Round two with Jay Leandro, chef at Pub 17 on Welton Street
1750 Welton Street
Part one of my interview with Jay Leandro, exec chef of Pub 17 on Welton Street, ran yesterday; this is part two of our conversation.
Favorite Denver/Boulder restaurant(s) other than your own: Pho Fusion on Hampden. I used to get their pad Thai three or four times a week when I was in school, mostly because it was so different than any other pad Thai I'd eaten up until that point. It's served with celery, green onions, bean sprouts, cilantro and peanuts, and the sauce is neither too sweet nor too sour -- just a great balance. I've come close to re-creating it, but I just can't quite get it right.
Favorite cheap eat in Denver: On a day off, I love eating from the lunch buffet at Little India. I think it's only $9, and you can't beat it for the quality and quantity of Indian food.
If you could change one thing about the Denver dining scene, what would it be? I'd like to see more independently owned restaurants in the suburbs. I live in Highlands Ranch -- we're building a family and it's inexpensive -- and there's definitely a gap when it comes to good restaurants that are chef-run.
Favorite food city in America: I think it has to be Denver. It's nice that the food scene hasn't hit the level of pretense found in other cities. People can just cook without too much scrutiny.
Most memorable meal you've ever had: I was twenty years old and visiting my older brother Marc -- he's also a chef -- in San Francisco, and we took the BART over to Berkeley and had dinner at Chez Panisse. The starter was Hog Island oyster chowder -- just the essence of chowder with three oysters shucked into the hot broth; the entree was grilled duck breast with fava beans and Marsala sauce; and dessert was a chocolate soufflé with a side of hot hazelnut cream to pour into the soufflé. It was a dinner that made me realize how often chefs overthink things, myself included, and that the basis of a great meal is simply using great products. It was such a simple menu, yet it didn't taste simple, and all the components were executed flawlessly.
Favorite childhood food memory: My uncle Jack was a commercial fisherman, so he always had the freshest fish, crabs and lobsters. One day he invited my dad and me over to his house for a crab boil, and we all sat around this huge pot of steaming Jonah crab just taking in all the great smells. It was an amazing meal, but also my first experience with spicy food. My uncle told me, "Jay, you just need to embrace the heat." So I did -- and it was hot, but for the first time in my life I could actually taste the food behind the heat. I've had a love affair with spicy food ever since.
Favorite junk food: My weirdest/favorite junk food would have to be hot-chocolate mix straight out of the can, chased by a gulp of cold milk. This is only consumed at night when no one is around to judge me.
What's always lurking in your refrigerator? Some kind of curry paste and also way too much Greek yogurt, courtesy of my wife and daughter.
Favorite dish on your menu: The lamb burger with sweet pickle tzatziki, arugula and garam masala.
Biggest menu bomb: The chorizo arancini on the happy-hour menu. They're so good, but they don't sell at all.
Weirdest customer request: A server come back to the kitchen to let us know that one of her customers wanted her burger cooked medium-rare, but she didn't want the burger to have any pink inside.
Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: When I'm back east fishing for striped bass at night, the bait of choice is usually a live eel. I remember one night we weren't catching anything, but we had a nice fire going, so we decided to eat the eels. I guess it's not that weird to eat eel, but the whole setting might be weird to some people. Nonetheless, eel over an open fire? That's good stuff.
What's the best food- or kitchen-related gift you've been given? My Le Creuset Dutch oven has to be the best kitchen gift I ever got. I cook everything in this pot, and it keeps getting better with age. I imagine it'll last forever.
What was the last cookbook you bought, and what recipes are you cooking from it? The Best Ever Indian Cookbook, by Mridula Baljekar. I like to cook a lot of Indian food at home since it's so different from the food we make at the restaurant -- I love the spices and different flavor combinations. I've made the chicken tikka masala and the naan bread, and both are great. I'm always looking for a new recipe for tikka masala, but I haven't found the perfect one yet...or maybe it's just me.
Best recipe tip for a home cook: Cooking is not the same as baking. When you're following a recipe, don't feel like you have to follow it exactly, and never trust a cookbook that says 155 degrees is medium-rare; it's not.
What's your biggest pet peeve? When you just get done prepping something in the kitchen and someone walks up to you and says, "Hey, you know we have a whole gallon of that in the walk-in?" To which I respond, why would I be making this if I knew we already had it?
Which chef has most inspired you? Greg Morton, the first chef I worked for back in Massachusetts. Greg had so much passion for what he did, and he cooked because it made people happy. He taught me all about balancing flavors and correctly treating ingredients. And for a not-so-patient person, he was remarkably patient with me...he taught me so much. His passions were great barbecue, paella, jambalaya and lobster bakes.
Favorite celebrity chef: Mario Batali. I've never met the guy, so personality traits are out, but he seems to really know what he's talking about, he's a hell of good chef, and I've never heard him bash another chef.
Celebrity chef who needs a muzzle: Gordon Ramsay comes to mind, although I think I'm most irritated by the fans of his shows. When someone finds out I'm a chef, one of the most frequent questions I get -- usually by someone in my family -- is "Have you seen the show with that crazy chef Gordon Ramsay? Do you yell like that in your kitchen?" If people actually yelled like that on a consistent basis, they'd find themselves working alone. I don't think anything can be accomplished in the kind of atmosphere that's created on Ramsay's show.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef: My promotion to chef de cuisine of Pub 17. It meant a lot to be so recognized by a group of chefs and mentors that I've been learning from -- and working with -- since I was doing my stage for school. I've grown a lot professionally at the Hyatt, and I'm very proud to have earned their respect and trust. Our recent win at the first annual Chef N Brew event was pretty awesome, too.
Last meal before you die: A big Maine lobster with a lot of salted, unclarified butter. For dessert, I'd have to choose several scoops of salted caramel ice cream.
What's next for you? I'm not really sure what lies ahead for me in my career; I'm pretty content right now. My family is continuing to grow and the restaurant is doing well, so I'm definitely busy and happy. Eventually, I'd like to become a chef instructor; my mom has been a teacher for 34 years and loves every minute of it.
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