Round two with Adam Watts, chef de cuisine at Jax Fish House Boulder
Part one of my interview with Adam Watts, chef de cuisine at Jax Boulder, ran on Wednesday; this is part two.
If you only had 24 hours in Denver/Boulder, where would you eat? I'd start out with brunch at Bistro Vendôme, then move along to the new Squeaky Bean location. That menu looks killer. Then I'd go to Trillium for caviar service and aquavit. After eating in Denver, I'd shoot up to Boulder to have a late dinner at Pizzeria Basta -- my favorite Boulder restaurant -- and finish up at the Bitter Bar for a nightcap or two
Favorite cheap eat in Denver/Boulder: Breakfast burritos from Tortilleria El Rey in Boulder. They're right around the corner from my house, and they really hit the spot. And at $2 a pop, it may actually be the cheapest handmade thing in Boulder.
Favorite dish on your menu: Our charcuterie trio with brandade croquette, hot smoked Colorado trout salad and sockeye salmon rillette. I love the art of charcuterie.
Biggest menu bomb: Crudo of spearfish with smoked soba noodle, huckleberry broth and pickled ramps. I personally liked it, but it sold for shit. Plus, anytime I do anything with Asian ingredients, it ends poorly. It's not one of my strengths, but I'm totally okay with that.
What are your favorite wines and/or beers? I'm a beer guy myself. The hoppier, the better, I always say. I'm a diehard Bells Brewery fan, but we don't get it west of the Mississippi, so every time we drive back, there's always a sizable stash in the trunk. Asher Brewing here in Boulder makes an irresistible double IPA called the Grenade.
Rules of conduct in your kitchen: Be on time, be a professional, and have your station set by service. Those are really it: three little rules. They aren't too much to ask, but you'd be surprised. Everything else has to do with what the person chooses to get out of their time at the restaurant. If it's learning butchery, ordering, menu creation -- whatever -- that's on the cook. You only get out of it what you put into it.
What's never in your kitchen? Drama. I have a knack for sniffing it out before it escalates. I've always led by example and try to treat my staff just like I'd want to be treated. I don't have much of an ego, which I believe most drama stems from. Save the drama fo' yo' mama.
What's always in your kitchen? I love a wide variety of vinegars, and whether it's using it for brining, canning, preserving, dressings or just to brighten a sauce or soup, I always have a quiver of vinegars to choose from. Sheila Lucero, the executive chief of Jax, just turned me on to this tamarind vinegar from a company called Pok Pok in Portland, Oregon. If you dilute it with a little bit of soda, you can totally drink it, and it's delicious. I also use it for my mignonette.
Biggest compliment you've ever received: It's not all too often that a former employee will thank me for their time spent in my kitchen, but when it happens, it's a total feel-good moment for me, the ultimate compliment. The role of a chef can be a thankless one at times, but seeing a young cook learn and make his/her way up culinary ladder is super cool.
What's the best food- or kitchen-related gift you've been given? My wife and I received a really cool French espresso machine as a wedding gift. It gets used and abused several times a day, yet it still pumps out really decent shots. The handle broke on the steam wand, so I replaced it with a pair of vice grips. Tim "The Tool Man" Taylor would be proud.
Best recipe tip for a home cook: When in doubt, Google it. You'd be surprised by how many recipes, pictures and descriptions are available out there in inter-space. From cooking blogs to recipe sites, you can compare what recipe is the best-tailored for your skills and taste preferences. Don't have lard to make your pie crust? A recipe with butter or oil is just a click away.
What's your best piece of advice to culinary-school grads? Set goals for yourself. I wrote down one-, five- and ten-year goals that I wanted to accomplish, then I set my sights on accomplishing them, one small step at a time. You can quickly get lost in the sea of the abyss, and setting goals can keep you on track. I'm currently working on my next decade of goals.
What are your biggest pet peeves? Loud music in the kitchen; sloppy plating; un-wiped plate rims; disheveled walk-ins; anything coming out of the oven burnt; infused oils; line cooks who ask for raises the same day a guy gets fired; being late; really good line cooks who can't pull their shit together to make the next step up; fallen whipped cream; improperly cooked grains; overpriced "street food"; pastry chef reality-TV shows; poor refrigeration; fish scales...I could keep going.
One book that every chef should read: On Food and Cooking, by Harold McGee, is a prerequisite. He takes food and dissects it historically and scientifically. It's a total nerd book, but he answers the how and why of cookery.
Culinary heroes: Alice Waters, Grey Kunz, Alain Ducasse, James Beard, Julia Child, Jacques Pépin, Daniel Boulud, and Thomas Keller, for sure.
If you could cook in another chef's kitchen, whose would it be? Michael Tusk, at Quince in San Francisco. The French stoves are from L'Orangerie in Los Angeles -- he got them just after they closed their doors. There's tons of history there, not to mention a great work ethic and amazing food coming out of that kitchen. He's a perfectionist and awesome role model as a chef.
Favorite celebrity chef: Anthony Bourdain. Kitchen Confidential came out just as I started cooking, and it was a bible for me. It's probably totally cliché now, but that was the book for me. I could turn to a specific chapter that would address how I was feeling, advise me how to handle my chef, or just reassure me that I was, in fact, crazy for choosing this line of work. I also love his TV show, No Reservations, and continue to learn from him.
Celebrity chef who needs a muzzle: Michael Symon. His voice really annoys me.
Most humbling moment as a chef: The first time I slipped up on an allergy request was probably the most humbling moment for me. You only really have to mess up once to learn your lesson. It sucks, because guests who are hyper-allergic to a wide variety of foods are basically putting their lives in your hands for that night. Sometimes it's a no-brainer like gluten and dairy, but the requests can get elaborate, and you have to know what every single ingredient is on your menu. I'm glad that those people eat at my restaurant because they know we can take care of their needs. Now it's just something that's a first priority to me, as it should have been from day one.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef: I opened Rustica Restaurant in Kalamazoo, Michigan, a few years back, which was a total undertaking. It's so rewarding to take an empty restaurant space and transform it into a living, breathing and thriving establishment. It still continues to see success to this day.
What's one thing that people would be surprised to know about you? I spent most of my young life racing bicycles, and by the time I was sixteen, I was a member of the Junior Olympic Mountain Bike team and traveled and lived out of a suitcase until I turned 21. At seventeen, I earned my professional racing license and was being groomed for the Olympic squad, but being that young and racing against the big boys just burned me out. I tapered off of racing and started focusing on cooking because it made me happy. I still continue to ride for fun and commute every day to work on a bike. Unless I have massive errands to run, it's rare that I drive.
Last meal before you die: Fried smelts and tartar sauce. Net fishing for smelts -- or "smelting" -- was something I watched as a kid growing up on the shores of Lake Michigan. Back then I paid no attention to it, never realizing that once I became an adult, I'd totally crave them. I might even move back there and start a company that sells fresh smelts through sea2table.com...maybe even to restaurants like Jax. Hmmm, I think I'm on to something here.
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