John Little, chef of Harman's Eat & Drink: "I'm a workaholic"
2900 East Second Avenue
This is part two of my interview with John Little, exec chef of Harman's Eat & Drink; part one of our chat ran yesterday.
Most incredible meal you've ever eaten: I used to work at Blackberry Farm in Tennessee, where they host amazing dinners with just about every great chef you can think of, and I had the pleasure of cooking with Thomas Keller and the chefs de cuisine from all of his restaurants. Specifically, I was teamed up with Jonathan Benno, who was the chef de cuisine at Per Se at the time, and it just so happened that I was going to New York the following week for a Star Chefs event, and he said that I should stop by the restaurant for dinner. I e-mailed him two days before to confirm but got no response, so I decided to just do what he asked and "stop by." I remember nervously telling the hostess my story while she looked at me like I was a bit crazy, but then she took me in the kitchen where they had a seat set up, and from there, they sent out close to twenty courses of perfection, except that my last savory course -- it somehow seemed like an à la carte portion and not a tasting-size portion -- made me so stuffed that I didn't think I could eat anything else. But instead of tapping out, I went to the bathroom and puked so I could just taste dessert. Five courses later, I was happy I did, because it was the most amazing food I've ever put in my mouth -- and watching such a talented crew turn out such perfection was just incredible. After dessert, they gave me a kitchen tour and then sent me on my way. Experiences like this change the way you look at food, the way you treat people, and your general outlook on what hospitality is really all about. It changed me as a person.
What cookbooks and/or food-related reading material do you draw inspiration from? Culinary Artistry, my favorite book, is compiled by some incredible chefs who focus on a lot more than just recipes: They talk about balancing acidity, seasonality and other important aspects. It's a book that teaches you about what pairs well with what, and it shows you flavor profiles, forcing you to come up with your own ideas rather than stealing recipes. I actually just bought four copies -- one for me, because mine is falling apart, and three for my sous chefs.
Favorite dish on your menu right now: Pan-roasted scallops with coriander spaetzle, Olathe sweet corn, jalapeño, cilantro and avocado mousse. It's pretty simple, but everything just pops. It's something I'd like to cook on my day off.
What dish would you love to put on your menu, regardless of how well it would sell? I'd love to put a squab course with some sort of foie sauce on the menu, but it doesn't fit our concept. It's such a tasty treat that's woefully underappreciated, and a lot of diners get freaked out when their bird isn't cooked well done.
Weirdest thing you've ever put in your mouth: Horse tartare at Black Hoof in Toronto. So amazing.
Best recipe tip for a home cook: Taste, taste, taste. Don't lose sight of the fact that you're creating the dish, not the recipe, because recipes are a dime a dozen. Does it need more acid or more salt? Would you rather add oregano than thyme because it pairs better with everything else you're cooking? Make it your own; don't be handcuffed by a recipe.
What specific requests would you ask of Denver diners? Come to Cherry Creek. So many people think that Cherry Creek has a certain reputation, but we're here to change that. We want to be that neighborhood joint with crazy-good food and drinks in an unpretentious atmosphere. It doesn't matter who you are, what you're wearing, or what kind of car you drive.
Most underrated Denver restaurant: Euclid Hall. I think chef Jorel Pierce and his crew turn out amazingly good and fun food, especially considering the numbers they do and the size of their line. And their beer list is second to none, as far as restaurants in the area go. Don't miss the cocktails, either. I used to make excuses to visit Denver when I was living in Basalt, just to nerd out on great drinks and food at Euclid Hall.
Who's the most underrated chef in Denver? In the grand scheme of things, most Denver chefs are underrated. There's an amazing food scene here, but the rest of the nation has yet to discover it. I mean, really, it took until 2013 before a Denver chef won a James Beard award? We should all be excited for the bright future of this great city. If I had to choose one chef, though, it would be Jeff Osaka, from twelve. He really pushes himself, I love his concept of monthly menu changes, and I love what he does for the chefs' community, plus he's just one of those people who really has his shit together -- I respect that.
What do you expect from a restaurant critic? I think anonymity is the best way to keep it fair.
What advice would you give to an aspiring young chef? Be humble, work your ass off, come in early, stay late, stage at other restaurants, travel, read, ask questions, be dedicated, take notes, have a good attitude, smile, respect everyone, never settle, never be complacent, and understand that you're going to be a line cook for a very long time until someone gives you a chance. And when they do, then work harder and push yourself every single day. You don't need to go to culinary school if you can manage to do those things.
What skills and attributes do you look for when hiring kitchen staff? A great personality, work ethic and speed -- in that order. I really don't care how much experience you have. If you have the desire to learn, I can teach you. People coming from high-end restaurants usually don't work out because they think they already know everything, and that can sometimes lead to losing focus of the big picture.
What's your biggest challenge as a chef working in Denver? Finding staff and product. It's difficult with so many restaurants opening at such a rapid speed, and since I'm new to town, I haven't made a name for myself.
Biggest mistake a chef can make on the line: The assumption that cooks know what you're looking for. If you want consistency as a chef, then you need to show and teach your crew the way things should be done.
What's your biggest pet peeve? Laziness. Hold yourself to a high standard, and take the extra second to do the right thing.
Your best traits: My work ethic and leadership skills.
Your worst traits: I'm a workaholic.
If you could cook in another chef's kitchen, whose would it be? David Chang has the ability to look at an ingredient and see it at face value, and he has no problem thinking out of the box and asking "What if...?" I'd also like to cook in Wylie Dufresne's kitchen; I just really love his approach to food and his wild and crazy spins.
What would you cook for those same chefs if they came to your restaurant? Our pork dessert: cake-batter ice cream, marinated blueberries, crispy pork belly, bacon caramel and cinnamon-sugar pork rinds. It's fantastic.
If you had the opportunity to open your own restaurant with no budget constraints, what kind of restaurant would you open? Something similar to Blackberry Farm in Tennessee; I'd have a kitchen on my own farm.
When guests want to thank you for a meal that really wows them, what do you wish they'd send to the kitchen? I don't expect anything from them, but if they enjoy their experience, I'd love it if they told their friends.
Biggest moment of euphoria in the kitchen: Doing a magical porchetta in a wood-fired oven with chef Ryan Hardy, who was a guest chef at Blackberry Farm. I'd never seen anything like this, and I was absolutely mesmerized...so simplistic, yet so inspiring.
Craziest night in the kitchen: A few years back, someone called in a bomb threat in downtown Aspen on New Year's Eve, which meant that most restaurants had to close for the night. Fortunately for us, we were outside of the bomb-scare area, so we had hundreds of people cramming their way into our restaurant. I was in charge of the bar menu at the time, and that was where everyone was congregating. In the middle of our rush, I nicked the tip of my finger off. The chef at the time told me to go home, but instead I taped my finger up, cleaned it up, tied it off and got back to work. That night we did almost as much in sales in the bar area as the whole restaurant, and I ended up winning employee of the month, even though I'd only been there for two weeks.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef: The success of the Pullman in Glenwood Springs. This was my first chef de cuisine role, and we opened in a town where everyone said it wouldn't work. Finding staff would be tough, they told us; finding the right audience to do fun and creative food would be even harder. We didn't care. We were going to cook great food at an honest price and roll the dice, and soon we were receiving national attention. But really what I'm most proud of is the team that I was able to build. That restaurant runs as a true family.
What's always lurking in your refrigerator? I'm a beer nerd and somewhat of a hoarder, so I always have around twelve to twenty different beers in my fridge. I never want to drink the last of anything, so there are always different things floating around.
Last meal before you die: Maryland blue crabs and an amazing Colorado craft beer.
If you hadn't become a chef, what would you be doing right now? Probably photography.
What's in the pipeline? We have a beer dinner coming up with Great Divide on Thursday, August 29, and we're are also looking to do month-long beer, wine or spirit dinners with one set-paired menu featuring a local artisan and just eight seats, with one seating per night. It will give us a creative outlet to go a bit bigger and do some things that aren't practical on our normal menu.
What's next for Denver's culinary scene? I'd like to see someone steal a page from Birch & Barley in Washington, D.C. It's a beer-focused fine-dining restaurant with around 555 beers and a beer sommelier, so they approach beer as if it were wine, with pairings. I think a setting like this would be perfect to showcase some of the outstanding beers that Colorado is producing. It would be a place where you can find Crooked Stave and other small producers showcasing their amazing talents.
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.