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Part two: Chef and Tell with Jeff Osaka of twelve

Part two: Chef and Tell with Jeff Osaka of twelve
Lori Midson

This is part two of my interview with Jeff Osaka, exec chef of twelve. You can read part one of my interview with Osaka here.

Rules of conduct in your kitchen: I don't have any rules per se. The only thing I ask from my kitchen staff is to pay attention and be respectful. There's so much to learn in the restaurant business that if you don't pay attention, things will slip through the cracks, and I've been in too many kitchens with chefs who are yellers and screamers, and no one is motivated by that. I'd rather teach by example, which is why I'm in the kitchen every day. I make things fun at work.

Best food city in America: I love San Francisco, where I spent several years cooking, but I'm biased toward Los Angeles, which is my home town. Where else can you eat almost anything at all hours of the day? Khorovatz in Little Armenia, ramen in Little Tokyo, great al pastor off any taco truck around town, and, of course, great burgers at the home of In-N-Out.

Favorite New York restaurant: I haven't been to New York in ten years...but I do remember Babbo. The pastas were memorable and the osso bucco was fork-tender, but what really stood out was the service. We arrived for our 11 p.m. reservation, and despite being the last ones seated, we were treated like the first customer of the day.

Most embarrassing moment in the kitchen: I think my memory is getting worse the older I get, because I can't think of anything extremely embarrassing, although I'm sure I'm not alone with the usual accidents in the kitchen...shaving my fingertips off with a mandoline, forgetting to use a towel to handle a hot pan, forgetting to fire two steaks instead of one. But...I do have an embarrassing moment outside the kitchen that happened at a local sushi restaurant. I was here visiting a friend about 25 years ago, and being a "sea level" guy, I quickly learned that hanging out in high altitude was a bad transition. I stood up and passed out in the dining room, only to wake up with a guy leaning over me who had a strong smell of fish on his hands. I got up, sat down and tried to finish my dinner with the whole dining room staring at me.

Favorite music to cook by: I love all music, but in the morning and early afternoon, I'm by myself in the kitchen, so that's when I listen to NPR, because it keeps me current on the day's events. During this time, baking bread and doing pastries is my meditation before the hectic day starts; it's like a symphony in my head.

What's never in your kitchen? Chicken or beef base and anything artificial.

Culinarily speaking, Denver has the best: Wine geeks. They don't get the recognition they should, even though there's a ton of them in both Denver and Boulder. A couple of good friends, Ryan Gaudin at Mizuna and Aaron Forman at Table 6, really know their shit.

Culinarily speaking, Denver has the worst: Critical customers. Let me explain what I mean before I put my foot in my mouth or the hate letters start pouring in. I opened twelve on a shoestring budget, haven't taken a salary since I moved here a year and a half ago, and yet people always insist on telling me what I should do to the restaurant: "You should put new lighting in the bathrooms, put pillows and new upholstery on the banquettes, do this, do that," they tell me. Last time I checked, all these things cost money. My biggest worry is keeping the lights on, let alone changing them. In any business -- but certainly in the restaurant business -- you quickly learn that you can't (and won't) please everyone. Luckily, I'm very fortunate that most of my customers are great and get what we're trying to do here.

Favorite cookbooks: When I started cooking, I used to buy a few cookbooks each month, but that's slowed down quite a bit in the past couple of years. One thing that has been constant, however, is my subscription to Art Culinaire. It's porn for chefs. I probably have close to 80 of the 94 books they've published. One day I'll have the complete set.

What show would you pitch to the Food Network, and what would it be about? First, I'd have to be good-looking enough for the Food Network, but since it's just a pitch, I guess I really don't have to be in front of the camera. A few years ago there was a trend in Paris: the temporary restaurant. They took an empty space, built a restaurant from the ground up using different concepts from food to decor, opened for a week and then closed. I'd like to document that on film. Most restaurants take months, or even years, from conception to birth. Imagine building a restaurant from start to finish in a week.

Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: Shirako -- cod sperm -- at 6 a.m. A friend of mine set up a private tour of Tskuiji, the fish market in Tokyo, where I saw the usual tuna auction, handled some blowfish, almost spent $2,800 on a knife I didn't need, and then sat down to a meal at a restaurant in the market. Everything was omakase and included things like uni that was rainbow in color; soup of fish cheeks from a fish that was swimming earlier that morning; a wide array of sushi and sashimi without the neon-green wasabi or soy sauce to drench it in...and then there was the cod sperm. It didn't taste like much, but it had the texture of snot.

Weirdest customer request: I've had a couple. Can I get my tartare cooked? Or this one: No cheese in my eggs, because I'm a vegetarian. That was funny.

After-work hangout: I'm too old to get into trouble anymore, so home is the smartest place for me.

Current Denver culinary genius: "Genius" is a very strong word; I even looked it up to make sure. I was once called a "genius" in this very forum by an extremely talented chef here in Denver, Frank Bonanno. But as much as I appreciate the compliment and respect what he said, genius, like excellence, is a difficult achievement to accomplish. Labeling just one person a genius would be a crime to all the others striving for this goal.

You're making a pizza. What's on it? Burrata. I make pretty good dough and sauce, but I'd have to outsource the cheese from Osteria Marco. Their burrata melts in your mouth.

You're making an omelet. What's in it? Cheese again. There's a couple that I met in the small town of Zermatt, Switzerland, who make their own cheese and sell it to the local hotels and restaurants around town. I'd use a little of their Emmentaler, some fleur de sel and a couple turns of the pepper grinder. It's an omelet fit for a king, or for an average Jeff like myself.

You're at the market. What do you buy two of? Other than toilet paper (which you can never have too much of), I usually don't buy two of anything, food-wise. My palate has a short attention span. Even when I dine out, I order a few different appetizers rather than one big entree. Or if I do order an entree, my wife, Lynnette, does as well, and halfway through the meal, we swap plates.

Favorite celebrity chef: Gordon Ramsay, at least when I have time to watch TV. I just wish they wouldn't bleep out the good parts, you know, all the expletives. Ha. He's exactly what I'm not, which is why "I am the nicest guy that you will ever know."

Celebrity chef who should shut up: None of them, because they've all contributed something to the business I'm in. I think most people hate celebrity chefs because they're jealous of their success. Sure, too much "BAM!" can get on your nerves, and Rachael Ray's "EVOO" is annoying, too, but on the positive side, all the food personalities have made the general public aware that there's good food to be had out there, whether you make it yourself or go out to a restaurant. I prefer the latter.

If you could cook for one person, dead or alive, who would it be? My father. He had his specific items that he would cook for the family: barbecue, like every man should (no man can resist a good fire), and he cooked one of the best steaks I can remember. We'd have tacos on some Sunday nights, and while my mom fried the shells and cooked the meat, my dad made the filling: shredded iceberg lettuce, chopped tomatoes, red wine vinegar, oil, salt and freshly ground pepper. During the whole time I've cooked in restaurants, I never cooked for him, and now he's gone.


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