Jensen Cummings, Jeff Osaka and more dish on the ingredients that personify their personalities
Jeff Osaka, chef-owner of twelve, likens himself to salt.
The signature signs of a city that's on the culinary fast track reside in its willingness to take aggressive risks, push infinite boundaries and continually adapt to a fickle dining public whose expectations are always on the upswing. Denver is that city -- a major metropolis that refuses to slow down, unleashing triumphant restaurants, watering holes and breweries commanded by innovative masterminds, the likes of which have resulted in a James Beard Award-winning chef, nationally crowned cocktail champions and Einsteins of beer.
See also: Welcome to Westword's 19th annual DISH
As a prelude to the September 22 DISH, Westword's annual celebration of the Denver dining scene, we picked the brains of nearly fifty Denver chefs, all of whom weighed in on Denver's current culinary landscape and the trends that have made their mark this past year. But that's not all we wanted to know: We also wondered which ingredient best personified their personalities and what ritual was an integral part of their daily routine.
Herewith the dish from Jensen Cummings, Patrik Landberg, Duy Pham and Jeff Osaka; watch for more installments over the next several days, and don't miss part one, part two and part three of our DISH chef series, all of which appeared earlier this week.
What don't people know about you that you wish they did? I grew up in Germany, and my love for food and cooking came from my surrogate German grandmother Schwoppe, who'd "kidnap" me every day after school and feed me, and I'm told she taught me to cook, even though I can't recall a single technique. I must have been more focused on stuffing my face. Still, the flavors and dishes she made for me will stick with me forever. She did everything in the kitchen, even churn her own butter.
What daily ritual is non-negotiable for you? My embarrassing morning ritual includes putting on Nivea face cream. If that's not embarrassing enough, I apply it in a certain pattern that I refer to as "war paint." This isn't going to be in print, right?
If you could have any superpower, what would it be? I'd definitely have laser-beam eyeballs. It's a badass weapon that doubles as a great cooking method. I could dominate evildoers in my quest to defeat childhood hunger and be a big hit at the neighborhood backyard barbecue, too.
What's the most positive trend in food, wine, cocktails or beer that you've noticed in Denver over the past year? Innovative food and beverage pairings have been on the rise, from progressive beer dinners and beer vs. wine dinners, to local wine pairings, cocktail dinners and spirit pairings. I think the integration of food and drink is paramount to creating amazing experiences and memories in our industry. The collaboration of food purveyors, beverage purveyors and restaurants are also building a strong community, and I'm continually impressed by the work of chefs, somms, cicerones and bartenders who are furthering the trend.
Who's the one person to watch right now in the Denver dining scene? Mark DeNittis all the way. We've been friends and collaborators since I moved to Denver six years ago, and he's a tremendous food ambassador and innovator, plus I admire his commitment to being a student and a teacher. He'll continue to push the craft of butchery forward, thus elevating Denver's culinary scene...and he likes to rock chain-mail aprons.
Which ingredient is most representative of your personality? Soy sauce. Beyond the obvious reference to my Japanese heritage, it's funky, salty and sweet...like me. And it's consistent in flavor, serving to boost the flavors around it, plus you can use it in so many cuisines and styles. It can be overbearing, but if it's used harmoniously, there are few better team players when it comes to elevating a dish. Oh, and it's delicious, too.
If someone asked you to describe the current state of Denver's culinary climate, what would you say? It's at a tipping point. There are so many amazingly talented and passionate restaurant peeps in Denver right now, and the comradery and level of product in our restaurants is growing exponentially. But the saturation of guests willing and able to take this journey with us needs to grow at that same rate to support the market. We're poised to be an elite food city, but we can't accomplish that without the dedication of restaurants and Denver diners. Denver's culinary identity is being written every day, and I love happy endings, so let's make it happen.
What don't people know about you that you wish they did? I'm strongly focused on family, and that extends to my work and shows in the time I dedicate to developing Charcoal's kitchen team.
What daily ritual is non-negotiable for you? I enjoy a strong French press coffee every morning while reading my Swedish newspaper.
If you could have any superpower, what would it be? I'd like to stop time in order to be able to run around and get all my chores done -- and then restart time when I'm ready.
What's the most positive trend in food, wine, cocktails or beer that you've noticed in Denver over the past year? A returning focus to classic versus trendy. For example, at Charcoal, we focus on the flavor of the primary ingredient. If you order meat, we make sure you taste the nuances of the cut instead of overzealous sauces or garnishes. Our guests appreciate a perfectly poured Manhattan rather than a drink in a fish bowl or with smoke pouring out of it.
Who's the one person to watch right now in the Denver dining scene? You tell me.
Which ingredient is most representative of your personality? Dill. It's used a lot in Swedish food, and it reflects my heritage.
If someone asked you to describe the current state of Denver's culinary climate, what would you say? It's pretty good, although we need more really good, inexpensive neighborhood restaurants.
What don't people know about you that you wish they did? My ultimate goal is to retire as a poultry farmer, not as a chef. I want to spend my last days raising chickens, ducks and quails. I'd have fresh eggs all the time.
What daily ritual is non-negotiable for you? At night, I have to unwind and decompress. I have to zone out for at least an hour before I go to bed; otherwise I'll have insomnia.
If you could have any superpower, what would it be? I have great speed, so I'd love to have the power of unlimited speed -- just like Flash Gordon.
What's the most positive trend in food, wine, cocktails or beer that you've noticed in Denver over the past year? The support of local farmers, ranchers, purveyors and businesses.
Who's the one person to watch right now in the Denver dining scene? Max MacKissock is an extremely talented chef, and I'm really curious and intrigued to see what he does next -- but whatever he does will be amazing, because he has the talent to back it up.
Which ingredient is most representative of your personality? Salt. Too much of it can be overwhelming, too little of it can be boring, and just the right amount makes everyone smile and be happy.
If someone asked you to describe the current state of Denver's culinary climate, what would you say? It's still developing, and there's a lot of room for improvement. There are tons of taco places and farm-to-table restaurants, but we need real Spanish tapas restaurants, a great ramen joint, and we need more New York-style delis. I mean, I can't even find a good, fat beef-tongue sandwich here. It would be great to have a simple, hole-in-the-wall oyster bar, too. I hope I can be a part of that improvement.
See also: Best Chef Ambassador - 2013: Jeff Osaka
What don't people know about you that you wish they did? I'm not the asshole people think I am.
What daily ritual is non-negotiable for you? I have a two-year-old, and I do my best to spend quality time with her each morning. It reminds me of what my priorities are in life.
If you could have any superpower, what would it be? It's not really a superpower, but I wish I could speak and read any language. Food has one common factor: it sets off many emotions and brings people together for just about any occasion. Food breaks barriers, and speaking and understanding a language does the same thing. Language can save the world -- no superpower can do that.
What's the most positive trend in food, wine, cocktails or beer that you've noticed in Denver over the past year? Diversity. There are a ton of breweries opening in the next year or so, but they all have their own styles, and the same goes for every new restaurant that's opened: They've all created their own personality with individual food and beverage programs.
Who's the one person to watch right now in the Denver dining scene? If I had to narrow it down to one person, it would be Alex Seidel at Fruition. He's had several opportunities to open a second restaurant, but turned them down because they didn't feel right. His decision to open in Union Station is going to be a big deal, and a lot of eyes are on him, including mine. But he's doing it now because it feels right.
Which ingredient is most representative of your personality? Salt. Too much of me is overbearing, not enough of me and I'm next to invisible, but just the right amount, and I'm like your best friend.
If someone asked you to describe the current state of Denver's culinary climate, what would you say? Hopeful, although there are still some areas that need improvement. Denver is always being compared to the next Portland, or Chicago, or San Francisco, but Denver is none of these. In the five years I've been here, I've seen Denver develop its own personality and environment, but with those developments come growing pains -- and finding quality staff is a big issue. New restaurants are popping up like weeds, and the main concern is finding skilled labor to staff these places. Service is just as important as what goes on the plate, and I'm finding that restaurants with great service are the ones that succeed.
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