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Jensen Cummings, exec chef of Row 14, on the one ingredient that tastes like "burnt toenails marinated in Kroger brand vegetable oil" and "nooders"

Jensen Cummings, exec chef of Row 14, on the one ingredient that tastes like "burnt toenails marinated in Kroger brand vegetable oil" and "nooders"
Lori Midson

Jensen Cummings Row 14 Bistro & Wine Bar 891 14th Street 303-825-0100 www.row14denver.com

This is part one of my interview with Jensen Cummings, exec chef of Row 14 Bistro & Wine Bar.

A broom and a dustpan -- these are the tools of my trade," declares Jensen Cummings, who's shuffling across the floor of his exhibition kitchen at Row 14 Bistro & Wine Bar, broom in hand, sweeping up dust and debris. "It's not all about the sexy stuff; it's about all the hard work and remembering where you came from."

Cummings pauses, then makes this declaration: "The most noble job in the kitchen is the dishwasher. They -- not the cooks, not the chefs -- touch every guest, by virtue of touching their plates." Cummings even admits to washing dishes himself on Saturday afternoons, when Row 14 is closed and prepping for dinner service.

And scraping plates is how this California native began his own restaurant career. "I got my first job in the kitchen doing the dish thing just after high school," recalls Cummings, who moved after graduation to Ames, Iowa, to join his two uncles, both of whom owned restaurants there. "I thought I was going to a college town to party with Midwestern girls and get drunk, but I got a job as a dish monkey, and I was the fastest damn dishwasher there, mainly because I wanted to hurry up and finish so I could watch what the guys on the line were doing," he recalls. In less than a year, Cummings had not only joined the ranks of the line, he was running the wheel.

He eventually enrolled in culinary school and, after fulfilling his requirements, took off for Kansas City to hook up with an old friend -- now the kitchen manager at Row 14 -- and nabbed a gig at a farm-to-table restaurant helmed by Debbie Gold, a James Beard Award-winning chef. "I mostly worked the fish station -- to this day, it's still the busiest station I've ever had to had to work -- and I got to work with ingredients I'd never seen or heard of before," says Cummings, who stayed for just under a year, leaving only because his wife, Betsy, was itching to move to Denver. "My wife's brother lives in Boulder, so we took off for Denver, even though I didn't know one soul there," he says.

Cummings talked to several chefs once he got here, including Kevin Taylor, who gave Cummings his first opportunity to cook in the Mile High City. "Kevin was the one who was the most hands-off in terms of letting me do my own thing, and I had the chance to move around through all of his restaurants," he remembers. That included Kevin Taylor's at the Opera House, where Cummings ultimately became the executive chef. And then he was canned: "Kevin was reconstructing, and I was a sacrificial lamb."

 

But Cummings shrugs that off. "Whenever a door shuts, opportunity awaits," he says, and it wasn't long before he found himself in the kitchen with Troy Guard, owner/chef of TAG. "TAG was still a shell at the time, but I liked the idea of staying downtown, and I loved the Asian influences in Troy's cooking, and I liked that his food was so playful," says Cummings, who was hired as a sous chef and promoted to chef de cuisine before he exited earlier this summer when Guard and his ex-wife and business partner, Leigh Sullivan, split.

"I left because I was initially part of building a family there, and then the family dynamic changed when Leigh and Troy had a parting of ways," explains Cummings, who now shares Row 14's kitchen space with several ex-TAG employees. "A lot of us disbanded and then banded back together here."

And Cummings says he couldn't be happier about his new home. "It's still a new-enough restaurant that it's not tarnished, and nothing was set in stone when I got here, and that was so enticing to me," he says. "And I love that I'm having such a good time and working with such great people.... I get to connect to people through food and get crazy with my fortune-cookie philosophies."

One of which, he notes, is "Take your time. Quickly."

In the following interview, Cummings sounds off on the one ingredient that tastes like "burnt toenails marinated in Kroger brand vegetable oil," eating pickled lamb's spleen at gunpoint, and "nooders."

Six words to describe your food: What the hell is he thinking? Once someone figures it out, they're usually pleasantly surprised. I want to give people simultaneous moments of comfort and apprehension.

Ten words to describe you: Unrelenting, intelligent, obnoxious, philosopher, leader, fixer, squinty, tall, connoisseur and happy.

Best recent food find: I'm embarrassed to say that I just recently tried the Village Cork for the first time. Samir, the chef, is a badass, but it was one of those places I just always blanked on when I was trying to figure out where to eat. Even worse is the fact that it's so damn close to my house. But I finally got there, and his black-truffle pâté is just ridiculous.

Favorite spice: Coriander. It's unassuming yet assertive, and with my Pangean approach to cooking, I love it because it's used in cultural foods from all over the world, from China to Morocco to Italy to America to Mexico to Argentina to the Land of Oz. These are all places where I hold the food in high regard, especially the Land of Oz.

Favorite ingredient: Salt, of course, but that's too fucking easy, so I'm going with Korean black garlic. It's a seemingly exotic ingredient, but in reality, it's subtle and elegant. People look at me like I'm crazy when I use it in a dish, but then the apprehension eases into moments of comfort.

 

Most overrated ingredient: Ground cayenne pepper. I use quite a few spices and spicy ingredients in my cooking, but they're always balanced. Cayenne always seems like an easy fix, and just because something is spicy doesn't mean it tastes good. Cayenne is the zero-to-sixty spice -- and it's far too easy to abuse.

Most underrated ingredient: Fennel. It's the only ingredient that can be utilized as a vegetable, herb and spice. I chop the vegetable, grind the spice and pick the herb, and then put it in my cereal in the morning...or I would if I was ever actually awake in the morning. Truth be told, I usually eat cereal around 11 p.m. just so I can remember what it was like back when I used to eat breakfast. Sorry, what was the question?

Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: Hybrid striped bass from Colorado Catch in Alamosa. My good friends at Seattle Fish are my connect, but if you want to get it for yourself, you can try finding it at Tony's or Marczyk's -- and tell them Tito sent you. It's a really tasty fish, and the Faucette family, who owns the fishery, is amazing, plus they use a really cool sustainable farming process. In Alamosa, the fish live better than the people.

One food you detest: The only food I really detest is bad food, and by bad food, I mean uninspired, unmemorable and unseasoned food. Some people would disagree with me, but there's just something about the way bad food looks, smells and tastes that I just can't learn to love. Call me crazy.

One food you can't live without: Noodles...or "nooders," as my four-foot-tall Japanese grandmother calls them. I always tell her just to say "udon" or "ramen" so she can pronounce them properly. "Bachan," I tell her, "you don't have to call them 'nooders.' Your people created the real word for them, so just use that." Noodles are just the peanut butter to my jelly, and that's all I have to say about that.

Favorite music to cook by: Led Zeppelin. There's just something about those guys that makes me feel like I'm ready to go to war.

Rules of conduct in your kitchen: How you slice your chives is just as important as how you sear your foie gras. That little fortune-cookie philosophy means that everything we do, from slicing chives to wrapping product to sweeping the floor to searing foie gras, holds the utmost equal importance. Great food is the accumulation of all the little things -- not just the sexy ones.

What's never in your kitchen? You won't find flaxseed oil in many kitchens, but I came across it in a kitchen not too long ago, and that's why I'm bringing it up. It tastes like burnt toenails marinated in Kroger brand vegetable oil. I can't say any more about it, and I think I just vomited a little in my mouth.

 

What's always in your kitchen? Inspired and passionate people -- the kind of people who make me proud to be a chef. The grueling hours, high pressure and little pay do nothing to deter the unsung heroes in my kitchen. These warriors -- and I make a point not to call them cooks, because I don't hire cooks; if you don't want my job, I don't want you to work here -- are the people responsible for the amazing experiences that our guests get to have. At Row 14, it's people like Diane Snider, John Wallace, Jennifer Helmore, Mitchell Cummings, Chris Clarke, Johnny DiPierro, Wil Sumner, Sarah Brown, James Pitts and Daniel Blanchett that really make it all happen.

Biggest kitchen disaster: While I was the exec chef at Kevin Taylor's at the Opera House, we set up a satellite kitchen on the other end of our banquet space, loaded up a hotbox with enough strip loin for 100 guests, wheeled it over to the kitchen and then forgot to plug it back in. Thirty minutes later, we open the hotbox and...shit! Luckily, we were feeding guests from both kitchens, so we were able to rush the food from our main kitchen over to the satellite kitchen and vice versa, and by the time we got to serving food from the main kitchen, the cold food from the satellite kitchen had been heated back up. It was one of those moments where everything in the dining room is joyous and serene, but behind the scenes, people are running around with their hair on fire. I never made that mistake again, mainly because I made sure to have a cook who was responsible for plugging in the hotboxes from there on out. It's way too complicated for me.

Weirdest customer request: It's not necessarily the weirdest guest request, but the split steaks, where both people ordering it want it cooked to a different temperature, always makes me scratch my head, then curse, and then cry a bit when one of them wants it medium-well.

Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: I had the rare pleasure of eating pickled lamb's spleen at gunpoint. To be honest, I was less afraid of being held at gunpoint than of eating the pickled lamb's spleen. Okay, so there was no gun, but the pickled lamb's spleen is not something I'll ever seek out again. Right, so I've said "pickled lamb's spleen" four times, just to really drive the point home that I really did eat pickled lamb's spleen.

Your last supper: It would involve pork -- German-style, with kartoffelsalat, rot kraut, senf und apfelmus.

Read the rest of Lori Midson's interview with Jensen Cummings.

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