This is part one of my interview with Jesper Jonsson, executive chef of Randolph's at the Warwick Hotel; part two of our chat will run tomorrow.
Bill Cosby, Clint Eastwood, Victor Borge, Caroline Kennedy, Yoko Ono, Kevin Kline, Mel Brooks, Sylvester Stallone, Isabella Rossellini, Roger Moore and Greg Norman. That's a short -- very short -- list of some of the celebrities for whom Jesper Jonsson has cooked during the twenty-plus years he's been a chef. Add to that a wealth of Danish ambassadors, prime ministers, queens, princes and princesses, including princesses Stéphanie and Caroline of Monaco, and you kind of wonder what the hell he's doing in Denver.
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Turns out it took 46 years for the Denmark-born Jonsson, now the executive chef of Randolph's, the signature restaurant at the Warwick Hotel, to get here. First he cooked in France, while attending culinary school at both Université Paul Valéry and Auguste Escoffier. "I'd always been interested in three things: motorcycles and racing, math, and cooking, and I decided to cook, and to go to culinary school, because a culinary education has a lot of worth in France -- plus, I didn't want to be hungry," says Jonsson, who's fluent in three languages: English, Danish and French. Pressed, he can speak Italian, too.
And his years cooking in France gave him the confidence -- and background -- to cook just about anywhere in the world. "Being a foreigner, even one who speaks French, in a top kitchen in France, is an interesting experience," says Jonsson. "The French take a lot of pride in their kitchens -- and they have tempers -- and every time I walked into a kitchen, I had to earn respect, not just as a chef, but as a foreigner. But the experiences gave me a really strong backbone to go just about anywhere, and I always said to myself that I wanted the best education I could get in the shortest time possible and then travel and cook as much as I could."
All roads, of course, lead to Rome, which is where Jonsson got his first taste of aristocracy, cooking for the Danish Foreign Ministry. "It was a great experience. Rome is a wonderful city, and I realized once I got there that there was a lot more to food than the cooking of southern France, which is steeped in sauces. But I wasn't fond of my boss, and after that experience, I swore that I'd never -- never -- work for a foreign diplomat again," recalls Jonsson. "I'm a creative chef, and diplomats aren't always diplomatic, and this particular diplomat should have stayed in Denmark."
He returned to France, determined to keep the promise he'd made to himself, but when the Danish Consul General in New York called, asking Jonsson if he'd like to be his chef, Jonsson admits that it took a mere thirty seconds before he rendered a decision...in the affirmative. "It was New York City. How do you say no to a great cooking gig in New York City?" deadpans Jonsson, who caught the first plane out.
And while he was in New York, he cooked for a variety of Danish dignitaries and other celebrities -- including Mel Brooks and his wife, who was deathly allergic to onions, as Jonsson learned during a private dinner party in the Hamptons. "I remember being in the kitchen when this woman walked in and said that she was allergic to onions, but that if she got some, not to worry -- just to call 911. I was sweating bullets," he recalls. "At the end of the dinner, she and Mel thanked me profusely for making sure that she didn't spend the evening in the hospital."
In 1999, Jonsson jetted to Geneva, Switzerland, to showcase his culinary skills for the Danish ambassador to the United Nations, but after a year, he was homesick for America and returned to New York a free agent -- free, finally, from Danish nobility. "I knew I wanted to go back to New York and do something else, and I wanted to become more integrated into the New York culinary scene," says Jonsson, who joined a catering company for four years. During the slow season, usually summer, Jonsson came to Colorado, specifically Meeker, to cook at a guest ranch. And in 2004, he moved permanently to Meeker, to cook "in a beautiful setting at 8,000 feet," he says.
In 2007, he opened the Bistro on Park Avenue -- in Meeker, not New York -- which he operated until 2012, finally selling the restaurant for family-related reasons. And earlier this year, also for personal reasons, he moved to Denver, taking over the exec-chef position at Randolph's in August. "The exec chef who was here wanted to retire, and we knew each other from a fundraiser that we both did together, and we also lived just twelve miles from one another in Denmark, so it just worked out serendipitously," says Jonsson.
And he has big plans for Randolph's: "What I want to do with Randolph's is make it a freestanding restaurant, remodel it and make it a seasonally driven restaurant emphasizing Colorado-inspired cuisine and craftsmanship," says Jonsson, who in the following interview admits that fingerprints on the plate sully your credibility as a chef, reveals that he has an obsession with perfection, and recalls the time when a buffet for 200 spilled onto the street.
What do you enjoy most about your craft? I've been very fortunate throughout my career. I've met extraordinary people and have had a very exciting professional life cooking around Europe and the United States. Working as the chef at Randolph's has given me a great opportunity to feed people from all over the world, and since we're part of a hotel that gets a lot of out-of-state guests, it's been great to introduce them to farm-to-table Colorado cuisine.
Describe your approach to cooking: Simplicity, knowledge and perfect execution. And while that might sound cocky to some, it translates into discipline and ambition in a kitchen full of driven cooks who strive for perfection at all times.
What are your ingredient obsessions? Following the seasons as much as I can. If you choose ingredients that are at their peak, all of your food will be at its best. Fall is my favorite time of year, and we've been working with local game meats, including venison and quail, on our new menu. This is also a great time of year to teach the staff and talk with guests about how lucky we are to live in a state that has such diverse geography.
What are your kitchen-gadget obsessions? I really don't have any, although having the equipment to do the job adequately is a must, just like in any profession. I am, however, very fond of knives and rate a chef on his knife skills and the scars they leave behind.
Favorite local ingredients and purveyors: We buy the majority of our specialty meats from Lombardi, which is ABC-certified and entitles them to buy Colorado meats whenever possible. And our local Colorado lamb is absolutely outstanding, equal to the best pres de sel from Brittany, France. Paired with local, wild mushrooms and a touch of crème double...what can I say? I'm in heaven.
One ingredient you won't touch: I just can't eat anchovy filets. I love a Caesar salad, but the anchovies are just too much for me. I find them overpowering, at best.
One ingredient you can't live without: Sea salt is the most undervalued and overlooked ingredient, at home and in restaurants. Even if salt gets lots of attention in print, the true following isn't as high as it might appear. When I perform taste tests for my line cooks, it's often a surprise to them how vast a difference there is between the real thing and the rest.
Food trend you'd like to see more of: The major food trend that should become a standard and, subsequently, an off-the-trend list, is local, sustainable farming and ranching, because it offers the best ingredients while taking care of the land for future generations -- plus it reduces our carbon footprint. Our well-being depends on these core principles.
Food trend you'd like to see disappear: I sure wouldn't mind if fusion cuisine disappeared. As much as I love creativity and things that are new, a crucial balance is necessary for the success of a dish. All past aces in the culinary world have relied on seasonal produce, locally grown by great craftsmen in true traditional ways.
Your biggest pet peeves: Fingerprints on my plates really get me fired up. When you're dressing a plate, lots of attention and lots of hard work goes into it, and then...a print! All that work, only to fall flat on your nose. It actually shows a chef that's still not ready for the next level of culinary arts.
What dish would you love to put on your menu, regardless of how well it would sell? Oxtail bourguignon with lots of carrots served on a bed of mashed potatoes. My dad used to cook this dish, and it's my favorite meal of all time. I've replicated the recipe many times, but it's just not the same.
Favorite dish on your menu right now: The rack of Colorado lamb a l'ail, served medium, is a simple dish that relies on great products and skill from the cooks. It always surprises me when people tell me about a bad experience they've had with lamb; while reheated lamb can become a problem, freshly cooked lamb is hard to beat.
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Last meal before you die: Rustic bread and Reblochon cheese with a good bottle of red wine. I'll gladly make it an Opus One again, but I'm in no hurry. There's still lots to see and lots of meals to share.