This is part one of my chef and tell interview with Jeremy Kittleson, exec chef of Ambria. Part two of our chat will run tomorrow.
Before Jeremy Kittelson opened Ambria in mid-November, he conducted a tasting, and while he was visibly excited about most of what he'd prepared, he was sheepish about the carrot salad. "I don't know how well this is going to fly...I don't think it will," he warned his cooks. But the chef's hesitation was unfounded; it's now one of his signature dishes.
"I love that salad because it's so unique, but you just never know how people are going to respond," says Kittelson, who faced a completely different reaction when he made his first batch of cookies as a kid in Decorah, Iowa. "Both of my grandmothers were really, really good cooks who did absolutely everything from scratch, and I wanted to be involved in the cooking process, so when I was around six, I decided to bake my own cookies by throwing a bunch of different things together, and they were terrible -- harder than a rock and not exactly well received."
But the cookie disaster didn't frighten Kittelson out of the kitchen. Several years later, when he was a busser in a Greek restaurant where "they loved lighting the cheese on fire," he discovered that he really loved the restaurant industry. "Once you get into a certain line of work that you really like, it's easy to stay there," he says, "so I worked in restaurants all throughout high school, up until I went to college." He eventually dropped out "to go back into the restaurant world," he admits, and sharpen his knives in culinary school.
He graduated from the Scottsdale Culinary Institute in 2000 and then took off for Chicago, hoping to secure a gig at Le Francais, a then-prominent French restaurant that bid adieu in 2007. But when Kittelson learned that he'd be working for pence, he scrapped the idea and instead landed in the kitchen of Vong, working for one of the most revered chefs in the world: Jean-Georges Vongerichten. "It was a life-changing, inspirational and rewarding experience, and I had the good fortune to work with a chef who had been at Charlie Trotter's for ten years, as well as several Top Chef contestants, including Stephanie Izard," recalls Kittelson. It was a kitchen, he says, where "everything mattered -- everything had to be perfect -- and that made my career feel important."
He departed after Vong changed its concept, snagging a full-time spot on the dinner line at Blackbird, the "biggest break of my career," Kittelson says, noting that the popular Chicago food temple "has as good of a reputation as any restaurant in America -- it's as high as it can be -- and that restaurant has carried me throughout my career." By the time he left, nearly four years later, he'd been promoted to the sous-chef position, and while it was difficult to let go, Kittelson was ready to move up the ranks, to an exec-chef spot at Tapawingo, a restaurant in northwest Michigan. "The guy before me was a Food & Wine magazine Best New Chef winner, I was working with a master sommelier, and it's still one of the fondest experiences I've had in my career," says Kittelson.
Still, he confesses, "there's only so long that you can survive in northern Michigan." His parents were living in Denver, a city Kittelson had frequently visited, so he left Michigan behind in order to "combine the Colorado outdoor lifestyle of backpacking, golf and fly-fishing -- which I love -- with cooking."
He fired off several resumés, including one to Vail's Larkspur, and while that restaurant wasn't hiring, the owners were opening a second restaurant -- Avondale -- in the Westin Resort and Spa, and Kittelson was brought on as the opening executive chef. Seven months later, he was overseeing the resort's entire food and beverage operation. "I was really excited about the challenge of opening a place that big, and since I'd never worked in a hotel before, it was an even greater challenge, one that I wanted to take on," says Kittelson. But then his relationship with chef/owner Thomas Salamunovich began to sour. "Suffice it to say that it was time for me to go and that we had a parting of the ways," he admits.
He announced his departure on Facebook, and when a local restaurant PR consultant, who was then representing Ambria, saw it, she asked if he'd be interested in commanding the kitchen at the new spot. "I really wanted to move to Denver -- that was a huge ambition of mine -- and I was offered an exec-chef position and part ownership of a chef-driven concept, which is exactly what I wanted," says Kittelson, who in the following interview weighs in on why he enjoys cooking in Denver, admits to an embarrassing obsession with a certain fast-food chain and explains why a boy from Iowa can't wrap his jaws around eyeballs.
Six words to describe your food: Inspired, thoughtful, soulful, seasonal, nourishing and respectful.
Ten words to describe you: Ambitious, passionate, intense, funny, intelligent, compassionate, leader, loyal, humble and empathetic.
What are your ingredient obsessions? Lately, I've become completely obsessed with vegetables. Earlier in my career, it was always about proteins and hard-to-find ingredients. Now, I actually enjoy the challenge and beauty of creating vegetable dishes, mainly because you can just do so much with all the different textures, temperatures and presentations. I get a lot of satisfaction from cooking for vegans, those on raw food diets and vegetarians.
What are your kitchen-tool obsessions? Normally, I'd say knives, but then I recently bought my first pressure cooker -- and the thing is amazing. The flavors and textures you can create with it are unbelievable; I'm getting great results with legumes, soups and purées that I was never able to attain before. I just wish they made them bigger so I could braise large batches of meats, because the finished product is so perfect. I'd recommend that everyone get one of these.
Best recent food find: The key lime pie at Green Russell. Whoever makes that pie deserves an award, because it's truly one of the most sublime things I've eaten in a long time. I love it when something seemingly so simple can be made so perfect. It also helped that I was enjoying a delicious cocktail.
Most underrated ingredient: Crème fraîche is really underrated and underutilized. People tend to think it's only served with smoked salmon, but that's just one application. It's great for finishing sauces, broths and soups because it gives you the buttery richness with a cleaner flavor. It's also very stable and won't break a sauce even if you boil it.
Food trend you wish would go away: I don't have one in particular that I take any great issue with, and the great thing about trends is that they do just that: They go away. I do believe, however, that they are necessary. I also have to admit to being part of them myself at different points in my career. I used to make one hell of a foam. It's great that people in our industry are always trying new things and pushing the envelope. Look at what molecular gastronomy did for cuisine and dining. Ferran Adrià was voted one of Time magazine's most influential people, and he inspired a generation of chefs. Now that cuisine is almost gone. I think trends keep food exciting, while also encouraging us to appreciate the classics.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: I really love Palisade peaches. I'm not sure what makes them so great, but whether it's the altitude, the soil, the sun -- whatever -- they're really special. I like to buy them in abundance when they're available and serve them in all different forms.
Favorite spice: I've recently been introduced to ras el hanout -- a spice blend that means "head of the shop"-- and I love it. It's a lot like a Moroccan curry blend. There are a bunch of variations that you can buy, but we make our own at Ambria. It's excellent for fish, chickpeas and vegetables, and it has such a great floral flavor to it that really makes food shine.
One food you detest: I'm not a huge fan of beef or pork liver. I mean, I love my foie gras, but that's a whole different deal. For some reason, I can't get over the smell and mineral flavor of beef or pork liver. I like to be adventurous in dining, but that's definitely something I won't order no matter who's cooking it.
One food you can't live without: It's got to be bread. I really can't think of a more versatile, delicious and satisfying food. It definitely goes back to childhood, because my grandmother, Virginia, would always bake her own bread. The options are endless, but let's face it: There's no better combination than bread and butter. I really hope I never have to go gluten-free.
Most memorable meal you've ever had: The meal I had at Jean-Georges is still, to this day, my most memorable of all time. I went with a couple of my cooks, and he was there that night, so I asked if he would come out so they could meet him -- and if he would cook for us. I had worked for him a few years earlier, and when he came out of the kitchen, he acted like I was his best friend. They styled us out, and the food, service and wine were truly amazing. Let's just say I felt pretty cool in front of my guys.
What are your favorite wines and/or beers? I really love sparkling wines. They're so complex and usually only enjoyed at the beginning of the meal, which is sad, because they pair so well with food and they're really fun to drink. I also really enjoy rosé.
Favorite junk food: Taco Bell. I don't want to say anything else about it, because I'm embarrassed that I actually just admitted it.
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Weirdest customer request: It's certainly not the weirdest request, by any means, but to me the most annoying request is ranch dressing, which can be a really weird request, too, depending upon what you plan to do with it. I mean, I love ranch dressing, but do you really have to put it on everything? For me, there's a time and a place for everything -- and ranch dressing does not belong on a piece of fish; it belongs on pizza at 4 a.m. when you're drunk. Expand your horizons and try something different for once.
Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: A lamb's eyeball. A guy I worked with brought in a whole roasted lamb's head and he gave me the eyeball and told me it was the best part. He was dead wrong: It wasn't. The texture was unbearable and the flavor was gross. I almost threw up...and I may have offended him. What can I say? I'm just a simple Iowa boy.
Last meal before you die: A huge Thanksgiving feast, especially since I'd be going to sleep anyway. There are few meals beyond Thanksgiving that have so much tradition, family and fond memories associated with them. Hopefully, a football game would be on, too.