This is part one of my interview with Jonathan Power, executive chef of the Populist. In part two of our chat, which runs tomorrow, Power reveals his favorite Denver restaurants, his fantasy splurge and what he looks for when hiring his kitchen staff.
Jonathan Power never wanted to be a chef. In fact, his career ambition was to become a lawyer. Lawyers -- even bad ones -- can make a ton of money. Chefs -- even the best ones -- aren't exactly known for strutting around in Gucci or Armani. And what money they do collect typically feeds their kitchen. But the restaurant industry is like a magnet, and once you're drawn in, it's difficult to escape its pull. That's the story of Power, the executive chef and co-owner of the Populist.
Power's first job was at a Subway in Broomfield, a gig he took because it worked around his high-school schedule, the work was easy and he had a friend working there. The sixteen-year-old Power didn't mind slinging sandwiches, but he knew that heaping meat and cheese on a roll wasn't the path to success, so he attended a job fair and wound up hired as a prep cook at the now-defunct Bloom. He stayed for just four months, and by the end of his short tenure, he was quite sure of one thing: He didn't want to cook. "I know this is ironic, but I told the chef that I wanted to learn how to cook, and he was happy to teach me, and by the time I left, I knew that cooking was a job that was very much what I didn't want to do," says Power. "These guys were working way, way too hard and working too many hours for not enough money, and I didn't see it as a viable career choice."
He spent the next ten years struggling to stay far away from the kitchen, working in the life- and health-insurance field and attending college at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where he graduated with a philosophy degree. But paying his bills required additional coinage, so he took a kitchen spot with Buca di Beppo and delivered cheesesteaks and sandwiches on his bicycle as a side gig.
And then he moved to Chicago, with the intent of getting what he calls a "real job." He landed a position as an executive assistant to a bigwig...and loathed every moment of it. "I was miserable, and knew that this wasn't what I wanted to do with my life," recalls Power, who eventually took his LSATs to pursue a law degree. He did well enough to get accepted to law school, but his scholarship money fell through, so he returned to Denver.
And to the kitchen. "I went to Root Down one Sunday and ran into a friend of mine who was cooking there, and I didn't have a job, so I did a stage and got hired as a line cook," says Power, who ultimately ended up on sauté after working through all the stations. "Working at Root Down actually made me realize that this was the industry that I wanted to be in, despite the long hours and low pay."
While he was there, he and his wife and two friends started Noble Swine, a reservation-only supper club that hosts single-sitting, multi-course tasting menus at various restaurants around Denver. And shortly after those dinners took off -- and Power left Root Down -- he began charting a course to do his own thing. Along the way, he'd met Noah Price, the owner of Crema Coffee House, and when a mutual friend bestowed some cash on the two, they built a kitchen at Crema. Suddenly the coffeehouse, which has always been lauded for its java, was generating accolades for Power's cooking, too. "We were just doing breakfast and lunch, but it became incredibly popular, and we had lines out the door for six hours straight," Power recalls.
Power was thrilled, but not entirely satisfied. "I really wanted a place where Noah and I could do dinner -- something a skosh more refined than what we were able to do at Crema -- and we wanted a bar and a great wine program," he says. When a building just up the block -- the former Garden Spot Cafe -- became available, Power immediately issued a letter of intent to lease the property. "I'd driven by the building a million times and knew we wanted it, and now that we've opened the Populist and seen all the people who are willing to come with us on this journey -- people who trust us with the menu -- I'm absolutely sure we made the right decision."
And just as soon as the sky becomes sun-smooched, Power and Price will double their occupancy, thanks to a foliage-festooned patio that will also boast a second service bar. "We're super-excited about it, although it's almost like adding another restaurant with the same amount of kitchen space," says Power, who, in the following interview, weighs in on fungus, lusts after Lucky Peach and explains why appropriate seasoning should be front and center in the mind of a chef.
How do you describe your food? Playful, flavorful, deceptively simple, balanced and tasty.
Ten words to describe you: Husband, father, maker of food, drinker of spirits and liver of lover of the good life. That's ten if you drop the prepositions, right?
What are your ingredient obsessions? Fungus and offal. Huitlacoche, especially, packs an amazing depth of flavor, and it's incredibly underutilized. The fact that United States farmers burn the corn that carries it, which means we have to import most of it, is a real shame. And for meat, the guys at Tender Belly, which is right across the street from us, have been bringing us all sorts of off-cuts. We've gotten some Berkshire pork temple meat from them, and it's got all the flavor of jowls, but much less connective tissue. A well-seasoned braise turns them into these meltingly delicious medallions of pork.
What are your kitchen-gadget obsessions? They may not be gadgets, per se, but I have a pretty serious spoon habit; you can never have too many. There are so many variations in shape and size to use for different things, although my large Kunz is invariably my go-to spoon.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: Oxford Gardens' kale, for sure. It's super-flavorful, but delicate enough that it needn't be cooked. Massage it a little with a fairly high-acid vinaigrette, and it makes a brilliant salad green.
One ingredient that you won't touch: Portobello mushrooms. Maybe I just ate too many of them while I was a vegetarian, but I just can't bring myself to use them. There's no fat and no flavor, and they have a terrible texture.
Food trend you'd like to see in 2013: Modern American food served dim-sum style. State Bird Provisions, a restaurant in San Francisco, is doing a great job at this. I'd love to see something in that vein here in Denver.
Food trend you'd like to see disappear in 2013: It's not a recent trend, but I think the ban on raw milk is just absurd. I fully understand the good intentions that caused the formation of the law, but I believe that consumers should have the choice without having to purchase shares in a cow. With rates of malnutrition and obesity so high, you'd think as a country we'd welcome such a nutritious and healthful food as opposed to the high-temp pasteurization killing off nearly everything beneficial about it. One food you detest: Cooked salmon. I love it raw, but it just does nothing for me when it's cooked. While raw, it has this beautiful briny quality to it. Once it's hot, all I taste is fish oil.
One food you can't live without: Cheese, in nearly any form. Brillat-Savarin said it well: "A dessert without cheese is like a beautiful woman with only one eye."
Favorite dish on your menu: Our "bacon-and-egg" dish. I love the balance of sweet, salt and fat. It's such a well known pairing, but the format here is so unique.
Biggest menu bomb: We had sea bass on our first menu, and once we got it tweaked, it sold quite well, but for the staff training, we put the dish up with crispy skin, preserved lemon, kale and kabocha squash purée, and it was met with just silence. Needless to say, no one was impressed. It lacked any textural variety at all. We turned it around, though, and it became one of our better-selling dishes for a spell.
Weirdest customer request: The "no salt" request. It's pretty challenging for us to put together a satisfying meal without it. We're happy to work with most dietary sensitivities, but we still hold pretty high standards for ourselves and the way we prepare our food, so to forgo something as essential as salt just doesn't allow us to demonstrate our craft.
Weirdest thing you've ever put in your mouth: I don't find much food all that weird, but maybe live baby crabs?
What's always lurking in your refrigerator? Eggs from our three hens and two ducks. When it's laying season, it's hard to keep up with eating them. And when our goats are producing milk, there's always more than I can use of that, too.
Most memorable meal you've ever had: For our anniversary, my wife, Emily, and I flew back to Chicago for a wedding and managed to snag a reservation at Schwa. They have such a high caliber of food but no front-of-the-house staff, plus it's BYOB, the cooks run all the food, and the dining room plays whatever music the kitchen has on (when we ate there, it was all Doomtree hip-hop, all night long). It's a super-different experience and lots of fun, but not at all like anywhere else I've eaten.
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What's in the pipeline? Patio weather. We have a lovely patio here that we haven't been able to take advantage of yet, but when the weather warms up, it'll be a great place to eat and drink. We're thrilled to have additional seats, nearly doubling our size, which will allow people to enjoy both our food and the beautiful Denver weather.