelmier says of Japoix, the polished French-Asian restaurant he opened last month in the Beauvallon with Lawrence Yee, the former manager of Jing in Greenwood Village. The 31-year-old chef from New Jersey, whose first restaurant gig was getting his hands dirty in the dish pit at Dozen's, an iconic breakfast joint in Aurora, has come a long way since then. He's cooked with Dave Query, James Mazzio and Mark Ferguson, the executive chef of Spago in the Ritz-Carlton, Bachelor Gulch, where he had the opportunity to breathe the same air as Wolfgang Puck, king of the Spago empire. "Wolfgang would walk through the kitchen and bust our balls, telling us not to be cheap and to use more butter, or that we needed more rice in our wiener -- you know, schnitzel," deadpans Spickelmier, who was Spago's chef de cuisine for nearly two years, before getting a phone call from Yee that would soon turn his focus to stir-fries and sesame sauce.
"Lawrence and I grew up together, and Charlie [Huang], who owns Jing, offered me an opportunity that I couldn't turn down," recalls Spickelmier. "It was an interesting experience -- wok central -- but Charlie was a difficult man to work for, and we had an agreement that he didn't honor, so I decided that I was done with it."
Spickelmier headed back to the mountains -- specifically to Ludwig's in Vail, where he was the chef until Yee reached out to him again in February, this time with news that he was opening his own restaurant, followed by an invitation to spearhead the kitchen. "July 4th was my last day at Ludwig's, so I guess you could say that I gained my independence on Independence Day," Spickelmier jokes. "I love what we're doing here at Japoix. Every day, I have the opportunity to make people happy through my food, and I love cooking, because it's a continuous progression. The kitchen life embodies everything I could ask for in a career: creativity, energy and nourishing people."
In the following interview, Spickelmier talks about his love affair with uni and olives, the culinary culture of Chicago, and which Denver restaurant -- other than his own -- he finds himself frequenting the most.
Six words to describe your food: Modern, world-influenced, sociable, fresh and sustainable.
Ten words to describe you: Energetic, outgoing, optimistic, creative, fair (but firm), athletic, healthy and quirky.
Culinary inspirations: I love being able to create and prepare food for people, and I've always enjoyed trying to bring happiness into people's lives through my food. Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, a French lawyer, politician and gourmand, once said, "To invite a person to your house" -- my restaurant -- "is to take charge of his happiness so long as he is beneath your roof." I live by that statement, and I'm inspired by the thought of bringing pleasure to every guest's stomach. Mark Monette from the Flagstaff House in Boulder really inspired me, too. He pushed me hard, instilled in me a very strong work ethic, taught me the fundamentals of French cuisine, and introduced me to a really wide variety of products -- everything from pigeon and rattlesnake to cobra and alligator.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef: I'm still cooking after eighteen years working in restaurants! Honestly, I don't feel like I've achieved greatness yet, but I'm always trying to reach for it. It's a little like running a race as fast as you can without a finish line in sight. I really like a quote from Roy Choi, who's the unofficial godfather of the street-truck movement and the founder of Kogi BBQ in L.A. He said: "New creations have no first step. They are like melodies; they just happen, and I try to catch them like butterflies." That is what I try to do with food from an artistic standpoint; I find that my greatest accomplishment is not giving up and always creating new dishes.
Favorite ingredient: Olives. They remind me of a trip I took to Tuscany, where I ate an olive right off the tree for the first time. I actually had to spit it out, though, because it was so bitter. Olives are great finger foods, and they produce the best oil on earth with lots of different characteristics, depending on where they come from. They're a lot like fine wines.
Best recent food find: The lop chong Chinese-style salami from Il Mondo Vecchio and master salumi guy Mark DeNittis. I love the Asian spices, the fat content and the lingering flavors it leaves behind. I also love his duck prosciuttinni, which is free of nitrates and all-natural.
Most overrated ingredient: American Kobe beef at $11 per ounce.
Most underrated ingredient: Shallots. They're somewhere in between an onion and garlic, but they add more depth to a dish than either of those ingredients on their own. Whether you use shallots in a sauce, lightly caramelize them or flash-fry them, they add a lot of additional flavor and texture to a dish.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: Fresh aloe leaf from H-Mart in Aurora. I love it not for the taste itself, but because I know it's good for you. It's also great in a fruit smoothie.
Favorite spice: Cloves. They're native to Indonesia and come from an evergreen tree eight to twelve meters high. Medicinally, cloves are known as a carminative that decreases gas, improves production of hydrochloric acid in the stomach and improves peristalsis -- smooth muscle contractions aiding in proper digestion. Aside from the health benefits, I love the dimension they can bring to a stock, a sauce or a dessert. They add an earthy note that's subtle, pleasant and stays in the background.
One food you detest: Twinkies. They're plastic food.
One food you can't live without: Uni is probably my favorite treat because of its buttery texture, plus its smooth lingering finish tantalizes my tastebuds just by itself. And there are so many interesting aspects to the sea urchin that have symbolic references to the sacred feminine, which makes it all the more interesting. Whenever I go out for sushi, it's the first thing -- and the last thing -- I eat. It's like my ice cream. Just give me a bowl of it.
Biggest kitchen disaster: During the first week that Japoix was open, one of my guys forgot to close the valve on a fryer and then walked away while it was draining. Oil spilled all over the kitchen and we had to add flour to mop it up. It basically made a roux on the floor. I wish I had a picture.
Rules of conduct in your kitchen: No one is too good to wash dishes; keep a clean cutting board; maintain a professional environment; be accountable for your actions; and have lighthearted fun. And servers who don't stack their plates properly in the dish pit irk me. I don't need a Leaning Tower of Pisa in the dish pit.
What's never in your kitchen? Artificial food coloring, beards and plumber butts.
What's always in your kitchen? A positive mental focus, fresh ginger, wine, beer and sake.
Weirdest customer request: Someone once ordered a filet for a dog.
Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: A 100-year-old egg that I didn't like at all. God, it was gross.
Best culinary tip for a home cook: Taste your food while you're cooking and know where every component is in the cooking process. That helps to build layers of flavor, which ultimately gives your food more depth and dimension.
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Hardest lesson you've learned: You can't please everyone all the time, so you just have to cook for yourself and hope that everyone likes it.
What's next for you? You're only as good as your last meal. That's my cooking philosophy, and it keeps me on my toes. I always want to progress and keep building on what I already know. I'd like to become a dad soon, too.