Shoni Jones, exec chef of Root Down at DIA, on the plate her line cook garnished with tears
C Concourse, Denver International Airport
This is part two of my interview with Shoni Jones, exec chef of Root Down at DIA; part one of our conversation ran yesterday.
What do you enjoy most about your craft?
Making snacks for people to enjoy, connecting with local farmers and small-business owners, and creating a culinary community around me.
What are the most challenging aspects of being a chef?
The pressure I place upon myself to create a diverse but strong culinary team: making time for proper training, basic standards and expectations in the kitchen. The amount of time it takes to provide support and leadership can be challenging while simultaneously dealing with the sheer volume of guests we serve on a daily basis.
What's the best food- or kitchen-related gift you've been given?
When I was living in Mesilla, New Mexico, one of my good friends would have a cookout almost every weekend. One particular weekend, we ended up having a shindig at his parents' house, and when I walked into their kitchen, my jaw dropped to the floor when I saw an entire wall of antique collectible cast-iron skillets. When I started asking about them, my buddy's dad said, "Take your pick, darling." I chose an eight-inch, black cast-iron skillet that's still my go-to.
Favorite culinary-related item to give as a gift:
Two things: a bag of gummies, for when times get tough; and I also have an obsession for treasure-hunting for specific spoons used for plating and finishing. Sometimes that one specific spoon is perfect for a certain sauce, dish or plated ingredient. A spoon can easily become one of your favorite tools.
What's your fantasy splurge?
Without a doubt, it would be going on a world food-snacking adventure to Japan, Spain, Italy, Brazil, Germany and a whole lot of other places.
If you could have dinner, all expenses paid, at any restaurant in the world, where would you go?
Even though it's closed, it might just have to be elBulli, chef Ferran Adrià's restaurant in Spain. It would be such a pleasure to have my mind blown with the most scientific yet magical dining experience.
What piece of advice would you give to an aspiring chef?
You'd better love it and you'd better dream about it, because once you immerse yourself in this profession, it's literally blood, sweat and tears.
What skills and attributes do you look for when hiring kitchen staff?
Motivation, the willingness to accept criticism, passion -- and good taste in music doesn't hurt.
If you could train under any chef in the world, who would it be?
Chef Marco Pierre White back in the day. To sum it up, his passion, creative eye, attention to detail, intensity and focus are more than motivating.
If you had the opportunity to open your own restaurant with no budget constraints, what kind of restaurant would you open?
My gut instinct leads me to a restaurant based upon bread, meat and cheese. There are so many possibilities. If you really think about it, so many cultural snacks start with these three magical ingredients.
It's your night off and you're starving. What's your go-to quick fix?
Okinawa Sushi is my neighborhood go-to, and they do a great job. I'm becoming a big fan of calling in an order, picking it up, and then eating sushi from my couch while watching a movie.
Best recipe tip for a home cook:
Read the entire recipe before executing.
Favorite dish on your menu:
I'd have to say the scallop dish. It's so well balanced, with a spicy habanero aioli, plantain hash that's slightly sweet, pickled red onions for some acidic tones, fried capers that are salty, and, of course, beautifully seared scallops. When I eat this dish, my entire palate is happy and satisfied.
What dish would you love to put on your menu, regardless of how well it would sell?
Corn dogs. Who doesn't love a batter-dipped dog fried to golden-brown deliciousness? I feel like there really doesn't even need to be a question mark here.
Would you ever send a dish back if you were dining in a friend's restaurant?
Yes, and I would hope they would do the same for me. I'm always looking at ways to make things better and improve, and feedback is the first step in making that happen.
Weirdest customer request:
The latest and greatest, not-so-weird-but-soul-crushing request was a gal who wanted her beautiful U-10 scallops quartered and cooked until well done. She specifically asked for a "rubber-band-like texture." My line cook garnished her plate with tears.
Biggest mistake a chef can make on the line:
Allowing a dish that's not of the highest quality to pass through the expo window and be served to a guest. When working the line, it's imperative to set high standards, execute food wisely and create a statement with actions. There's always someone watching and learning when you least expect it, so you might as well do it the best you can.
What's been your worst disaster in the kitchen?
The tahini spill of 2013 in the kitchen at Linger. We're talking three gallons of tahini, people. It was disgusting, and I'd rather not elaborate any further, because it still haunts my dreams.
Craziest night in the kitchen:
A power outage when I was at Linger, with a full restaurant, a full rail of tickets in the middle of service, the hood vents down and chaos ensuing. It's amazing what you can do with headlamps and teamwork.
Biggest moment of euphoria in the kitchen:
Closing down shop after your very first full service of opening a new restaurant is always invigorating.
If you could dress any way you want, what would you wear in the kitchen?
Vans sneakers, jeans, a chef jacket and whatever colorful bandana suits my mood on that day.
Kitchen rule you always adhere to:
Don't hide the shit! In other words, be accountable for the mistakes that are bound to happen in a kitchen. The longer you hide it and let it go, the smellier it gets. Nobody wants to clean up a big pile of shit.
Kitchen rule you're not afraid to break:
I'm not afraid to allow other creative chefs to lend a hand in my kitchen. There tends to be a lot of control and hierarchy in certain kitchens, but I feel that talent, experience and creativity are always welcome.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef:
Translating love, care and great food to an international audience. We had a seventy-year-old gentleman who had been living with celiac disease that was undiagnosed or untreated his entire life. It was just in the last two years that he found out about his illness, and he needed to make some dramatic changes to his diet, which, in his mind, really limited his culinary options. Then, during a layover at DIA, he and his wife stopped in for a quick bite, and to my surprise, one of the servers brought it to my attention that there was a gentleman crying happy tears over his food. He said how thankful he was to be eating such a flavorful, safe and satiating meal. My biggest accomplishments lie in the happiness and gratitude of customers traveling around the world.
What's one thing that people would be surprised to know about you?
I played classical piano for more than twelve years. And I'm afraid of balloons. The stretching of the rubber? Just ick. My grandma had a floral shop with balloons, but she was completely oblivious whenever they popped, even though I was scared to death. I'm afraid of anything that pops; it's a phobia. Except popcorn -- that's okay.
If you hadn't become a chef, what would you be doing right now?
I don't know...maybe frolicking in the outside land, where there's fresh air, the trees are green and small critters are scurrying around in the sunshine. Some friends might join me, and we'd all drink cold, frosty beverages. That's a good start.
What's in the pipeline?
I'm sure that there are more culinary adventures in the future, but for now, it's fine-tuning our fantastic team and operations at Root Down at Denver International Airport.
What's next for the Denver dining scene?
Hopefully the next wave of Denver dining will continue to bring more cultural diversity in cuisine. I love trying different dishes and experiencing different flavor profiles, and having an international presence in a city that represents these cultures is really inspiring as a chef. Seeing a new pizza spot pop up on every corner gets old; Denver could use some more culture, for sure.
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