Jeff Jones, chef of P17: "Without your cooks, or your dishwasher, you're nothing"
1600 East 17th Avenue
This is part two of my interview with Jeff Jones, chef de cuisine of P17; part one of our conversation ran yesterday.
Your three favorite Denver restaurants other than your own:
I love Snooze on Larimer, and when I'm craving a nice breakfast or brunch on a day off, that's my go-to. I especially love their "bella-bella benny." Euclid Hall is always a good decision, too; their food is fantastic, with enough variety to please everybody, plus they have a great selection of beers and my favorite gin. Il Posto treats me like family. I've had numerous great meals there, and I can always count on a good glass of wine, nice cheeses and friendship.
Most noteworthy meal you've ever eaten:
The best meal I've ever eaten was in 2009. I have three brothers, and that summer, my younger brother had just graduated from high school, my oldest brother earned his master's degree, and after waiting nearly four years, my second-oldest brother had been accepted into a group home for Down syndrome. During that time, I had also graduated from Le Cordon Bleu in Scottsdale. We had so much to celebrate and marked the multiple occasions over a single meal, namely a family dinner featuring raclette, shaved cured meats and a bottle of 1997 Penfolds Grange. The food was simple, but the moment in time, surrounded by my family, made the meal memorable.
Most underrated Denver restaurant:
La Loma in Highland is one of the best restaurants I've been to in Denver. I love the authenticity of the restaurant. Their margaritas are all fresh-squeezed, and their enchiladas remind me of visiting my grandparents in New Mexico. I've only experienced great things from that little gem.
Who's the most underrated chef in Denver?
While I don't consider Beatrice & Woodsley "underrated," I think their chef, Eric Hiob, is one of the most talented chefs in Denver. I've had a couple of really great meals in his restaurant and have always loved the menus he creates. His aubergine-and-ricotta gnocchi is fantastic.
What's your biggest challenge as a chef working in Denver?
The short and temperamental growing season. If we're lucky, we have five months of solid growing weather. Since we literally have times when we see snow and 100-degree weather in the same week, local and seasonal menus are a significant challenge, especially from November through April.
What recent innovation has most influenced the restaurant industry in a significant way?
I feel like the shift away from fine dining -- by which I mean white tablecloths and coat and tie required -- is a really good thing. Some of the best restaurants are serving high-quality but affordable dishes, and that allows diners to eat out more often.
What do you expect from a restaurant critic?
I expect restaurant critics to be honest. Did the food make you happy? Did you feel welcome, like you were going over to a friend's house? Any chef can create a near-perfect experience if they know someone is coming into their restaurant, but the truly great chefs and restaurateurs create that same experience for everybody. That said, anonymity is of utmost importance if you want to get a true review of how the restaurant is. If we know a critic is coming in, it's inevitable that we'll treat them in a way that's unnatural.
What do you enjoy most about your craft?
Cooking has been a passion of mine since the age of twelve. I love that I can start cooking, whether at home or in a professional environment, and within minutes become completely absorbed in my work. Still, regardless of how happy cooking makes me, nothing is more enjoyable, or gives me more purpose, than making someone else happy through food.
What cookbooks and/or food-related reading material do you draw inspiration from?
I love reading David Chang's quarterly food journal, Lucky Peach, because he goes deep on a single topic with a chef's eye. Each issue is like a book. My bookshelf is also full of stuff from Joël Robuchon, Thomas Keller, Grant Achatz, Michel Richard and Charlie Trotter.
Favorite dish on your menu right now:
I love egg dishes, and on the new P17 brunch menu, we're serving a plate of grilled asparagus with lemon aioli, poached eggs, pancetta, frisée and mustard vinaigrette. It's my dream breakfast. Or brunch. Or lunch...every day.
What dish would you love to put on your menu, regardless of how well it would sell?
I'd love to spit-roast whole suckling pigs as a special every Sunday. The flavor is unbeatable, and it's the most tender of meats and delicious in tacos, with fresh mole, or simply by itself.
Would you ever send a dish back if you were dining in a friend's restaurant?
Yes, but only if the dish was prepared incorrectly. On the rare occasion that this happens, I'd expect anyone, my chef friends or anyone else, to do the same. I wouldn't want a guest spending their hard-earned money on something prepared improperly.
Weirdest thing you've ever put in your mouth:
When we did our Bizarre Foods dinner, I ate a cricket. They have a very salty flavor and they're crunchy, which I actually quite like. I think I could eat them on a regular basis if I could just forget the fact that I'm consuming insects.
What advice would you give to an aspiring young chef?
Listen and take notes, and don't drop $80,000 on culinary school. There is so much to be learned from apprenticing and staging at restaurants. Not only that, but through real experience, you choose the road that you want to go down, whether it be private restaurants, hotels, catering, pastry, etc. In the end, you'll learn more, establish lasting relationships with the chefs you work under and hone your skills much faster.
What skills and attributes do you look for when hiring kitchen staff?
My dream kitchen team member is passionate and culinary-minded with solid techniques. It's hard to find all of that in one package, but at the very least, show me some passion and I can teach you proper technique.
Biggest mistake a chef can make on the line:
There's nothing like working in a kitchen when you're getting killed and the chef is holding all of the cooks together with simple communication and organization. The worst thing is a chef who loses his composure while getting killed. If your chef is in over his head, it can be a nightmare you'll never forget.
Your biggest pet peeves:
I have a thing about old labels on containers, coupled with poor fish-cleaning skills. If you can't clean fish with respect for the animal, you shouldn't be cleaning fish, or any other protein for that matter. Nothing bothers me more than having someone in my kitchen screw up a beautiful fish. That animal deserves more respect than being tossed into the trash because someone has poor knife skills.
Your best traits:
I work harder than most. Growing up, I learned from my parents that if you're going to do something, you give it your best. My mom was especially focused on teaching us that lesson. I've never seen anyone work as hard as her.
Your worst traits:
I can be unreasonable, and I've been known to fly off the handle at cooks for being lazy, messy or unproductive.
If you could cook in another chef's kitchen, whose would it be?
I'd give anything to work in Paul Bocuse's kitchen at L'Auberge du pont de Collonges in Lyon, France, for a night. I may have a background in French cuisine, but I have a feeling I'd be the low man on the totem pole there...probably brunoising potatoes for hours.
What would you cook for Bocuse if he came to your restaurant?
I'd stick to local, simple flavors. I'd probably prepare a simple trout almondine with Colorado brown trout and locally grown haricot verts with beurre noisette.
If you could have dinner, all expenses paid, at any restaurant in the world, where would you go?
I'd go to Tokyo to eat at Sukiyabashi Jiro, Jiro Ono's three-star Michelin sushi restaurant in the subways of Japan. It's the only three-star Michelin restaurant to not have its own bathroom. Talk about understated. I can only imagine how insane his sushi must be.
If you left Denver to cook somewhere else, where would you go?
Most likely New York City. My wife, Deirdre, is from Long Island, and it's hard to argue with the culinary scene and incredible opportunities in that city.
If you had the opportunity to open your own restaurant with no budget constraints, what kind of restaurant would you open?
I worked in a restaurant that was Spanish-, French- and Italian-inspired while going to school in Scottsdale, Arizona. It was an AAA, five-star, five-diamond restaurant that focused on unbelievable ingredients and wine. From beautiful cheeses and cured meats to langoustine and razor clams, there wasn't a day in that kitchen where I wasn't smiling from ear to ear. I'd love to open a restaurant like that.
Biggest moment of euphoria in the kitchen:
There's no better feeling than after an unbelievable dinner rush and realizing that everybody stepped up to make it happen. One night, while working at a restaurant in Montana, I was asked to come out and talk to a guest, and I had no idea if he had experienced a great meal or an awful one. As I walk up to the table, a man introduces himself as Mark Harmon -- the actor -- and proceeds to tell me it was the best meal he's ever had.
Craziest night in the kitchen:
I was fifteen at the time, and it was Valentine's Day. I had never cooked on the hot line in my life -- just salads and desserts. About halfway into dinner service, my chef splashed hot oil on his arm and had to go to the hospital. With no one else to step up, I was forced onto the hot line. I know now that it didn't happen the way I remember, but at the time, I thought the night went flawlessly.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef:
Becoming a chef in and of itself is quite the accomplishment, but becoming chef de cuisine of the new P17 tops the list.
Kitchen rule you always adhere to:
Always clean up after yourself. If you spill something, you clean it up; if you scorch a pot, you scrub the pot; if you take something off the shelf, put it back.
Kitchen rule you're not afraid to break:
There's often this presumption in the kitchen that the chef is always right. I'm wrong...often, in fact. I like my cooks and the staff that I work with to always be honest with me, and I like to be treated as an equal. Of course, there are times in which the restaurant is in strict military style, but without your cooks, or your dishwasher, you're nothing.
If you could dress any way you want, what would you wear in the kitchen?
I like to be comfortable at work, so jeans and a T-shirt are the way to go for me.
Last meal before you die:
I'd love to be with friends and family at a backyard barbeque, eating simple, fresh, beautiful food and drinking wine from the south coast of Spain.
What's in the pipeline?
Parallel Seventeen has just reopened as P17, a true neighborhood bistro serving great food and wine in a friendly and welcoming environment. It's been a significant transformation for the team, and we're starting to get a great response from the neighborhood. We'll be changing the menu every few months to reflect the produce of the seasons, so even though we just opened P17, I'm already thinking about the summer menu. Yeah, there will be tomatoes.
What's next for Denver's culinary scene?
Denver's culinary scene has been exploding over the past few years, and I really expect that to continue. Restaurants are pushing each other to serve better food and to be more hospitable, and I'd like to see some new, fresh chefs stir things up a bit.
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