John Little, exec chef of Harman's Eat & Drink: "I find inspiration everywhere"
2900 East Second Avenue
This is part one of my interview with John Little, exec chef of Harman's Eat & Drink; part two of our chat will run tomorrow.
My mom was a pretty terrible cook," laments John Little. "She worked all the time, so TV dinners were pretty prominent in my life as a kid -- and when my mom did cook, she never cooked with salt."
Little, today the exec chef at Harman's Eat & Drink, discovered the flavor enhancer when he was around seven and hanging out at his nanny's house. "I remember having salt the first time and thinking what a magical substance it was," he recalls, "so I'd try and stay there for dinner or hit up a friend's house where the parents salted their food."
Salt was his first culinary epiphany, crème brûlée his second. "My sister's boyfriend was going to culinary school to be a pastry chef, and he made me a crème brûlée that was a life-changing experience. I got pretty excited about what food could really be like after eating it for the first time," says Little, who got his first restaurant gig soon after, scrubbing plates at a diner. "I slowly moved my way up to a line cook, and while it was a shitty diner, I just loved the restaurant and kitchen atmosphere."
He went on to cook in various kitchens in Maryland before finishing high school and moving to Miami, where he enrolled in an advanced-standing culinary program, earning an associate's degree just nine months after he started. He cooked at restaurants operated by star chefs Norman Van Aken and David Bouley, but his most significant experience, Little says, was cooking at a fine-dining restaurant owned by a former colleague. "It was a restaurant that was only around for six months -- they didn't have the financial capital -- but the food and ingredients were simply amazing, and working there made me realize that this industry wasn't just about cooking, but about running a business," he acknowledges.
He also realized that south Florida sucks. "I hated Miami," he says. "There's no working class there; people either drive a Lamborghini or they're begging for money, so there weren't a lot of people who I could relate to or just have a beer with at a bar."
He began searching for other opportunities and found one at Blackberry Farm, a pastoral resort in the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee with a reputation for bringing in some of the best chefs in the country. "I'd heard it had a phenomenal restaurant -- now it has two -- and I knew it was something that I wanted to be a part of," says Little, who breathed the same air as guest chefs Thomas Keller, Grant Achatz and David Chang, all of whom have cooked at Blackberry Farm. "To this day, it was still the best experience I've ever had." But there was a downside, too: "It's in the middle of nowhere, and you can only go to the same bar for so long, so it was just time for me to do something different somewhere else."
And he had a good option: Ryan Hardy, the former exec chef of the Little Nell in Aspen, had also cooked as a guest chef at Blackberry Farm, and Little soon joined Hardy as a line cook at the ritzy mountain resort. Hardy, however, didn't stick around long -- and neither did Little, who lasted only two months. "There were a lot of changes in the kitchen, Ryan had left and the season died, so my hours were cut and I left," says Little, who suddenly found himself, along with two friends, motoring across the United States and Canada in tour buses, cooking for Keith Urban and his wife, Nicole Kidman. "The biggest nightmare was having to bake a birthday cake for Nicole in Arizona, where it was hotter than hell and everything was melting," he recalls.
The gig lasted nine months, and Little was getting ready to head to Denver when he got sidetracked by Mark Fischer, the chef-owner of the Pullman in Glenwood Springs, Town in Carbondale, and Six89, another Carbondale restaurant that Fischer closed last year. "I sent a resumé to Mark for a sous-chef position at Six89 and got the job, and to this day, he's easily the best person I've ever worked for," says Little, who was later promoted to exec chef at the Pullman. He finally made it to Denver, where he did a very brief stint at the now-shuttered Red Star Deli, then rejoined Fischer at Harman's, the restaurant he opened this summer in the former home of Phat Thai in Cherry Creek.
"We're doing good, honest food here, and when I wake up in the morning, my goal is to push myself and keep getting better -- that's what drives me," says Little, who in the following interview defines what it means to be a chef, admits that a pork intervention might be on the horizon, and recalls the dinner that changed his life.
What do you enjoy most about your craft? I enjoy how humbling cooking can be. You could spend your whole life studying something as simple as pasta and still not know everything there is to know. It's truly amazing when you learn something new every day. It's also humbling when you wake up and realize that you still really don't know shit after all these years.
Who, or what, inspires you? I find inspiration everywhere: farmers' markets, great meals, bad meals, other chefs, blogs, traveling and history. You can find inspiration just about anywhere if you keep your eyes peeled.
Describe your approach to cooking: I like cooking food that I enjoy eating -- nothing overly fussy, but food that has the right balance of texture, color and flavor. I also really enjoy lesser cuts of meat that some people tend to overlook -- cuts like lamb shoulder, hanger steaks, pig skin, pig ears, pig tails, livers and, for that matter, any offal. The goal is to always showcase your product without blurring the lines with forty garnishes.
What are your ingredient obsessions? Pork is such a magical ingredient, because there's no limit to what you can do with a whole pig; every piece of that animal can be used. Every year, the chefs at our sister restaurants cook at this small nonprofit farm called Sustainable Settings for their harvest fest, and we have pretty much free rein of everything on the farm to use for the dinner. That includes milk, eggs, vegetables and pigs and goats, which means that we've had to pull the trigger on a few animals, but going through that experience is one of the most important culinary experiences I've ever had. Taking an animal's life gives you an amazing amount of respect for your food, and so many times you lose sight of what's important and what might be going in the trash -- but with pork, there really isn't anything that needs to go in the trash. It's like a living Rubik's cube, and when you're breaking a pig down, it's fun to try to achieve just that.
What are your kitchen-gadget obsessions? Spoonulas -- spoon-shaped rubber spatulas -- especially the older ones from Le Creuset, are amazing for picking up risottos and scraping the last bit of ingredients out of a container. I also love my Vitamix blender for sauces, purées, pâtés, soups and pulverizing almost anything into flour.
Favorite local ingredients and purveyors: Right now it's Olathe corn. I always get super-excited when new ingredients come into season, and Olathe corn is extremely versatile, because you can use it in both savory and sweet applications. It also has a high fun factor, in that eating corn triggers great childhood memories for just about everyone, which always brings a smile to their faces.
One ingredient you won't touch: Lavender. Please leave this in your grandmother's perfume.
One ingredient you can't live without: Pork. My chef, Mark Fischer, says he's close to having a pork intervention with me.
Food trend you'd like to see in 2013: I'd love to see more foraging. I was extremely lucky to work at Six89 in the small town of Carbondale during its incredible sixteen-year run, and I already miss the mountains. During the summer, we always had random people knocking on our back door with baskets full of wild mushrooms, nettles, berries, juniper, wild watercress and other random surprises. It's so fun to use wild ingredients that really give you a sense of what's local, and one of our favorite things to do on our days off was to "urban forage." I have plenty of great stories from foraging with Bryce Orblom, the chef of our sister restaurant Town -- everything from shaking fruit off our neighbor's apricot trees, to playing a round of golf and filling our golf cart with apples and pears, to finding edible "weeds" growing just outside our back door.
Food trend you'd like to see disappear in 2013: The public's idea of a chef or celebrity chef. So many people want to be chefs, but half of those people have no idea what it's like to actually work in a busy kitchen. I'm so over the word "chef." Most people don't realize it comes from the French term for "head" or "director," and isn't meant to refer to just everyone who picks up a knife to cook. You shouldn't expect to go to culinary school and then be a chef in the next five years. It takes a lot of hard work and experience as a cook before you can work your way up the ranks to the point of calling yourself a chef -- and even if you get there, it probably won't be like what you see on your favorite Food Network show.
What recent innovation has most influenced the restaurant industry in a significant way? Yelp. Holy crap! It's amazing how much Yelp can impact a restaurant, especially restaurants that are off the beaten path. There are a ton of amazing Yelp reviews of our sister restaurant, the Pullman, in Glenwood Springs, and we get a lot of traffic because people find us on there as they pass through on I-70. Some people take their reviews a bit too far, but I usually enjoy reading the reviews because of the immediate guest contact you get, good or bad.
Favorite culinary-related gift you've been given: As dumb as it sounds, a paint scraper. At a very young age, I had some amazing chefs give me great direction, and one chef in particular gave me a paint scraper to clean the grill on my station. He explained to me that it needed to be deep-cleaned every night and treated as if it were my own. As simple as it was, it really helped me to gain a sense of ownership and forced me look at the small details.
Favorite culinary-related item to give as a gift: Culinary Artistry. I usually purchase that book for all my sous chefs.
What's your fantasy splurge? I'd love to purchase a badass smoker for the restaurant. I love the versatility of a smoker and the depth of flavor that it adds to meats, vegetables and sauces.
What's one thing that people would be surprised to know about you? I'm a die-hard Baltimore Ravens fan. Sorry, Denver.
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