Part two: Project Angel Heart's Jon Emanuel on Gordon Ramsay, the Denver Adventurous Eaters Club and salmon testicles
Jon Emanuel, executive chef of Project Angel Heart
This is part two of Lori Midson's interview with Jon Emanuel. To read part one of that interview, click here.
Culinary inspirations: Without a doubt, my dad is my number-one culinary inspiration. When I was a real little guy, he was taking classes for his job, which kept him away from home for weeks at a time. He would room with the same guy -- a former chef from Hong Kong named Hubert -- every time he traveled, and Hubert would teach my dad about traditional Chinese techniques, new and unusual ingredients, how to use a wok and Chinese utensils, and basically how to prepare traditional Chinese food. And then my dad would come home, armed with knowledge, and cook everything he had learned -- things like glutinous rice with dried shrimp and Chinese sausage, black mushrooms in oyster sauce and five-spice roasted chicken. When I was five, he put a knife in my hand and had me chop the veggies for stir-fries. He taught me the value of being open to trying new things and just loving food for food's sake, no matter the origin or the ingredients. He's still an amazing home chef who cooks for himself and my mom every night.
Favorite celebrity chef: I have an old friend down in New Orleans named Donald Link, who's the chef/owner of Herbsaint, Cochon and Cochon Butcher. He's become quite the celeb down there, and for good reason: Herbsaint was the first restaurant in New Orleans to reopen post-Katrina, and that fact, combined with the horror stories of how he was actually able to make that happen, is testament to his dedication to both the city of New Orleans and the community. He's a great, regular guy, an amazing chef who puts out incredible food, a savvy businessman, a generous person and a great friend.
Celebrity chef who should shut up: Gordon Ramsay probably makes a great plate of food, but personality-wise, he seems to be just an arrogant, power-hungry, hyperbolic dick. People that actively promote that dated stereotype -- the chef as a ruthless, conceited, screaming monster -- do not make me happy. That kind of behavior doesn't do anyone any favors, and it belittles and disrespects the profession.
Most embarrassing moment in the kitchen: One of my first jobs was in California, as the exhibition pantry guy at a fine-dining place run by some of the San Francisco 49ers. I would make salads and desserts, mostly, but I was also the raw-bar guy, which I loved. I was good at it, and the customer interaction was a lot of fun. But one night I crucified myself so badly with an oyster knife that I thought for a sec it might have gone through both sides of my hand (it didn't). When I showed the chef, he screamed and threw some gauze and a rubber glove at me, told me to get back to work and stormed off. I looked over at the line guys, who were looking at me all wide-eyed, and then they quickly hunkered down and got back to work. So did I. The whole situation was pretty awkward, and I remember one of my regular raw-bar customers saying, "Hey, Jon, your glove is filling with blood." And all I could say was, "I know," and keep working. I went to the ER after work and got oyster goo cleaned out of my wound and a few stitches. That's the only time I've had to go to the ER due to a kitchen accident.
What do you cook at home? I cook very simply for my wife, Penny, and myself -- lots of hummus, salads, simply cooked fish and grass-fed meats, which we buy from local CSAs. We go through a lot of olive oil and garlic at our house, and we have a garden during the summer, which provides most of our veggies.
Favorite cookbooks: Pork and Sons; The River Cottage Cookbook; The New York Cookbook; Real Cajun; Charcuterie, by Michael Ruhlman; Hot, Sour, Salty, Sweet; The Fifth Quarter; and, believe it or not, The Sopranos Family Cookbook, which has a lot of great comfy stuff in it.
What show would you pitch to the Food Network? Chefs Who Give Back, which would be about how chefs and restaurants can make a positive impact on their community -- and how the community will respond in kind. A lot of chefs are doing what I'm doing, so profiling guys who generously give back would, in turn, inspire chefs in other areas to give back and diners to respond in kind. It's a win-win situation: food karma -- I like that.
Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: I run a group dedicated to the consumption of weird things, so I've had my share of weirdness, but balut -- half-developed hard-boiled duck egg complete with embryo -- was a challenge, even for me. I suppose rabbit eyeballs and congealed pig blood rank right up there, too. As the founder and "organ"-izer of the Denver Adventurous Eaters Club, I've recently found that many chefs are eager to have an audience for foods that might be considered unusual to the typical American palate, and which they love to cook but are hesitant to permanently feature on their menus. Chef Michael Long at Opus and Mary Nguyen at Parallel Seventeen absolutely knocked me out with the events they have hosted for our group. I'm very pleased with this new direction the Denver Adventurous Eaters Club has taken, and it's shown me that those freaky food aficionados are out there somewhere and that there are chefs waiting for them.
Weirdest customer request: When I was the chef at the Glacier Bay Country Inn in Southeast Alaska, a guest wanted me to sauté the salmon testicles he had kept when the Coho he caught was gutted. Sure, why not? I put them in the pan and they shriveled, which seems like a natural enough reaction. They weren't bad -- sort of like fishy foie gras.
Current Denver culinary genius: Mark DeNittis at Il Mondo Vecchio Salumi rocks. He's on to something here. He's a masterful butcher, he tries to source everything locally, and everything in his sausage is all-natural, down to the curing process. He's just amazing.
You're making a pizza. What's on it? Tomatoes from my garden, roasted garlic, white anchovies, a little Pecorino, fennel, chile flakes and a flavorful olive oil.
You're making an omelet. What's in it? Porcini mushrooms, Taleggio cheese and spinach.
You're at the market. What do you buy two of? Pounds of coffee.
Best culinary tip for a home cook: Get at least one good quality, sharp knife -- like a forged eight-inch chef's knife -- and a honing steel. Learn how to use them properly and discover one of the great joys of cookery: being able to use a knife as naturally as if it were an extension of your hand.
After-work hangout: On the couch with the wife and pups.
Favorite Denver restaurants: How many can I list? Parallel Seventeen, Vesta Dipping Grill and Steuben's, Fruition, Pho 79, Cora Faye's, Duo, JJ Chinese, Opus, Rosa Linda's, Brickyard BBQ, Los Carboncitos, Encore...I could go on and on. Simply put, they all make food I really like.
What's your favorite knife? My dad gave me a Forschner scimitar before I left for Alaska the first time. I still have it -- still use it for everything -- and it's still as sharp as a razor.
Hardest lesson you've learned: I never knew how much of a puss I was until I landed in Alaska in 1996. I was in kind of a bad place in my life, and I learned very quickly that I had a lot of toughing up to do. The people I worked for were former farmers who showed me the values of sacking up, truly hard work and how far being tough can get you in life. I did get tough and I got better -- both as a chef and as a person. I'm still tough when I need to be, and it still works. It was a hard-learned lesson for me, but -- and I say this sincerely -- one of my most valuable. I still have flaws, but being a puss is no longer one of them.
What's next for you? Tomorrow. And I have no idea what could happen then.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Denver dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.