Round two with Jensen Cummings, exec chef of Row 14
891 14th Street
This is part two of my interview with Jensen Cummings, exec chef of Row 14 Bistro & Wine Bar. Part one of that interview ran yesterday.
What you'd like to see more of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: I'm a Japanese-French-Irish-American boy from SoCal, and more than anything else, I want to see some really great New York-style Jewish delis. I want some pastrami on rye, latkes, a bagel with a shmear, and a couple old dudes in the corner playing chess and smoking European cigarettes.
What you'd like to see less of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: Mediocre Mexican food. I was spoiled growing up in San Diego, and it pains me to see so many small Mexican restaurants that I really want to like disappoint me over and over, again and again. It can't be because they don't know how to cook great Mexican food, so maybe the clientele has "gringofied" them into submission. I really don't know.
What's the best food- or kitchen-related gift you've been given? If I ever get around to using it, I have a super-sweet ice cream maker, but that would mean I either have to take it to work or actually cook at home.
Favorite dish to cook at home: If I really have to cook at home, I really like to do the "all-grill meal," with meats, veggies, cheese, lettuce and bread all thrown on the grill; that way, everything can taste like propane. Ha! I'm kidding, but it's all usually really good, and I love just using one piece of equipment.
Favorite dish on your menu: Right now, it's the Philly cheesesteak empanadas. I love that we can take an iconic dish from Philadelphia -- gotta use the Whiz Cheez to be a real Philly -- and an iconic dish of South America and bring them together. People from Philly could close their eyes, eat them and get a sense of their homeland, while people from Argentina, who's been eating empanadas stuffed with beef, onions and cheese their whole lives, can be similarly transported back to their childhood. The connection between food and culture brings people together. Deep, huh?
If you could put any dish on your menu, even though it might not sell, what would it be? I'd love to do a play on turducken with pork belly stuffed with beef tongue stuffed with duck foie gras -- and then make John Madden eat it. Actually, I think that might sell. Hey, that's tonight's special at Row 14.
One book that every chef should read: The book that's inspired me the most is Thomas Keller's The French Laundry Cookbook. No explanation needed: It's the French Laundry cookbook!
How you do you handle customer complaints -- and what should customers do when they're peeved about a dish? I view every guest complaint as an opportunity to fix a problem. The issue, though, is that so many guests don't complain, even though they're unhappy, so you don't have a chance to make it right. Complaining, however, gives us that opportunity. You have to create your chance for a second chance. That said, a guest should never get "peeved" about a dish. Remember, it's only food.
What are your thoughts on social review sites, like Yelp, Open table, and Urbanspoon? I think the social review sites are great, mainly because the more input a restaurant gets, the better. At the very lest, they get people to think about their experiences. Granted, a lot of people now think they're restaurant critics, when, in fact, they have no fucking clue what they're talking about, but what goes around comes around.
Biggest compliment you've ever received: You look like that Portuguese soccer player, Ronaldo, except that you're even uglier.
You're making a pizza. What's on it? I've become very big on only having three toppings or less on my pizza. The classic Margherita, with fresh mozz, tomatoes and basil, is still the best. Those mega-supreme-double-stacker-stuffed-crust pizzas are for Quakers.
Guiltiest food pleasure: I love Velveeta shells and cheese. I can't help myself, and I have no good excuse.
Best culinary tip for a home cook: Use salt, and take the time to season everything you cook properly. Don't be afraid of salt, but remember, too, that it's not a race to get the salt on the product. Be diligent in getting even seasoning, so that every bite has the same chance to be awesome.
If you could cook in another chef's kitchen, whose would it be? I'd want to cook in David Chang's kitchen, because that guy is intelligent and fearless -- a winning combination that I strive for. Not only that, but his food is seriously playful.
Favorite restaurant in America: So far, I've had the best meal of my life at Cyrus in Healdsburg, California. Chef Keane and his crew are doing some amazing work up there in wine country. The conceptualization and execution were in perfect harmony -- like a dance with no pants.
Favorite Denver/Boulder restaurant(s) other than your own: I'm going to say Fruition -- and not because it's an easy choice, or for the same reasons that most others would pick it. I'm a huge connoisseur of beer, and they always have a stellar beer list with great prices. I'm a constant advocate of craft beer and innovative food, and I love that I can enjoy great beer and have my palate challenged at the same time. Don't get me wrong: A beer and a brat will make me happy every day of the week, but it's nice to be wined and dined, but with beer.
Last restaurant you visited? Twelve, for Jeff Osaka's September menu. I had the sweetbreads, because Jeff does the best sweetbreads in Denver.
Which chefs in Denver do you most respect? I have a ton of respect for Matty Selby at Vesta. His prowess in the kitchen makes him a force to be reckoned with, but it's his efforts outside his four walls that I find the most admirable. As chefs, we're also teachers, leaders and activists in our kitchens, so we should be active in our communities. His continued push to unite and grow the Denver food scene is a model that I try to follow. I'm just a little less thuggish and a little less tattooed than he is.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef: I'm really just scratching the surface, but I feel most proud when I see my cooks becoming sous chefs and my sous chefs becoming executive chefs. Getting calls or texts thanking me for my guidance or tutelage is an amazing feeling -- even if I'm not altogether sure that I actually did anything to inspire them.
Favorite celebrity chef: Morimoto has been a big influence on my career. The way that he's forged his culinary path, despite constant criticism from traditional Japanese chefs, is just so rock-star. He was the first chef who made me question what -- and why -- something should be considered "traditional," and he taught me to always define food by the "feeling" of it rather than the technique or ingredients. I love that Zen shit.
Celebrity chef who should shut up: There are so many easy ones, but I am going to dig deep and say Bobby Flay. Okay, so that's not digging deep. I don't know how the idol worship of chefs got so completely out of control, but this guy has it bad. I got to meet and "hang out" with him during the Kentucky Derby this year. All the chefs cooking for the Taste of the Derby, plus media, cooks and random people hung out at a few different events, but Flay made a point to segregate himself from all the other chefs. I can understand why he'd want nothing to do with me -- who would? -- but there were some serious heavy-hitting chefs there. I'm just sayin'.
What's your favorite knife? My custom Japanese handcrafted, high-carbon steel, rosewood-handle knife is definitely my favorite. It's super-sharp and has the longest descriptors of any of my knives. "Cleaver" just doesn't sound as cool.
What are your favorite wines and/or beers? My favorite wines right now are from Epoch, a winery in Paso Robles. Bill Armstrong, the guy who owns the vineyard, actually lives in Denver. And when it comes to beer, the short answer is Gueuze. It's a Belgian style of a one-year, two-year and three-year blended lambic that smells like cat piss and burnt hair, but they taste amazing. But, really, when you ask me what my favorite beer is, I'll just say yes.
If you weren't a chef, what would you be? A rocket scientist. The reason I'm a chef is because my passion consumes my intellect. If my intellect consumed my passion, I'd be a rocket scientist.
Hardest lesson you've learned: Don't shit where you eat. The relationships we form in this industry define who we are, and with that in mind, I'm even more focused on understanding that every little decision is a big decision -- and none of those decisions are easy. All healing comes through pain.
What's next for you? I hope the Denver food scene will be seeing a lot more of me in years to come. I've made this my home, and my goal is to continue to progress the food scene in Denver and make people happy. And then? World domination.
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