Round two with TJ Hobbs, chef of Ghost Plate & Tap
800 18th Street
This is part two of my interview with TJ Hobbs, chef of Ghost Plate & Tap; part one of our interview ran yesterday.
Favorite Denver/Boulder restaurant(s) other than your own: I'm a fan of Bittersweet. Chef Olaf has such inventive and inspired menus, and I like that you get to try something new every time you go in. I like the food, atmosphere and service at Charcoal, too, and you can never go wrong at Ya Ya's for bottomless mimosas and their brunch buffet with prime rib.
Favorite cheap eat in Denver: At Tott Talk of the Thai Asian Grill -- just west of Belmar in Lakewood -- they have some of the best buys in town on their lunch menu, plus it's right in my back yard. And across the street from Tott is my local watering hole, Pirate's Cove, which has two-for-one PBRs on tap for happy hour.
If you could change one thing about the Denver dining scene, what would it be? I'd like to see diners making choices that aren't based on "being seen" at the hot spots. Venture out and try somewhere small and funky; go somewhere you haven't been or somewhere your friend hasn't been; find a hidden gem and be the one to talk about it rather than following the herd.
Most memorable meal you've ever had: This is going to sound a little funny, but it would be the meal I had at California Café in Park Meadows. The restaurant is no longer open, but I got my first kitchen job there when I moved to Colorado, and when my family came to visit, we made plans to have dinner there. The chef originally told me that he was going to make a tasting menu for us, but about an hour before dinner I got a text saying that he wasn't going to be able to do the menu because he was understaffed. When we got there, they had decanted a magnum of wine for us. Just when we were about to order, the first course came out...then the second...then the third...then the fourth. Ten different plates emerged from the kitchen without us ever ordering a thing. It was an incredible gesture by the chef to treat my family so generously, and it was totally unexpected. Thanks, Brandon!
Favorite childhood food memory: In eighth grade, I took a baking class, and at the end of the class, we split into teams of four and had a bake-off. My team made a sherbet angel torte and took home first place. That was where -- and when -- my culinary interest started.
Favorite junk food: Swedish Fish. I can't say no. And then I can't stop.
Last meal before you die: A wild-rice brat (or any one of their varieties) from Von Hanson Meats, with sauerkraut, whole-grain mustard, red potato salad and an ice-cold beer.
Best recipe tip for a home cook: I believe in the adage "Measure twice, cut once." Read the ingredients and procedure three or four times and make it right once.
What do you enjoy most about your craft? I love all the various ways that different chefs can make the "same" dish so totally their own. Take chicken pot pie, for example. Ask five chefs to make their best version, and you'll get five completely different interpretations of the same dish. That's what I love -- that each one of us gets to put our own personal spin on the dishes that we serve.
What's the best food- or kitchen-related gift you've been given? I can do just about anything with my KitchenAid mixer -- everything from ice cream to brats. In fact, I'm pretty sure it could launch a rocket if it needed to.
What was the last cookbook you bought, and what recipes are you cooking from it? The Flavor Bible. I actually got it as a gift from a former chef, and while it doesn't have any recipes, it's incredibly inspiring.
Best nugget of advice for a culinary-school graduate: You can learn something in every kitchen -- even if you're working in a fast-food joint or a cafeteria. There's always something new to take in; you just have to want to absorb it.
What's your biggest pet peeve? Stealing my tongs and towel in the middle of the rush, or leaving spoons in things.
Describe the biggest challenges facing today's chefs: Everything has to be new. Trying to come up with the best new concepts and/or new trends before anyone else can be thrilling but also exhausting.
Which chef has most inspired you? Most definitely chef Chris Cina, who's now the executive chef for Breckenridge-Wynkoop. I had the opportunity to work with him side by side in the kitchen at Ghost when I first got here, and right from the start, he and I were just on the same page. He's helped me evolve my skills and my leadership in the kitchen.
If you could have dinner with three chefs, dead or alive, whom would you choose? Andrew Zimmern would be one, although I don't know if I could ever eat all the things he eats. I'd probably need a little push from him, telling me I have to try it. And Thomas Keller, for sure, because, well, it's Thomas Keller. And Giada De Laurentiis. Have you seen her? Who wouldn't want to have her as a dinner date? And can I add a fourth? I'd love to sit down with Anthony Bourdain, have a beer and shoot the shit.
If you could cook in another chef's kitchen, whose would it be? Gordon Ramsay. He's one of the best chefs of my time and one of the best restaurateurs ever. Oh, and if he got in my face, I wouldn't back down. I can say that now....
Most humbling moment as a chef: When I got my first sous-chef position, not long after my older brother got a job as a biology professor, I got a call from my uncle saying that "Chef TJ" still sounded better then "Professor Joe." I needed that.
Biggest moment of euphoria in the kitchen: The first time my dad let me take over the grill and cook for the family. I was around twelve or thirteen, and my dad would always get distracted, because he'd talk to the neighbors and neglect the burgers until they were terribly overcooked. After I complained, he told me if I didn't like them, I could cook them. From then on, I became the family cook, which further developed my interest in food.
Craziest night in the kitchen: It was a busy Friday night, and, of course, the power went out. Luckily, the gas still worked and we had a charcoal grill, but we had a full dining room, so we had to light a bunch of candles and just kept going. We cooked by candlelight and cell-phone flashlight for about a half an hour before we got the power back.
Biggest mistake a chef can make on the line: Yelling at the cooks during the middle of a rush. That's the one way to ensure that things won't get done any faster.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef: That first time at Ghost, when I was responsible for the menu, and the new printed copies came into the restaurant, and my name was printed at the bottom. That was huge for me.
What's one thing that people would be surprised to know about you? I didn't come from a family of cooks or grow up in a kitchen where food was a priority. That first time I grilled for my family allowed me to see how food brings people together and makes them happy. That's when I knew I wanted to cook.
When you have a day off away from the kitchen, how do you spend your time? In the winter, I'm in the mountains snowboarding, and in the summer, it's all about the camping or spending the day on the water wakeboarding.
If you hadn't become a chef, what would you be doing right now? If I didn't end up as a chef, I'd be back in Minnesota freezing my ass off as an auto mechanic and eventually taking over Baldwin Auto, my father's business.
What's in the pipeline? Aside from a new spring menu coming out at Ghost in April, thanks to my inspiration from Chef Cina, I now have aspirations to take his job. Watch out, Cina, I'm comin' for ya.
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