Jesper Jonsson, chef of Randolph's: "Restaurants are so much more than eateries"
This is part two of my interview with Jesper Jonsson, executive chef of Randolph's at the Warwick Hotel; part one of our chat ran yesterday.
What specific requests would you ask of Denver diners? Being that we've integrated seasonal Colorado cuisine at Randolph's, I would like to ask that Denver diners come back and give us a try. My sous chefs Pierson Shields and Thomas Job and I are really working on challenging flavors, yet sticking to the proven traditions of modern food.
Most underrated Denver restaurant: I think Tables is an underdog, but the menus are always attractive and well thought through, and the ingredients and dishes are fresh and honest.
Who's the most underrated chef in Denver? The culinary staff in every restaurant deserves a pat on the back. All of us chefs have been in the trenches working our way up to the title of "chef," and these passionate men and women all deserve a big thank you.
What recent innovation has most influenced the restaurant industry in a significant way? The return to basics. While there's a plethora of new equipment and gadgets, human innovation far exceeds any piece of machinery available. What can be performed by a skilled and motivated cook blows my mind. Surf YouTube and you'll see what can be done with a paring knife; it's amazing!
What do you expect from a restaurant critic? Food critics have a huge responsibility on their shoulders. Their information has to be well founded and sincere to ensure credibility with readers, and the critic should base their reviews on personal observations not only about food and service, but also on other diners. And in order to maintain credibility, I think they have to be anonymous. I sure wouldn't like to be a food critic myself, even though I judge every bite of food I eat. I just wouldn't want the responsibility of judging any other hardworking chefs out there.
Best recipe tip for a home cook: Keep it simple -- no more than six or seven ingredients will suffice. Have fun cooking, and share your enjoyment with others. The travel has to be as pleasant as the destination.
What advice would you give to an aspiring young chef? Pack your bag and leave your ego behind. Knock on the door of the best restaurant you can find and give it 110 percent. You'll know soon enough if you've got it in you to become a great cook. Should you be in doubt, trust me: Someone will tell you. This profession is unique and not for everyone, but if it suits you, nothing compares. I truly believe this was the perfect choice for me, and I've really never wanted to pursue any other career.
What skills and attributes do you look for when hiring kitchen staff? Character, a good attitude and a solid work ethic. And being a team player is a must. At Randolph's, it's like a big family, and given the amount of time that we spend together, we have to work as a team.
What's your biggest challenge as a chef working in Denver? I miss places like the Fulton Fish Market in New York, where I used to go twice a week during the ten years I lived there to get my fish, and there's really nothing like that here, so sourcing fish and seafood is a big challenge. On the upside, I'm happy to see so many great concepts in Denver, like the Source, coming to light. It has the feel of a European market, where you can go from store to store to gather the best ingredients to make a wonderful meal.
Biggest mistake a chef can make on the line: Fail to ask for assistance, and fail to assist when asked. If you could dress any way you want, what would you wear in the kitchen? The chef jacket is a very specialized uniform that performs many duties, and I wouldn't switch it out for anything. I wear it proudly, as does every chef. Just look at pictures with chefs and their arms crossed in front of them. Don't we look proud?
If you could cook in another chef's kitchen, whose would it be? I really like what Justin Brunson is doing at Old Major; his utilization of whole hogs is an inspiration that I share. The drive among his kitchen team is delightful and can only happen with great leadership.
What would you cook for Brunson if he or she came to your restaurant? Justin and I have met several times and are becoming friends, but I don't know what his food preferences are. Still, I think a morel risotto topped with grilled lobster tail would be a home run, or just a grilled ribeye with maitre d' butter and a pint. Let me know, Justin: It's way past due.
If you had the opportunity to open your own restaurant with no budget constraints, what kind of restaurant would you open? An open-kitchen restaurant with a relaxed interior and atmosphere. It would be a nice setting with a great front-of-the-house staff and refined food in a non-pretentious environment. Restaurants are so much more than eateries, and when I go out to dinner, I want the whole dining experience.
Most noteworthy meal you've ever eaten: I've been lucky enough to dine at many great tables around the world with exceptional foods, but a meal by chef Roger Verge at the Le Moulin de Mougins hotel in Mougin, France, back in 1989, stands out very clearly in my mind. I was with my mentor Jean Wallac, and we had langoustines and a bottle of Domaines Ott rosé. The Moulin de Mougin is a fantastic place, and Mr. Verge came out to the table and signed a menu for me that I still have. It was great stuff, especially when you're just a young chef starting out.
Weirdest thing you've ever put in your mouth: Viper-infused grappa. It was a bit morbid, but really not that bad.
Craziest night in the kitchen: There have been several, but I remember one in particular -- namely, a buffet for 200 guests, and all the food, which we had on trays on a speed rack, spilled onto the street at 7 p.m., half an hour before guests sat down to eat. Needless to say, that was a bit stressful. There was also the time when there was an exhaust fire at a hotel in Monaco during a Formula 1 race.
Biggest moment of euphoria in the kitchen: When my daughter Riley told me at the end of a hard shift that she'd just worked with me that she wanted to become a chef and learn from me, that made my day. Cooking with people you enjoy becomes so much more than a job; it's an adventure.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef: When I opened my first restaurant on a low budget with lots of sweat and determination, it was such a rush. I took a shack and made it into a fine-dining restaurant -- and I did most of the construction myself.
Favorite culinary-related gift you've been given: I've always wanted a bottle of Opus One, and last month, a friend of mine who'd gotten wind of this wish gave me a bottle of Opus One 2003. It was fantastic, and well worth the wait. Thank you, Don.
Favorite culinary-related item to give as a gift: I still think a good bottle of wine is a great gift. You don't have to drink it right away; when the moment is right, it can be a great surprise and an opportunity to remember who gave it to you.
What's your fantasy splurge? Set me loose in Tokyo with a pair of chopsticks. Oh, my, would I eat and eat.
What cookbooks and/or food-related reading material do you draw inspiration from? I generally turn to cookbooks and/or culinary dictionaries like the Larousse series, Auguste Escoffier's Le Repertoire de la Cuisine and some Scandinavian pastry books like Bo Friberg's The Professional Pastry Chef.
What's one thing that people would be surprised to know about you? I'm actually rather shy by nature and often feel awkward outside of my kitchen. I think it's common among chefs to feel most at home in the kitchen, since we spend most of our time there and also meet most of our friends there.
If you hadn't become a chef, what would you be doing right now? I've always been fascinated by everything mechanical, and I enjoy restoring old cars -- I'm a bit of a gearhead -- and I think I have some high-octane fuel in my blood.
Your best traits: I'm a calm person by nature, so I lead teams well and generate a high output from my team, but first and foremost, I'm a good cook and I love to share my knowledge with anyone who's willing to learn. While I'm always busy running Randolph's and the Warwick catering functions and banquets, I still cook on the line whenever I can; it gives me a sense of calmness, accomplishment and serenity that I don't find anywhere else.
Your worst traits: I might have some issues with trust and patience. I don't think I'm a control freak, but I am a perfectionist, so there are clashes at times.
What's always lurking in your refrigerator? There are always ingredients -- cured meats and cheeses -- to make a good sandwich. I love bread, but I don't use mayo and stuff. My favorite sandwich is still a jambon beurre fromage, a French ham-and-cheese sandwich on baguette bread with Dijon mustard, butter and cornichons. And I eat it upside down so the bread doesn't cut my palate.
What's in the pipeline? Randolph's is in a new phase, and lots of changes are coming soon, Warwick Hotels International is also expanding, and there are lots of opportunities, so I hope to grow within the company.
What's next for Denver's culinary scene? Denver is such a great restaurant and beer city. The local beer is exceptional, as is a lot of the local produce, and there are lots of great chefs in Denver. With so much talent, a return toward "real" food is definitely in motion -- hooray! And Randolph's will be right there, too, creating innovative cuisine that stays true to its roots.
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