This is part one of my interview with Randy Balch, chef of Wazee Supper Club, which will reopen Friday following a remodel. Part two of our chat will run in this space tomorrow.
Before waltzing through the door of the Wazee Supper Club eight years ago, fresh off a stint in the pokey for dabbling in drugs, Randy Balch had never tossed dough or baked a pizza. But he'd flipped plenty of flapjacks, and in the kitchen, he had the speed of a Ferrari. "I didn't know I was interesting in cooking until I went from a dishwasher straight to the line at the International House of Pancakes after the graveyard shift walked out," he remembers. "The manager asked me if I wanted to cook, and the next thing I knew, that's exactly what I was doing. My obsession with food wasn't food itself, but the speed with which I could put food on the table. I'm fast -- very fast -- and I have a lot of coordination and I can cook...not like one of those chefs in a fancy restaurant, but I'm damn good at cooking food that tastes good, food that people want."
Originally from Corning, New York, Balch spent his youth traveling around the country in a converted school bus. "My dad was a military guy and a carpenter, and every four years or so, he'd buy another school bus, turn it into a traveling RV and off we'd go," he recalls, admitting that he was just along for the ride. "I had to go, but I was always in trouble, and I finally dropped out of school in the ninth grade with no real direction in my life, but I liked the restaurant lifestyle -- I liked to party -- and I've been working in restaurants, or cooking in jail, for most of my life."
Between what he calls "jail tours," he worked at several long-gone restaurants, including Cafe Potpourri, commanding all three of the restaurant's local outlets; he also baked bread at Fratelli's, an Italian restaurant in Englewood; worked the line at the Copper Kitchen in Longmont and the Colorado Cafe in Denver; and slung breakfasts as a short-order cook at Denny's. "I've worked all over town, but the drugs...my memory sucks," he confesses.
But he recalls, vividly, finally getting his GED while bunking in the slammer: "That was a good day," he says. And he remembers, too, his first meeting with the Wazee's then-GM in 2006. "I was living in a halfway house, and they told me to get my ass out there and get a full-time, so I hit the pavement and walked into the Wazee Supper Club, which I'd never heard of, but I told the GM my story, and I guess she felt sorry for me, because she hired me as a line cook two nights a week," he recalls.
By the end of the night, he'd been promoted. "The guy who was training me was too slow, so I told him to move over -- literally -- and by the time I left that night, I'd been hired full-time," Balch remembers. "I worked through two other kitchen managers, and then they asked me if I wanted me to apply for the kitchen-manager job. I got it, and I've been here ever since."
And he's stayed clean and sober throughout his tenure. "After spending fifteen years on and off in jail, I'd hit rock bottom and realized I was too old for this crap, and while it took me nearly forty years to figure it out, I got it done, and I'm in a good place right now," he says.
"Everyone here has been incredibly good to me," stresses Balch. "They've treated me extremely well -- their kindness is a large part of why I'm here -- plus we're in the middle of remodeling the restaurant, which is super-exciting." That remodel will get him a gleaming new kitchen, including a second stone pizza oven, a broiler and a six-top burner. "When we merged with Breckenridge Brewery last year, plans started coming together for a remodel, and they asked me how I wanted the kitchen designed and what equipment I wanted, and I couldn't be happier with the way it's turning out," he says, noting that Saturday, June 8 is the reopening "target date provided everything goes according to plan."
In the meantime, Balch stopped admiring his new kitchen long enough to weigh in on the proliferation of downtown pizza joints, the difficulty of cooking for anti-bread heads and why you should never fry bacon naked.
Six words to describe your food: Great, classic, tasty, feel-good food. Ten words to describe you: Hardworking, honest, enjoyable, set in my ways, determined, kind, hopeful, blunt, free and reliable.
What are your kitchen-tool obsessions? Even as a pizza chef, the pizza oven takes a bit to master, and our oven is as old as time itself -- so old, in fact, that they don't even make replacement parts for it anymore, which makes it challenging to work with. You have to learn where the hot spots are if you're going to cook pizzas evenly, but I've developed a relationship with this oven the same way you would a difficult woman. It's taken me many years of working with her to get her to do what I want.
What are your ingredient obsessions? Onions, garlic, peppers -- especially jalapeños -- basil, cheese, bacon and fresh artichokes. I love the flavors of all of them.
Most underrated ingredient: Potatoes. They complement just about any entree you can imagine, and they can be prepared a thousand different ways. The best part about the potato is that everyone loves them; whether you're ninety or nine, it's hard to find someone who doesn't enjoy the potato. You can boil them, bake them, purée them, fry them, make soups, turn them into fries...the preparations are infinite.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: I enjoy cooking with Wynkoop's fresh beers and ales, which are brewed right down the road from us at the world-famous Wynkoop Brewing Company. We prepare our homemade red chili with their beer, and it's also great for cooking specials and soups. And since they brew a dozen different beers, the cooking possibilities are virtually endless.
Favorite spice: I love the versatility of rosemary. Its flavor is awesome, and I like how it complements red meats and chicken, plus you can create a multitude of delicious soups and sauces with it.
One food you detest: Can't stand mushrooms. I know that many people enjoy them, but I don't like the flavor profile or texture. The way I see it, intentionally putting fungus in your mouth is just kind of weird.
One food you can't live without: Garlic. You can flavor just about any food with it, plus it's a natural antioxidant, so not only does it taste good, but it's also good for you.
Food trend you wish would disappear: Gluten-free diets. Bread has been a staple of the human diet for centuries, but over the last few years, it's gotten a bad rap. And in a kitchen not especially equipped or designed for gluten-free cooking, it can be extremely difficult to accommodate patrons. With the remodel and a newly designed kitchen featuring a new second oven, however, we'll start to explore the option of gluten-free pizza in the future. It appears that there's no end in sight, so we'll try to oblige our gluten-free friends.
What's never in your kitchen? Bad attitudes and bad products. If you don't love your work, you're not welcome in my kitchen.
What's always in your kitchen? Great, fresh products. Our fresh ground Italian sausage comes from Colorado's very own Polidori Sausage Company, and our pizza dough has been handcrafted by the same gentleman for many years now -- and many more to come. Most important, though, are all the great people with a work ethic second to none.
Rules of conduct in your kitchen: Be on time; don't ever serve a dish that you wouldn't serve to your own family; be courteous to fellow employees; always follow health codes to the letter of the law; always work in a clean and well-stocked environment; and, most important, enjoy what you do.
What you'd like to see more of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: I'd like to see more culinary diversity, especially downtown, which looks like it was stamped out with a cookie cutter. There's a Starbucks on virtually every other block on the mall, usually right next to a Mexican restaurant followed by yet another pizza place. It also seems breakfast places have almost completely disappeared. It sure would be nice to see something new and exciting in town.
What you'd like to see less of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: We've been in LoDo making Denver's best pizza for 38 years, and now it seems that LoDo is crammed to the gills with pizza parlors. We think -- and all of our regulars agree -- that our pizzas are second to none, so we have a message to all you pizza-joint upstarts: We've got the best pizza, we've been doing it longer than any of y'all, and we'll still be here when you're long gone. We really don't mind a little competition, but come on! How many new pizza places does LoDo really need? Enough, already. And now that we're renovating the space and adding another pizza oven, we're ready and willing to make lots more of the best pizza in town. Ha!
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Favorite cheap eat in Denver/Boulder: Santiago's. It is true Mexican cuisine that's affordable, plus they make a great burrito.
If you only had 24 hours in Denver/Boulder, where would you eat? For breakfast, I'd go to Sloan's Bar & Grill in Edgewater, if for no other reason than I love their Bloody Mary bar. For lunch I'd hit up the Cherry Cricket -- they have great burgers. And for dinner, I'd want to go to the Buckhorn Exchange. I haven't been there yet, but their menu consists of a lot of wild game, some of which I've yet to try. It's Denver's oldest restaurant, and I'd love to eat there. I also want to go to Biker Jim's; I hear he has great hot dogs.
What do you have in the pipeline? Just getting the Wazee Supper Club up and running after the new remodel. I want to do my best for the Breckenridge Brewery/Wynkoop Holdings Corporation -- they've been great to me -- and continue to build on my experience and help the company to flourish.