Round two with Jeff Russell, exec chef of District Meats
1625 Wazee Street
This is part two of my interview with Jeff Russell, exec chef of District Meats. Part one of our chat ran in this space yesterday.
Favorite restaurant in America: Surprisingly, it's a very small place in Chinatown in New York City called Green Bo. The first time I went was in 2001, and we waited about an hour on a hot August day. When we finally got a table, we had to share with two other families, but the wait was so worth it. Hands-down the best soup dumplings in the country, and the scallion pancakes are out of this world. Every time I go back to New York, I make a stop there. No other restaurant in the country has seen more of my business.
Favorite Denver/Boulder restaurant(s) other than your own: Linger. The concept, atmosphere, view and food are all amazing and well thought out, and the staff always seems like they're enjoying themselves, which makes the guests have more fun. I also like Marco's Coal-Fired Pizzeria because it's small and intimate, with great pizza. Even though I see a lot of pizza every day at Wazee Wood Fire Pizza, I still can't resist going back to Marco's on my days off.
Favorite cheap eat in Denver: Pinche Tacos. C'mon -- it's delicious and it doesn't leave me broke.
Best thing about cooking in Denver: I really like being a part of the movement of a culinary scene that's evolving into something to rival all major food markets. With the addition of the Kitchen, ChoLon, District Meats/Wazee Wood Fire Pizza downtown, along with great places like Root Down, Linger, Village Cork, Colt & Gray and Rioja, we're making great progress toward putting Denver on the map as America's next culinary hot spot.
What you'd like to see more of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: More great restaurants that care about their food and service -- and care about the community, too.
What you'd like to see less of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: Bad pizzerias. I ordered pizza from a pizza place a few weeks ago and was very dissatisfied with what I purchased: terrible sauce, cheap cheese and dry pepperoni. That's why we really try to focus on fresh, high-quality ingredients for our pizzas. It makes all the difference.
Rules of conduct in your kitchen: The kitchen is a dangerous area, so there's no horseplay. In addition to that, no bad music; keep your station clean; keep your head down and work; don't ever leave your tools lying around; respect the food; respect the equipment; respect your co-workers; don't burn the bacon; and if you don't enjoy what you do, then go do something else.
What's never in your kitchen? Tears. Just like Tom Hanks says in A League of Their Own, there is no crying in baseball. Well, guess what? There's no crying in the kitchen, either.
What's always in your kitchen? Energy. A kitchen that doesn't have that certain buzz about it just seems flat and uninspiring to me. Other must-haves include a very sharp knife, plenty of spoons, a Japanese mandoline, small tongs and a Tammis spatula.
Best food- or kitchen-related gift you've been given: All of my cookbooks, but I especially love Seven Fires, by Francis Mallmann. It was a gift from family members, and it really ties into what we're doing here at District Meats and Wazee with the wood-fired oven and the rotisserie.
What are your favorite wines and/or beers? Masi Valpolicella is an easy-drinking light red wine that's good on its own, and I also like the Herra Vinho Verde that we serve here at District Meats. It's an effervescent wine that's easy to enjoy on a hot day. Anchor Steam is my favorite beer. I love the caramelized malt and toffee flavors...it's the real San Francisco treat.
Favorite junk food: I'm a sucker for Cheez-Its.
Most memorable meal you've ever had: Dinner at Bittersweet on Martha's Vineyard in the summer of 2003. I had an appetizer of potato gnocchi with duck confit, sultana raisins, Picholine olives and pine nuts and a main dish of crispy skate, cauliflower, almond, pineapple and aged balsamic. Nine years later, I still think about that experience.
Weirdest customer request: When I was the executive chef at the West Chop Club in Martha's Vineyard, we had a guest bring in her own half-eaten pork chop and some mashed potatoes that she wanted me to reheat for her.
Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: That jelly-like substance at Korean barbecues.
Best recipe tip for a home cook: Always control the heat; there's a fine line between cooked and scorched. Cooking is a science, and different ingredients and equipment will produce different outcomes.
One book that every chef should read: What Einstein Told His Cook, by Robert L. Wolke. It has so many great truths and dispels kitchen myths in an entertaining manner.
What's your biggest pet peeve? I have quite a few of them, but I have to say keeping the gaskets on my coolers clean. Shoes that aren't clean bother me, too, as do cooks and servers who aren't well-groomed.
Are you affected by reviews at all? What's your opinion on food writers and social review sites like Yelp, OpenTable and Urbanspoon? It's hard not to be affected by the reviews, but I've learned that you can't take it all to heart or you'll drive yourself crazy trying to please everybody. Everyone has different tastes and opinions, which we appreciate learning about and addressing if they're appropriate with our vision. I do think it's good that people have a voice, but some of them use the online platform to facelessly trash our hard work, which can discredit their reviews.
Most humbling moment as a chef: Having the opportunity to open a restaurant with Charlie Palmer. He's such an iconic chef, yet an extremely generous mentor. Charlie does a great job guiding the teams of his twelve restaurants to ensure that his vision is properly executed and maintained, but he also has a lot of trust in his chefs, which allows us to come up with our own inspired menus.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef: Progressing within the Charlie Palmer Group so quickly.
What's next for you? Help Charlie Palmer succeed here in Denver and then continue to help him expand his empire.
Last meal before you die: Grilled cheese sandwich, tomato soup and a glass of milk.
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