Raw fish. That's what Joe Freemond gravitated toward when he was a kid. Not burgers, definitely not pizza, and certainly not hot dogs. And if you gave him a kids' menu, he'd raise his eyebrows in disgust. "When I was five, my favorite restaurant was Sushi Den -- I loved it -- and my whole thing was trying new things, and I was always offended when a waiter would try to give me a kids' menu," recalls Freemond, the executive chef of Cellar Wine Bar. "I was the kind of kid who would order a dish on the menu for no other reason than I didn't know what the hell it was, and I can't remember any vacation that I've taken that didn't revolve around dinner reservations."
He was also the kind of college student at the University of Kansas who shunned the school cafeteria in favor of making his own food -- for both himself and his friends, who would show up morning, noon and night to get their fix. "I had the most stocked room of anyone in the dorm," remembers Freemond. "I had the fridge stashed with lox and bagels, everything to make sandwiches and nothing microwaveable. Everyone would come to my room to eat." He admits, too, that "a guy who was a good cook could usually do pretty well with the ladies."
His first job on the line was "rocking out sandwiches" at a now-defunct panini shop in Cherry Creek during a college summer break, and from there he never looked back, working as a meat cutter and fishmonger at a mercantile in Lawrence, Kansas, and as a dishwasher, prep cook and line cook at the Eldridge, a posh hotel, also in Lawrence.
After he graduated and moved to Denver, he hooked up with Mark DeNittis, the salumi sultan behind Il Mondo Vecchio, whom Freemond has worked with on and off since 2009. "We were introduced to each other by a mutual friend, and when I came back to Denver, I called Mark to ask his opinion about culinary school, so we went out to dinner to talk about it, and six martinis into the conversation, Mark asked me if I wanted to make sausage, and I was at the Il Mondo plant the next morning at 5:30 a.m.," he recalls. "It was a blast." By the end of his tenure with DeNittis, he had become the sales director.
Along the way, Freemond also worked at TAG, Troy Guard's Asian-fusion restaurant in Larimer Square. "I did a three-day stage at TAG, got a job doing a.m. prep shifts for the first three or four months and was then given free creative rein with pastas that we'd run as specials before I started cooking on the line at night," he says. "TAG kicked my ass -- every day was a marathon -- and while working for Troy wasn't easy, I wouldn't trade it for the world."
And he voices the same sentiment for Samir Mohammad, the exec chef of the Village Cork, where Freemond also did time behind the burners. "I loved cooking with Samir," he says. "He taught me how to put food out that no one would expect from a kitchen that has nothing more than a convection oven and butane burners."
But like most chefs, Freemond wanted a kitchen to call his own, and while he continued to split his time between the Village Cork and Il Mondo Vecchio, the allure of running his own place was never far from his mind, and in March he was given the opportunity. The timing couldn't have been better. "Brian Delgado, who owns Cellar Wine Bar, came in to Il Mondo Vecchio and asked Mark for help on consulting on the menu, but he didn't have the time, so he recommended me," recalls Freemond, whose job at Il Mondo Vecchio was being phased out. "I came in as a consultant, pitched Brian that I could be the chef and do a scratch menu, and he said go for it, and so far it's going really, really well." His kitchen line includes John Wallace, who's the day saucier at Vesta Dipping Grill, and Will Sumner, who used to cook at TAG. "It's a really talented crew," he says.
In the following interview, Freemond reveals what he expects from his boys, all of whom work in tight, tight quarters, as well as his thoughts on Guy Fieri and Ritz crackers and why he doesn't give a rat's ass if you disagree with his assessment of Pete's Kitchen, his favorite restaurant in Denver.
Six words to describe your food: Simple, clean, rustic, refined, thoughtful and bold.
Ten words to describe you: Curious, passionate, driven, loyal, honest, optimistic, practical, committed, skinny and hungry.
What are your ingredient obsessions? Fresh herbs of all kinds. I always have tons of fresh herbs growing at home and plenty around to play with in the kitchen. I'm also loving a cheese called tomino da padella that I'm getting from the Truffle. It's a soft-ripened pasteurized cow's-milk cheese that's very similar to Brie, but with a bit more character and funk. They come in little disks the size of hockey pucks, and I'm pan-searing them until they're soft and gooey and then serving them as a dessert course with fresh berries, ciabatta dolce and a thyme-honey syrup.
What are your kitchen-tool obsessions? I love any type of old-school pasta tool, no matter how obscure or specialized it is. I have a pretty decent collection, but there are still a couple of things I want, including a Torchio hand-crank pasta extruder with bronze cutting dies, and I also really want a Japanese menkiri, which is a soba or udon knife that looks like a huge Chinese cleaver but the blade extends under the handle; they're huge and heavy and designed to cut through many layers of dough to make beautiful hand-cut noodles -- and they look totally diabolical.
Rules of conduct in your kitchen: Always be on time; show respect for your ingredients, for your customers, for your techniques and recipes and their histories, for your equipment and tools, for your co-workers and for yourself; and work cleanly and efficiently and anticipate and plan for what may lay ahead. This is chess, not checkers.
Best recent food find: I live right on the Denver-Aurora border, and contrary to what many people may think, this is actually a really cool area to live -- at least for a chef. There are tons of ethnic grocers in the area, including H Mart, which is one of my favorite places in the world. My current favorite, though, is a little international/Middle Eastern market called Diyar, a small market stocked with your general array of Middle Eastern goodies. But the real reasons I'm there so frequently are the butcher and the bakery. They have all halal meats, which are fantastic and amazingly cheap. Their halal chicken is fantastic and really moist, and cheaper than anywhere else I know, and the quality has always been great. And the bakery...oh, the bakery. They bake fresh, out-of-this world tandoori bread the size of manhole covers, and if you get there at the right time, they bake it to order. I live about a half-mile from Diyar, and in the time it takes me to get home, I usually devour at least one whole piece of tandoori bread; they're just too good.
Most underrated ingredient: Champagne vinegar. There are many ways to add that little acidic pop that most dishes need, but I really love what champagne vinegar can do. I have a huge array of vinegars that I use, along with the equally underrated lemon juice, but my go-to acid component is usually champagne vinegar. It provides a nice mellow acid, like white vinegar or rice vinegar, but with a really clean flavor that works well with almost anything. I like it because it adds a good flavor without being too assertive.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: I really love the guancie baciate from Il Mondo Vecchio. My time working there really spoiled me, because my refrigerator was always stocked with tons of sausage and salumi, and I always had some guancie to cook with. At this point, I almost never cook with any other type of porky bacon-like product. The guancie is totally essential to many of my absolute favorite pasta dishes, and I can't get enough of the stuff; I even save all of my guancie fat so I can cook with it.
Favorite spice: Coriander. I absolutely love the way it smells when it's roasted whole, and I find myself using it in all sorts of different applications. It's wonderful for pickling, making broths, or adding a slight citrus note to grilled lamb or fish, and I also like using it in desserts for a nice savory contrast.
Food trend you wish would go away: I wish people would get over cupcakes and sliders. I find it utterly ridiculous that people are gladly paying upwards of five dollars for a cupcake; it makes no sense to me. I also think that the whole slider craze has simply gone on for far too long, and I'm sick of seeing sliders on menus all over town. If you want to eat three little burgers, why don't you just order one whole burger instead?
One food you detest: I can't stand marzipan or anything that contains almond extract or flavoring. I love whole almonds, roasted almonds, candied almonds, almonds in almost any other form, but almond extract makes me cringe.
One food you can't live without: I don't think I could ever live without noodles -- and I mean noodles of any kind or variety: ramen, pasta, dumplings, ravioli and everything in between. I also can't live without spicy foods or hot sauce. If I'm sweating, my nose is running and my face is flushed, I'm usually pretty damn happy about whatever it is that I'm eating.
What's never in your kitchen? People who aren't 100 percent dedicated to excellence at all costs and who aren't willing to work together as a cohesive unit.
What's always in your kitchen? Good music, along with razor-sharp knives and several different Japanese water stones to keep them that way. I've always got tons of fresh herbs and hot sauces in the kitchen, too: sriracha, Cholula, and my all-time favorite, Crystal. Aside from that, I always have really good Pecorino Romano, salumi, peanut butter and jelly and The Food Lover's Companion.
Biggest kitchen disaster: At TAG, we'd keep huge jugs of soy sauce, mirin, rice vinegar and sake on a shelf above the prep area. The jugs had a rotating spout attached as part of the cap, and sometimes if the spouts got rotated back and forth enough, the cap itself would become loose. One day, I reached up to get some soy sauce, and as I rotated the spout down the whole cap came off and I had a waterfall of gallons and gallons of soy sauce coming at me. Luckily, the guy I was working with, who also happens to be my sous chef now, came to my rescue, but not before laughing hysterically. I smelled like soy sauce for days.
Weirdest customer request: While I was working as a meat cutter and fishmonger at a small specialty grocer in Kansas, we had a vegan come in asking for a salmon head and bones. He said he needed to make a fish broth for his sick mother, but he was concerned that the salmon was going to ruin and/or taint his otherwise vegan pots and pans. I gave him a basic fish stock recipe and the salmon parts, but no matter how much I assured him that his equipment would be fine after a thorough cleaning, he was convinced that his kitchen -- and even his home -- would never be the same after cooking the fish stock.
Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: I was on a safari in Kenya when our group stopped by a tribal Maasai village. The Maasai are cattle herders, and a big portion of their diet comes from drinking the fresh blood of the cattle mixed with a little milk. I couldn't pass up the opportunity to take part in the culinary tradition, so me and a couple other willing people, including my mom, asked our guide if we could share a "snack" with some of the tribesmen. Fortunately for us, the Maasai were more than willing to indulge our strange request, and soon enough, I had an enamel mug in front of me with cow's blood and milk in it. The tribesmen and their children all giggled while the weird foreigners drained our mugs. It was actually pretty good, too -- just like extra iron-y pink milk.
Best recipe tip for a home cook: Buy a good-quality knife, as well as the necessary tools to keep it very sharp, and learn how to properly take care of it and sharpen it. It's amazing how much a sharp knife can do for your cooking. And never, ever, ever buy or use one of those glass or composite cutting boards. The people who make or sell those glass cutting boards should be lashed in public for all of the knives they've ruined.
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Favorite Denver/Boulder restaurant(s) other than your own: There are plenty of amazing restaurants in Denver run by my peers that serve incredible food, but my absolute favorite place to eat in Denver is Pete's Kitchen. I know there will be plenty of haters who slam that pick, but Pete's is my comfort zone, my happy place, and a lot of the waitresses there already know what I want the moment I sit down. Pete's just represents Denver in a nutshell for me. On more than one occasion, I've eaten at the counter and had the mayor of Denver sitting on one side of me and some crazy drunk bum on the other side of me, and I think it's pretty damn cool that there's common ground. Gina, the manager and Pete's niece, has literally watched me grow up and knows how long it's been since my parents or I were last in. Plus, I love sitting at the counter and watching the cooks work their short-order magic.
Last meal before you die: An amalgamation of all my favorite Kansas City barbecue: lamb ribs, cheesy corn and baked beans from Jack Stack; pork and beef ribs from Oklahoma Joe's; and beef burnt ends and brisket from Arthur Bryant's, all of it washed down with strawberry cream soda, aka "Red Drink." I always need a nap after barbecue, so I figure if it's going to be my last meal, I might as well go out in a food coma and drift away full and happy.