Jeremy Thomas, chef of Le Grand Bistro & Oyster Bar, on simplicity, spoons and Sheehan
Le Grand Bistro & Oyster Bar
1512 Curtis Street
This is part one of my interview with Jeremy Thomas, chef of Le Grand Bistro & Oyster Bar; part two of our conversation will run tomorrow.
Colorado native Jeremy Thomas spent a lot of time at the dinner table when he was growing up in Evergreen. It wasn't an option. "My mom cooked every single night, and at precisely 6 p.m., dinner was served, and it was a big, big deal to be on time," says Thomas, chef de cuisine at Le Grand Bistro & Oyster Bar. "My mom is a Midwestern lady, and she kept it simple: There was always a salad, a starch, a protein and vegetables on the plate, and while everything she made was really, really good, she didn't travel far from her comfort zone," he recalls, noting that even now, "she still sticks to what she knows best."
It wasn't long, however, before Thomas moved from the kitchen table into a restaurant -- and the way he got there was anything but conventional. "I was taking a marketing class at Evergreen High School, and all of the students had to work at the Tivoli Deer for a day, and I volunteered for kitchen duty," he says. He clicked with the chef -- the two happened to know some of the same people -- who offered him a summer job that lasted two seasons. While the restaurant shuttered years ago, Thomas credits his time there with convincing him to pursue a culinary career. "I absolutely loved it -- all the new smells, the new flavors, and so many foods I'd never heard of," he remembers, adding that he was always asking questions. "I wanted to know everything, and I really fell in love with food and the restaurant industry during the time I spent in that kitchen."
When the executive chef departed for a new stint at Game Creek in Vail, Thomas followed and spent five winters in the resort town, cooking and snowboarding. During the off-season, he was in Denver, doing time on the line at the long-departed Sacre Bleu. "That was a wild ride -- wild, but rewarding," says Thomas. "At the time, chef Don Gragg, who'd worked with Alice Waters and Tom Colicchio, was really pushing the envelope, and I learned so much about plate presentations, the importance of less is more, and how to manage my time."
Thomas's career also includes stops at Indulge, a shuttered restaurant that was owned by Jeff Cleary, the founder of Grateful Bread; the Brown Palace, where he oversaw the kitchen at Ship Tavern; French 250, a restaurant in Cherry Creek that's now Ondo's; and Parisi, where he got up close and personal with Italian cuisine. "I took a job cooking there, because it was out of my comfort zone and I wanted to learn something new," says Thomas, who also notes that owner Simone Parisi taught him a thing or two about hand gestures. "Simone used his hands a lot to signal what he liked and didn't like, and you always knew when he was happy and when he wasn't." And although Thomas was fired from that job -- "Simone gave me a raise and then told me I was costing him too much money," he says -- he admits that Parisi "gave me a genuine love for Italian food, and he instilled that Italian passion in me."
Thomas wound up back in Evergreen as a consulting chef at Willow Creek, where he stayed for just under two years. "I got to fly-fish every day and forage for mushrooms, and it was a great job, but when my wife, who works for Southern Wine & Spirits, told me that Le Grand was opening in downtown Denver, I knew I needed to get in there," says Thomas. "I knew I was the right guy." And he got the job.
"I love the feel of the room -- it reminds me of Balthazar in New York -- and beyond that, we have a great management team, and I love the wonderful bistro French food," he says. "Our goal is to make this the best French restaurant in the city." In the following interview, Thomas weighs in on simplicity, spoons, and former Westword restaurant critic Jason Sheehan.
How do you describe your food? Clean, fresh, simple and French-influenced, with lots of plays on the classics.
Ten words to describe you: Fun, funny, hardworking, determined, loving, hospitable, genuine, classy, cool and witty.
What are your ingredient obsessions? I love shallots because they're such an incredibly versatile ingredient; I'm obsessed with fish and shellfish because I love to catch them, which is not the point -- the point is that they're healthy and tasty; I like cooking with duck because it's super-French and it's been a favorite protein of mine ever since the first time I tasted it; and I'm a fan of citrus because acid helps to balance dishes.
What are your kitchen-gadget obsessions? Spoons of all types, but especially wooden ones. I like to use them for saucing dishes, basting proteins and for tasting food, of course. I use a fish spat for flipping fish, because if you try to do it with tongs, you wreck the product. In fact, Gordon Ramsay says every time you use tongs to turn fish, God kills a puppy.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: That's a tough call, but like a lot of other local chefs, I'm partial to the striped bass from Alamosa. It's really good fish, especially coming from Colorado, and we're serving it on our Valentine's Day menu. I also love Olathe corn because the growing conditions of hot days and cool nights are ideal for growing good corn, and I like Palisade peaches -- they're super-sweet when they're in season.
Food trend you'd like to see in 2013: For years to come, I'd like to see chefs keep it simple and let the flavors speak for themselves. I feel like some dishes get really crowded once you put too many ingredients on the plate; when that happens, it clouds everything, and the dish has no direction.
Food trend you'd like to see disappear in 2013: The food-truck concept is a bit overplayed, in my opinion. I've bought some pretty mediocre food from food trucks and paid way too much money for it.
One food you detest: I don't really detest any food except green bell peppers, and I've had a few bad experiences with Indian food, but I'm sure I just haven't found the right place. And truth be told, food is part of every culture, so it has deep meaning to whatever society it's derived from.
One food you can't live without: Crab legs are awesome. I've loved them ever since I was a little boy eating at SeaGalley by Southwest Plaza, and I still think they're the best things ever
Most memorable meal you've ever had: There have been so many, and Heidi, my wife, is great company, so that's a key ingredient, but I think I can narrow it down to three: Larkspur, in Vail, when chef Armado was there -- that guy is insanely good; Blanca, in Solana Beach, California, when chef Wade Hageman was cooking; and La Tour, also in Vail. I'll remember chef Paul Ferzacca's tellicherry-crusted ahi, pinot reduction and lobster mashed potatoes for the rest of my life.
Favorite childhood food memory: Eating frosting off my mom's cakes while she had her back to me. I did it knowing she would get so mad, but they were so delicious, I couldn't help it.
Favorite junk food: Chick-fil-A chicken sandwiches are killer, and I'm also addicted to Reese's peanut butter cups -- my father loved them and passed that one on to me. Dill Pringles are my latest obsession -- they're so good -- and I also love ice cream and fresh cookies, in particular the smell, the texture and the temperature. I have some cavities.
What do you enjoy most about your craft? I love to eat and taste new things -- that's why I got into this industry -- and I love teaching people how to cook and the different techniques I've learned in my career. I'll teach my cooks everything they need to know, as long as they're willing to listen. Listening is key; otherwise I'm wasting my time.
What's your biggest pet peeve? Excuses. If I tell you something, I don't want to hear "but...but...but." Just say "Yes, chef" or "heard" -- the word we use most often in our kitchen.
Biggest menu bomb: A tempura-battered jalapeño stuffed with lobster meat and cream cheese and served with sweet-and-sour sauce. It was a mix between a jalapeño popper and a crab-and-cream-cheese wonton, and it was actually pretty cool, but Jason Sheehan -- your former restaurant critic -- ripped me for it in a review. Later in my career, I was on the phone with him for a review of another place -- French 250 -- that he really enjoyed. When he found out I was the creator of the lobster popper, I don't think he knew what to say.
Weirdest customer request: French onion soup...with no onions. I don't understand the point.
Weirdest thing you've ever put in your mouth: I ate crickets and other fried bugs in Korea, and they actually weren't that bad. The texture was the hardest part.
If you hadn't become a chef, what would you be doing right now? I'd probably be a pilot. When I first started going to school, it was for aviation. My father was a certified flight instructor and taught me how to fly, but I realized that flying planes was boring to me and that I much preferred the hustle and bustle of the restaurant life. My father's definition of flying was "hours of boredom and moments of terror."
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