Kelly Whitaker, exec chef of Pizzeria Basta, on faith and his new restaurant
This is part one of my interview with Kelly Whitaker, exec chef-owner of Pizzeria Basta. Part two of our chat will run tomorrow, and part three will run on Friday.
I have news," declares Kelly Whitaker, sliding his slim body, clad in a T-shirt and jeans, onto one of the wooden benches inside Pizzeria Basta, the wood-fired-inspired restaurant he opened in Boulder in 2010. "You're one of the first to know," he continues, "and I think you're going to be happy. I know we are."
The news, it turns out, is that Whitaker, along with his partners at Id Est Hospitality Group, the company that Whitaker founded when he opened Basta, will have a new restaurant in Denver, on upper Larimer Street, next to Work & Class, another new restaurant that will open in the fall.
By the time you read this, Whitaker will have a name for his new place, but he insists it won't be Pizzeria Basta -- although another one of those could be forthcoming, too.
But while Whitaker will soon have two restaurants under his umbrella, the Tulsa native didn't set out to be a chef or restaurateur. In fact, while he was growing up, he didn't gravitate toward food at all, save for hot dogs, hamburgers and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. "My mom loved to cook, but we were super-picky eaters and wouldn't eat our vegetables," recalls Whitaker, who spent his lazy summers on his grandfather's farm, where vegetables grew in abundance. "I passed most of my time shooting bullfrogs in the pond, although I do remember my grandma propping me up on a stool in the kitchen while she made jams and jellies -- those were amazing -- and she'd mix the peanut butter together with the jelly, which was a revelation. I just stayed away from the vegetables."
He worked at bagel and java joints throughout high school, mostly because he "enjoyed engaging with customers," he says. Cooking came later, while he was attending college at Colorado State University, where he graduated with a degree in hospitality management. While he was there, Whitaker put in time at Ciao Vino, doing sandwich duty and running the kitchen. He left to become a dishwasher at Pulcinella's, a now-closed restaurant that was owned by the same people behind Ciao Vino. "I wanted to start in this industry from the ground up," explains Whitaker, adding that while he was eventually allowed to "plate desserts, bake bread and make pastas, I was always the dishwasher learning the fundamentals."
As part of his degree program, Whitaker also staged in kitchens in Switzerland and Italy, and when he graduated from CSU, he took off for Bend, Oregon, where he worked as a restaurant consultant. But he missed cooking -- and Italy -- so he returned to Naples to sharpen his skills at a fine-dining restaurant. "It was miserable," admits Whitaker, who managed to stick it out for a year. "It was the coldest winter in Naples on record, and I worked myself to the bone with no pay, so, yeah, it was tough." But there was a bonus: staging at other restaurants during his time off, which is when the idea for Basta was hatched. "I spent what little time I had working at restaurants that had wood-fired ovens, doing pizzas mixed with pastas and a little fish -- and that's where I developed the concept for Basta," says Whitaker.
At the time, his girlfriend, Erika -- now his wife -- was living in Los Angeles, and the long-distance relationship was as good a reason as any to join her in California, where he also had job prospects. "I staged at Spago, which was insane, because I didn't even know what the hell it was, and I didn't know anything about anything except for tomatoes, olive oil and basil," remembers Whitaker, who was offered a permanent position there...that he turned down. "I didn't like anything about it," he confesses. "There were eighty cooks in the kitchen, and that's no place for me."
Instead, says Whitaker, he traveled to China for a month to "mess around and stage at dumpling houses." And then returned to L.A., where he was one of the opening chefs for Hatfield's, a restaurant -- and experience -- that Whitaker describes as "incredibly intense." He recalls taking exactly one day off during the year he was there, and calls owner Quinn Hatfield a "raging chef who busted my ass and battled with me the whole time." But, he admits, "We'd always make up, and that year changed my life. It afforded me so many opportunities, and it was a job that connected me to everything and everyone, including Alain Ducasse."
Whitaker eventually left to stage at Manresa, in Los Gatos, California, where his first priority was to "scrub carrots from their biodynamic farm," he recalls. He snuck a bite and had an epiphany. "Of all the great produce I've ever had or worked with, I felt like I was tasting a carrot for the first time in my life. It made me want to write a book with only recipes and cooking techniques of carrots," says Whitaker.
In the meantime, he had married and needed to take some time away from the kitchen to "breathe," he says. So he did some menu consulting and staffing for a restaurant in West Hollywood -- a restaurant that was a wood-fired pizzeria -- and slowly eased his way back behind the line, "playing with pizza dough and implementing what I learned in Italy." From there, Whitaker moved on to Providence, a highly acclaimed restaurant in Los Angeles, where he sailored the fish station, making a whopping $8 an hour. Still, he says, "What I learned there in just a year takes most people three, and once I left, I knew quite a bit about French backbone techniques."
His wife, who had family in Denver, also had a baby in the meantime, so she and Whitaker moved to the Mile High City with aspirations of opening a restaurant that excelled in wood-fired cooking and hospitality. Whitaker had a Denver deal that fell through, but a real-estate developer in Boulder was interested in his wood-fired concept, and in January 2010, he lit the oven at Pizzeria Basta. "We saw the long-term vision of the restaurant -- and the development project -- and we knew that this would be a great place for retail, restaurants and living, so we jumped on it," says Whitaker, who in the following interview weighs in on his faith, his forthcoming Denver restaurant, and hospitality.
How do you describe your food? It's food you want to eat every day. It's complex and rooted in discipline, but presented very simply. For me, hospitality means serving the people, which is why I wanted my first concept to be food that pleases everyone. In the future, I have dreams of doing something more upscale...and more downscale, but pizza is food that everyone can relate to, even if just a few people eat it every day. We offer wood-roasted chicken, beef and fish, too, so guests can come to our restaurant a few times a week and have a different food experience every time.
Ten words to describe you: Confident, scared, happy, sad, focused, confused, chef, dishwasher, believer and doubter.
What are your ingredient obsessions? We use eight different salts at Basta, and each one has a specific place and purpose. Espolette and fennel pollen also work really well with our food, and I love how they're simultaneously soft and flavorful. We use garlic and thyme to finish most of our proteins from the wood-fired oven.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: Basil from Pachamama Organic Farm in Longmont. Every year, Oliver, the farm owner, starts the plants for me, and then I bring them to our raised beds at Basta. We get the basil when they're about eight inches high, and with the help of nutrient-rich organic soil from Pachamama, they flourish on the west side of our building. The result is some of the best basil I've had in my life. You can smell it all over the neighborhood when we pick it, and we think it's a great vessel for building a community.
Food trend you'd like to see in 2013: Simply great food. Everyone is so focused on growth, and while good restaurants are opening every day, I want our chefs and managers to make sure that our food is great -- not good. We can all choose cool paper and write a cool menu with neat foodie words on them, but I'm more concerned with the food that's on the plate and how it's seasoned.
Food trend you'd like to see disappear in 2013: Food trends are important for growth, but if I had to choose, I guess I'd like to see the wood-fired trend slow down. I plan on opening more wood-fired eateries, but it's difficult to cook wood-fired food; it's definitely not for everyone. It seems like there are more and more wood-fired restaurants opening every day, and most of them don't use the ovens properly. I'm pulled in both directions. I love the food and flavor of the wood fire, but the trend makes me want to go back to French flat-tops.
One food you won't touch: Growing up, I only ate hot dogs and hamburgers and I hated vegetables, so my family is freaked out that I turned out to be a cook and vegetable lover. Now I eat everything and am open to trying anything. I've had some questionable flavors on the streets in China, but overall, there's nothing I won't eat.
One food you can't live without: Vegetables. I'm not particularly health-conscious, but vegetables, when they're done properly, are amazing. So many chefs lose site of what's under the steak, but for me, that's our focus.
Favorite childhood food memory: My grandpa Taylor was a farmer, butcher and grocer in Oklahoma, and I spent my summers growing up on his farm, except that I never ate most of the food because I was only into peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Nonetheless, I remember the smell of his cantaloupes in 110-degree weather and my grandma always letting me help her make jam. My grandfather was a hard man, but he had an incredible heart, and I keep a picture of him in my office because he helped me understand that farmers don't need a big personality to be involved in the hospitality industry. I've always looked at farmers in a different way because of him. Now we want to sensationalize them with our food trends and boast the fact that we get our produce from the "best" farmers, and while that's okay, I know that he was just trying to feed his family and doing the best he could with what he had. My grandma is still growing gardens at her house; she's a backyard farmer, and I love that she still grows food for herself and her neighbors. She sends us Oklahoma pecans every year and they've become extremely popular at Basta, and I gave her a shout-out on my menu, which made her cry. I love her so much -- no one has a bigger heart -- and I'm fortunate to still have her and these memories with me.
What's one thing that people would be surprised to know about you? My faith and belief system. I believe in purpose and the human potential, and in this industry, you don't run into a lot of people with faith in something higher. We're not supposed to talk about God, and I'm supposed to have a certain persona as a chef, but I don't live a lie, and I like to talk about it. There just aren't many chefs who I can relate to when it comes to that, but it's who I am.
What's in the pipeline? We just signed a lease on a new restaurant in Denver, at 25th and Larimer. It won't be called Basta, and more details will follow, but suffice it to say that we're super-excited about it. My partners and I were originally looking to do a shipping-container restaurant project with Infinite Monkey Theorem and Ben Parsons, but we ran into some obstacles with the city -- and then we discovered this project, which is ideal for our introduction into the Denver market. In addition to that news, we're also going to renovate Basta in the coming weeks. The biggest change, along with new signage, new furniture and a remodeled exterior, will be an awesome patio with an indoor-outdoor bar.
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