Oak Tavern's Jeremy Roosa plays with sharp knives, ballyhoos the virtues of acidity, boohoos iceberg lettuce and sings the praises of the spatula
Jeremy Roosa, exec chef of the Oak Tavern
1414 Market Street
"I dress like a clown, I play with food, fire and sharp knives, and they pay me. Does it get any more fun than that?" asks Jeremy Roosa. The executive chef of Oak Tavern, a LoDo watering hole that serves sandwiches, salads and gourmet baked potatoes the size of Boise, is tricked out in a black chef's coat, darker than a cold heart, with blue piping, warning me to watch my head as we descend the stairs into his squat kitchen. "It's completely nuts in here when we're really busy," says Roosa.
The 36-year-old chef, who hails from Troy, New York -- it's the "armpit of America," insists Roosa -- was on his way to California back in 1997 when he skidded into Boulder to visit his best friend. "It's like a lot of people who stop in Colorado on their way to California: They never leave, and neither did I," says Roosa, who spent more than ten years bopping around various kitchens in Boulder, including the Bookend Cafe, where he learned to make pastry, Jax Fish House, Q's, the now-defunct Oasis Brewery, Jose Muldoon's, L'Atelier and Chautauqua Dining Hall, where he got the opportunity to work with Bradford Heap, now the chef/owner of Salt Bistro in Boulder and Colterra in Niwot. "Man, I learned a lot from Bradford, like how to break down a leg of lamb and take my art to the next level," he recalls.
Roosa moved to Denver in 2006, working off and on as a line cook at Rioja for three years before moving to the Oak Tavern when it opened in July of last year. "You have to take risks to make your money," says Roosa, who, up until last week, also worked in the kitchen at TAG with Troy Guard, a chef whose cooking style Roosa says mirrors his own. "I've worked for or interviewed with nearly every notable restaurant in town, and I think Troy just does an amazing job, especially with ingredients," he says. Roosa also sings the praises of Alex Seidel, Wayne Conwell and Jennifer Jasinki in the following interview. But don't even get him started on Anthony Bourdain, Emeril Lagasse or Gordon Ramsay, and whatever you do, don't even think about ordering a cheese plate at his restaurant.
Six words to describe your food: Not bar food, inspiring, comforting and satisfying.
Ten words to describe you: Intelligent, charming, extravagant, meticulous, outgoing, animated, driven, passionate, sassy and feisty.
Culinary inspirations: I think every chef has some famous chef that they look up to, that they want to emulate. Then you have the local chefs that you worked for who taught you a few things along the way. Of course, every season brings new and fresh ingredients that inspire me, and then there's always that one thing that happened to you as a child that got you into cooking. But for me, the main inspiration comes from doing research for a new menu. I was sought after, and hired, to open a new local restaurant a few years ago, at a place that will remain nameless, but the concept I was given was Colorado just over 100 years ago, and to be honest, I didn't have a clue, so the research began, starting with finding out which nationalities settled in Colorado and then what did they eat. The things I learned are still in my repertoire, but unfortunately for that restaurant, after tasting over forty dishes that I cooked, they told me my food was so good that it would overshadow the wine. Really? Let's just say they're not really known for their food. Here at the Tavern, I cook all things American, and it's really fun when I stop by a table and can tell the customer a little bit about the history of the dish from the research I've done. The day you stop learning is the day you die.
Favorite ingredient: In the early days I would have said garlic, but I'm Italian, so what else was there? Now I'm really into ginger. The one bad thing about ginger, though, is that I don't really get to use it that much in my cooking, because most of what I make is American.
Most overrated ingredient: Tuna. There really are so many other fish in the sea. Sustainability from every angle needs to be our main focus with every depleting food resource. There was a recent meeting of all the world powers to discuss setting fishing seasons and limits -- much like the pollution-level meetings that were held when George W. Bush was in office. At those meetings, Bush basically told the world to fuck off, and at the recent meetings discussing fishing, Japan basically did the same thing concerning tuna. We need to be smarter as a general populace. Does every restaurant really need tuna on the menu, especially when the presentation is normally far from original or inspiring? No.
Most undervalued ingredient: Acidity. Make any one of your favorite dishes, and if it doesn't already have acid in it, try adding some type of vinegar or citric juice. The difference is remarkable. If I make a dish that just isn't quite there, most of the time all it needs is a little more acid. I teach everyone in my kitchen this important lesson.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: The chicken from Red Bird Farms. It's all natural, with no preservatives, no hormones, no steroids, and it's never, ever frozen. It's tender and juicy every time.
Best recent food find: TAG recently turned me onto myoga, which just so happens to be the flowering bud of ginger -- awesome. You can get it at Pacific Mercantile. I haven't had a chance to use it yet, but I have several ideas waiting and ready. We recently catered an event where we had to make Moroccan cuisine, except that I've never cooked one Moroccan dish in my entire life, so I did my usual research and discovered an amazing blend of spices called ras el hanout. The name means "head of the shop," which refers to a mixture of the best spices you'll ever have. The combination can be anywhere from 17 to 69 different herbs and spices -- one recipe even called for over a hundred. That seemed like a bit much, so we came up with our own recipe and marinated some lamb with it and then served it with tfaya -- onion, saffron and golden-raisin jam -- and after eating it, they immediately booked another party.
One food you detest: Iceberg lettuce. It is almost 96 percent water, has almost no nutritional value and tastes like nothing.
One food you can't live without: I know it's a bit cliché, but I would have to say lobster. My grandparents have a house on Cape Cod, and at some point during the vacation, we would have lobster for dinner. My sister and I would always go with Grandpa and pick out the ones we wanted -- obviously a big thrill to any kid. There was nothing special about the presentation -- just some melted butter -- but we'd spend hours making sure we didn't miss one piece of meat. These days I like to fancy it up a bit, maybe with brown butter, nutmeg and bing-cherry yogurt sauce, or maybe with old-world roasted kambocha, vanilla and a coconut-ginger sauce. Lobster just brings back such good childhood feelings. It's always special to me.
What's never in your kitchen? People who don't listen.
What's always in your kitchen? A rubber spatula. One of the first things I tell everyone I train is to scrape every container. Even if you only get one tablespoon more, how many tablespoons does that add up to in a year? Just the other day, a new employee was scraping a container, so I went over to check out his work. I grabbed the container and scraped out one more tablespoon. He got the point.
What you'd like to see more of in Denver from a culinary standpoint: More good places to eat overall. There are obviously people who want to spend money investing in restaurants -- just look at all the chains. They are not cheap to buy. But why not invest in a local chef instead? If you walk down the main strip in any larger city, it's all local places that give the city culture and a desire for outsiders to come. Why would people in the suburbs want to come to downtown Denver if they have all the same chain restaurants right around the corner? Let's take a risk on our own great city and build some new and exciting places to go. I spend my free time trying to find these places.
What you'd like to see less of in Denver from a culinary standpoint: I'd like to see fewer people eating at chain restaurants. If you take a walk down the 16th Street Mall, it's chain after chain after chain. Why go to a chain when there are some great locally owned restaurants that are so handy? There's Yazoo BBQ Company, which is an easy walk from downtown; Masterpiece Delicatessen across the pedestrian bridge over I-25; the Gastro Cart at 18th and Curtis. I would bring up the names of some of the chains that are jam-packed for lunch, but it would probably bring them business. Let's think outside of the box, people, and try something new and exciting.
Current Denver culinary genius: Alex Seidel from Fruition. He's doing exactly what I want to be doing: owning his own restaurant and farm and just having fun with food. Just imagine waking up, picking something fresh from your garden, then designing the menu around what you just picked. It's perfect. Grow what you want to grow, raise some animals and live the farm-to-table ideal. I'm a bit jealous of it all, but hopefully, one day it will happen for me. You have to dream or you'll never get there.
You're making a pizza. What's on it? Spicy Italian sausage, pepperoni, red onion, cremini mushrooms, fresh basil, a blend of cheeses, and sauce that's made with San Marzano tomatoes.
You're eating a burrito. What's in it? Red Bird Farms chicken, tomato confit, applewood smoked bacon, baby greens, orange chipotle mayonnaise and organic baby lettuce.
You're at the market. What do you buy two of? Two pints of Ben & Jerry's ice cream, one that's always Half-Baked, the other some new flavor that makes my mouth water.
What's your favorite knife? My bird's beak paring knife made by Global. I can remember the first time a chef asked me to turn potatoes; he banged out four in, like, two seconds. My eyes popped out of my head. Next day I bought the bird's beak.
Hardest lesson you've learned: You can't just do whatever it is that you want to do. You have to understand the concept, the clientele and what the owner is trying to accomplish. Anyone can use their favorite ingredients and make their favorite dishes, but can you walk into someone else's restaurant and make their favorite dishes? You have to swallow your ego and adapt. With this understanding, I think I've grown quite a bit.
What's next for you? One day I hope to own my own restaurant, so I can give back to the community and give Denver another great restaurant. The deal I have with the current owner -- François Safieddine -- is after I do four or five of his restaurant concepts, we get to do mine. Cross your fingers: I hope it happens sooner rather than later. I'm not going to stop until I get my own restaurant. I've taken ten steps forward, six steps back, eight steps sideways and hit a brick wall, but I'm convinced that I can bring something different to Denver.
To read the rest of Lori Midson's interview with Jeremy Roosa, check back here tomorrow.
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