Jorge de la Torre, dean of culinary education at Johnson & Wales University, dishes on Denver's best hummus, his students and surly service
Jorge de la Torre
Johnson & Wales University
This is part one of Lori Midson's interview with Jorge de la Torre, dean of culinary education at Johnson & Wales University. Part two of that interview will run in this space tomorrow.
"I'm a little worried about this interview," confesses Jorge de la Torre. "We call it the Chef and Tell curse on campus because the last two guys you interviewed who taught here -- Eric Stein and Mark DeNittis -- are no longer around."
But de la Torre, the dean of culinary education at Johnson & Wales University, swears on his chef's coat that he has no intention of leaving. "I absolutely love the students. The majority of them come in really interested and asking lots of questions, and that reinvigorates me, keeps me on my toes and makes me rethink the basics of cooking," says the 42-year-old chef, who first stepped foot in a professional kitchen when he was eighteen and living in Albuquerque.
"I was in architect school, but in my heart I knew I wanted to be a chef, so I told my parents that I wanted to go to culinary school, and my dad, who hated the idea, found the nastiest chef he could in Albuquerque and told him to kick my ass," recalls de la Torre. But the chef who whipped his butt convinced the aspiring cook that such culinary rigor was exactly what he was looking for. "I loved everything about working in a restaurant -- the adrenaline, the cooking, the customers, everything -- so I was like, thanks, Dad, that was great."
Still, his father pushed him to collect his college degree, which he did -- in business, not architecture -- and the day following his graduation, de la Torre immediately applied to the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco. With a duo of degrees in hand, he did time in kitchens in San Francisco, Hawaii and Vail until 2001, when he sold the restaurant he owned in Vail. "I knew I still wanted to be involved with cooking, but I took some time to figure out what the hell I wanted to do and what other opportunities existed outside of restaurants," he remembers.
And that's when de la Torre became interested in education. "My now-wife was studying law at Rutgers," he says, "and I found a job opening as an instructor at a culinary school in Pennsylvania, and that's when I fell in love with teaching."
After his wife graduated, they moved back west, to Denver, where de la Torre was hired as an instructor at Johnson & Wales; a week later, he was the assistant director; three years later, in 2004, he became the university's dean of culinary education.
In the following interview, de la Torre dishes on his students, extols the virtues of a locally made hummus, makes a plea to the front-of-the-house staffs of Denver restaurants and admits that he's obsessed with Pop-Tarts.
Six words to describe your food: Global, eclectic, playful, classic and properly seasoned.
Ten words to describe you: Dedicated, genial, introspective, thoughtful, self-deprecating, funny, sarcastic and family-oriented.
Culinary inspirations: My parents took my brother and me to restaurants starting at a very young age, and we were taught to enjoy all styles of food -- if there was something new on the table, we had to try it -- and we were very experimental with food. My family is from Bolivia, so their comfort food was "exotic" to my friends, while barbecue, macaroni and cheese and meatloaf were dishes I ate when I was at a friend's house. I find just as much inspiration in a jar of Hormel pickled pig's feet as I do in a dish at a three-star Michelin restaurant. I know that chefs are supposed to sound like they want to make everything from scratch because they can do it better, it's organic, they know the farmer, it's healthier, blah, blah, blah, but no one has yet to make a better ketchup than Heinz. True, you can make a tomato sauce that's good -- it's just not Heinz ketchup. Every once in a while, even a Pop-Tart just tastes good. Chefs who have fun in the kitchen, love what they're doing and want to serve people -- they inspire me. I watch José Andrés and think, "Damn, he's having a good time." Being fortunate enough to travel the world also inspires me, although my wife cringes whenever we go to a new city, because I'm always looking for a farmers' market, supermarket or any other food market to visit.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef: Whenever I turn someone on to a new flavor combination, food product or ethnic style. That's what's so great about my job -- watching future culinary professionals get excited about new foods, techniques and flavors. I love it when someone tells me that they don't like a certain dish, but then, when they try mine, they tell me that they never knew it was supposed to taste like that. It happens all the time. And I love it when my kids' friends eat my food -- food that they don't eat anywhere else -- or when I see the light go on in a student's head when he tastes something for the first time.
Best recent food find: I'm also the cheese ambassador for the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board, so I'm always on the lookout for new things to pair with cheeses, and I recently found these jars of green walnuts in syrup, which you can find in a lot of the ethnic markets in Denver. They're these ridiculously good black walnuts that are picked while still in the green husk before the shells harden. They're the "wow" factor.
Most underrated ingredient: Grains like quinoa. It has such a great flavor, and it's grown right here in Colorado. Farro, barley and amaranth are also really tasty and good alternatives to the usual side dishes. I also think dried mushrooms are the best bang for the buck; they've got a great concentrated flavor and produce a flavorful stock after being reconstituted.
Most overrated ingredient: Okay, here's the funny part: I love pork in all forms, but I'm tired of seeing pork belly on 98 percent of Denver menus. It's lost its splendor, and it seems to be on most menus because it has to be -- not because a chef is doing something great with it. It's becoming the Caesar salad of this decade. I know you could say the same thing about bacon, but you should never talk bad about bacon.
Favorite ingredient: I like salt in all forms: smoked, pink, black, red, sea, kosher, flavored and salt pork. I tell my students that when properly used, it enhances everything it touches, from fish to whipped cream. That's the key, though: proper use, and too often, when I go out to eat, there's either too much or too little.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: The hummus from Arash International Market in Aurora. It's heavier on the tahini and lighter on the garbanzo beans, and it's like no other hummus you've ever tasted. I'm also addicted to the green garbanzos and sweet limes at Rancho Liborio. The green garbanzos are soft, like peas, and have a fantastic flavor, and it's really rare to find green garbanzos fresh. The sweet limes remind me of being in Bolivia.
Favorite spice: Saffron and smoked paprika from Spain. My family has roots in Spain, and the fragrance and flavor of saffron and smoked paprika reminds me of so many family dishes. Saffron is really good in sweet dishes, too. My dad would tell me that trained monkeys picked the saffron from trees and that's why it was so expensive and came in such small quantities. It still has such an air of luxury for me.
One food you detest: Avocados. I shudder at the mere thought of them. The texture, mouthfeel and flavor -- everything about them is wrong. And I'm a guy who will eat anything, anywhere, any time.
One food you can't live without: There isn't one food that I couldn't live without, really, mostly because there are so many other great foods out there to make up for it. If pushed, though, I'd say chocolate. Pho would be right up there, too. That's the perfect dish with the right balance of sweet, spicy, sour, bitter and umami. Pho and menudo cure all ills.
Biggest kitchen disaster: I was interviewing for a job in Palo Alto and was told on a Thursday that I was a finalist and had to cook for the owner on Monday morning at 9 a.m. I had tickets to a concert in Las Vegas on Saturday night, returning Sunday -- but on Sunday, all the flights from Vegas to San Francisco were canceled due to weather. We booked a flight to Los Angeles, got there late, and I let my friend drive the first half of the way so I could sleep, only to wake up at 2 a.m. on the side of the road because the pass north of Los Angeles was closed due to a freak snowstorm. This was before cell phones and e-mail, so we pulled over at a truck stop to make the "I'm going to be late" phone call. I got there two hours late, cooked, went to the back alley and barfed from nerves. I have no idea how I got the job -- I was completely off-kilter and completely off my game. I cut my finger within the first half second, I overcooked the fish, and nothing came out the way it was supposed to. I was mortified.
Rules of conduct in your classroom: The university rules are very strict. We have an attendance policy; no excused absences. Classes run in nine-day segments for six hours a day, and if you miss more than one class, you're done and have to take the class over again. We don't allow any body piercings or facial hair, with the exception of a mustache; no makeup or jewelry is allowed; and uniforms have to be perfectly ironed. We try to teach people that there are no excuses -- that you have to come to class prepared and have your mise en place. The students learn things the hard way or the easy way. We teach, but don't coddle, and we hold very high standards. I tell my students that the restaurant is about the only place where you let a perfect stranger give you something to put in your mouth -- and those customers are fully trusting that you're clean, sanitary and ethical. The other important rule is to be productive; don't be a problem in the kitchen. Whenever other chefs come to talk to the students, their number-one piece of advice is to be humble, hardworking, passionate, responsible and respectful. There's no talk about having "mad skills" on the line; those can be taught.
What's never in your classroom? Bad attitudes. I don't care if you're a great chef; a bad attitude won't stop you from getting fired. Keep your head down and let your work speak for itself. I won't allow prima donnas, either; you've got to work well with everyone, just as you do in a professional kitchen. And there's no Gordon Ramsay type of behavior in my classroom and no soft drinks or smoking. They kill your tastebuds, and your tastebuds are a tool of the trade.
What's always in your classroom? People with a genuine desire to be there. When I worked for the restaurants of Vail Resorts, prospects would come to interview and ask, "What are the least amount of hours I have to work to get a ski pass?" That was their first question! You can't build a team if your heart isn't in the job. The kitchen is about teamwork. There's always music playing in my classroom, too, and there's always creativity and spoons so the chefs can taste. Everyone is a taste-tester. And salt is always nearby. Students are so timid with their use of salt, so I always need to add a little more.
What you'd like to see more of in Denver from a culinary standpoint: I'd really like to see restaurants put the same amount of consideration into the front of the house as they do for their chefs and menus. There are great food options here, and we have really talented chefs in this city doing great things, but, as I often tell my students, it takes more than just great food to make an awesome restaurant experience. When I go to my favorite pho shop, taquería or dim sum restaurant, if my water isn't refilled, certain items are 86'd, or if the interior is a little dingy, I'm okay with that, because I'm having a fantastic meal for two for under $20. But when the details fall by the wayside at a fine-dining restaurant, I don't care how good the food is. If the front of the house doesn't match it, it makes me feel slighted -- and that frustrates me.
What you'd like to see less of in Denver from a culinary standpoint: Less attitude from the front-of-the-house staff. Recently, I called a local restaurant to make a reservation -- it was for a special occasion -- and the guy who answered the phone cut me off and told me to go to opentable.com to make a reservation, which I'd already tried to do, but it was for a ten-top, and I wasn't allowed to make a reservation for ten on Opentable. I called back and asked to talk to the chef, who wasn't there, so I asked to leave a voice mail and the guy insisted on taking a message -- but the chef never called me back. This happens all over town. We have great chefs, but the front of the house is not up to par with the kitchens.
Favorite dish to cook at home: Skirt steak on the grill with chimichurri and llajua, a Bolivian salsa. My kids, Gabriella and Jordi, love it, and it takes just minutes to make. We pair it with an arugula salad, and it reminds Kelly, my wife, and me of our time in Buenos Aires.
Favorite class that you teach: Intro to baking and pastry. Ironically, it's usually the culinary students who don't want to do pastry -- they don't think it's cool -- that walk away from the class liking it the most. A lot of them hate that it's all about weights and measures, but a pastry chef can be equally as creative, if not more so, than a chef. I also love when there's a bread class being taught. I try to time it with the roasted bones out of the soups, stocks and sauces class so I can spoon out the marrow and feast.
Last meal before you die: Maybe eating Pop-Tarts around the kitchen table. As long as my last meal is with the ones I love and care about, it doesn't matter what I eat.
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