Round two with Amos Watts, exec chef of Jax Fish House-Denver
1539 17th Street
This is part two of my interview with Amos Watts, exec chef of Jax Fish House-Denver. Part one of my interview with Watts ran yesterday.
Favorite restaurant in America: Next in Chicago. It's a really new and exciting concept where the restaurant changes every three months. I think taking on something like that would be a crazy challenge.
Favorite Denver/Boulder restaurant(s) other than your own: Pizzeria Basta in Boulder is awesome. What they can accomplish with a wood-fired oven is amazing -- and not something I can replicate at home.
What you'd like to see more of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: I'd love to see something like San Francisco's Ferry Building open in Denver -- it would be awesome to have an indoor market where you can have a year-round farmers' market atmosphere.
What you'd like to see less of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: I'd like to see fewer menus that have things like farmed salmon, frozen tilapia, out-of-season frozen halibut and processed ingredients. There's no value in those kinds of things, and that's not the kind of food I want to cook or feed people.
What's the best food- or kitchen-related gift you've been given? A set of Le Creuset pots from my mother-in-law. I use them every time I cook at home.
What are your favorite wines and/or beers? As far as wine goes, I really like the Rhone varietals that are grown in Dry Creek Valley, and what I really love about Colorado is how much beer knowledge people have. At Jax, we have an awesome beer list, and I've learned a ton about beer in the six months I've been back. Odell's IPA might be my favorite right now.
One book that every chef should read: On Food and Cooking, by Harold McGee, has taught me more about cooking and technique than any other book I have. It delves into different experiments to find out things like whether searing meat really seals in the juices -- for the record, it doesn't -- or the best way to whip egg white.
You're making a pizza. What's on it? I want to say something cool like ibérico ham, but the reality is that nine times out of ten, it's sausage, peppers, mushrooms and onions.
Guiltiest food pleasure: Sea urchin. I eat about five pieces every time we get it in. I even got in trouble when I was at Cyrus for eating it in the walk-in. I have a serious love affair with the stuff.
Weirdest customer request: I had an elderly customer give me a list of things he could -- or would -- eat, rather than things he couldn't eat. There were about fifteen items on the list, ranging from pretzels to steak with no salt but lots of pepper. I made him a piece of Wagyu beef and boiled carrots, and he loved it. It wasn't allergy-based or dietary-restricted -- just a list from a very picky eater.
Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: In California, I lived near a woman who raised emus, and she gave me one of the eggs, which we ended up poaching in a big pot. It took a hammer to crack the shell, and while the yolk was twice as rich as a chicken egg's, I don't think I would try it again.
Biggest compliment you've ever received: When you move from executing dishes to actually getting to put your own dishes on the menu. That kind of trust from a chef means a lot, and that kind of compliment, at least to me, is more genuine than someone saying, "This is the best meal I've had in years." There's just something about generating respect from my peers that really makes me feel like I'm getting it right.
Are you affected by reviews at all? What's your opinion on food writers and social review sites like Yelp, OpenTable and Urbanspoon? What's Yelp? In all seriousness, although you hate when you get a bad review because you didn't please someone, it gives us a chance to improve when we get it wrong.
What's your favorite knife? I have a ten-inch slicer that I use almost exclusively on the line.
Best culinary tip for a home cook: Buy at least one really good pot and one really good knife -- make sure you keep it sharp -- and try your hand at everything. Use any kitchen failure as a chance to learn what you did wrong -- and then try again.
If you could cook in another chef's kitchen, whose would it be? I'd love to stage at McCrady's in Charleston, South Carolina. Sean Brock is the chef, and I really like his cooking style, which is kind of contemporary Southern. They also have a great farm where they get a lot of their produce.
Which chef in Denver/Boulder do you most respect? Denver has a ton of great chefs and restaurants, which is one of the things that brought me back to the area. I have a lot of respect for Steve Redzikowski at Oak at Fourteenth in Boulder. I had the honor of cooking with him at Cyrus, and I really like his cooking philosophy and style, and I know how much he cares about the integrity of ingredients and the technique that goes into his dishes. He's awesome.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef: Running the kitchen when Doug Keane, the executive chef of Cyrus, traveled -- sometimes for a week at a time. The fact that he trusted me gave me the confidence to know that I could run a kitchen by myself.
Favorite celebrity chef: Emeril Lagasse -- not necessarily for his cooking, but for the simple fact that he's done more than any other celebrity chef to make the average person care about, and get interested in, food.
Celebrity chef who should shut up: Alice Waters. While I appreciate her "eat local" message, it's too over-reaching. Talk to people who are really suffering right now because of the terrible economy, and try telling them that they have to cook seasonally and locally. That's not easy to do when you're feeding kids on 30 cents. The impression that I get when I listen to her, or when I read things that she's said, is that if you don't agree with her -- or see it her way -- you're stupid.
If you weren't a chef, what would you be? I think I'd end up being a farmer. I grew up visiting my grandparents' farm, and I really like growing vegetables, especially heirloom varieties. Denver is lucky to have such great small farmers in the area supplying the restaurants, and it would be cool to be a part of that.
What's one thing about you or your restaurant that people would be surprised to know? I didn't always want to be a cook. I started working in restaurants at the suggestion of my dad when I was deciding what I wanted to study in college, and, lo and behold, actually found out I liked it. I think part of my success is that I look at cooking as a craft that I'm always trying to perfect.
Hardest lesson you've learned: When I was younger, I was pretty headstrong, and I've learned that when someone is doing something wrong, it's not because they're stupid or not passionate; it's because they just don't know how to do something -- and it's my job to teach them. Sometimes I need to remind myself of what it was like to be a line cook.
What's next for you? I really like the culture at Jax and how we're always trying to improve. It is a great time to be a chef in Denver, and we're really starting to stand out as a food city.
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