There are good chefs and chefs who do good: Jon Emanuel is both. During his career, the head cooker at Project Angel Heart has fed everyone from rocket scientists to garbage men, but his position at Project Angel Heart -- a Denver nonprofit that dishes out 800 meals a day to people with potentially life-threatening illnesses -- has been the most fulfilling. "This job has it all: amazing people, a rabid fan base, regular hours, a great kitchen crew and staff, wonderful volunteers, and I get to do what I absolutely love, which is cooking and giving back to the community," says Emanuel. "The reality is that we serve people in really, really bad shape -- people with illnesses that could end their life -- and our food is what sustains them and keeps them healthy. Our goal is to make it so the potential for living is greater than the potential for dying."
The 42-year-old Jersey boy, who was raised in the Bay Area and got his first restaurant gig as a banquet captain in a Marriott hotel, snagged his degree from the California Culinary Academy and did time at Roy's in San Francisco before heading to Alaska to take on the executive-chef position at Glacier Bay Country Inn. "I wanted to make a name for myself in uncharted territory, I love working with fish and I like taking chances, so Alaska was a natural choice," explains Emanuel, who spent Alaska's off-season winters cooking at the South Pole as part of the United States Antarctica Program. "I was cooking for scientists and support members, all in the name of supporting scientific research," he jokes. But after six years of going back and forth between Alaska and Antarctica, he was done: "It was one of those things where I'd immersed myself so much that there was nothing more to learn, and by that point, I couldn't take it anymore."
So he started a job search that landed him in Colorado, at Project Angel Heart. "I really wanted to teach, but there weren't a lot of jobs -- until this one came along -- and when I interviewed for the position, I knew that this would be a challenging job where I could teach, give back and cook food that's made from scratch and would hold its own in any restaurant," says Emanuel. "This is not institutional food; this is cuisine."
In the following interview, Emanuel expands on his role at Project Angel Heart, extols the virtues of his father, goat meat and the generosity of Denver diners and chefs, and explains how he went from a "puss" to a brute.
Six words to describe your food: Surprising, omnifarious, sometimes adventurous and always yummy.
Ten words to describe you: Motto -- Life: a series of excuses to do good things.
Proudest moment as a chef: The first time someone told me that my food was the best they'd ever had was a proud moment, but the first time somebody told me that our food helped to save their life -- that was the proudest. I hadn't been here very long when I got a phone call from a man who sounded like he was sick and frail. He was going on and on about how, if it wasn't for our service, he'd be in the ground -- that the food we prepare here seriously helped to save his life. That was much deeper and heavier than anything I expected. I was speechless.
Best food city in America: I've had some of the best meals of my life in Chicago. We've done Charlie Trotter's, Tru and Topolobampo, which were all amazing, but I still really dig the little mom-and-pop places that serve barbecue and Polish, German and South American food. I always have fun in Chicago.
Favorite restaurant in America: I could eat at Cochon in New Orleans every single day until I died, which would probably take about a week of eating at Cochon every single day.
Favorite music to cook by: On the first day in the first kitchen I ever worked in, Tool was blasting on the boombox, and I thought, "I have arrived." If I had my druthers, we'd be listening to Motörhead, X and the Ramones all day long in the kitchen, but since we have lots of different volunteers coming through our galley, we tend to keep things mild. I've learned that cooking to opera can be very soothing, actually.
Best recent food find: Goat meat. I buy it from a really great place in Colorado, and it's all naturally raised. Goat is so underutilized; it should be the next great meat, though people have been saying it's the next great meat for years. I'm still waiting.
One food you detest: Marzipan. Barf.
One food you can't live without: Noodles. I love me some noodles: pho, udon, egg noodles in chicken soup, Italian pasta, whatever -- I just love noodles.
Most overrated ingredient: Chicken breast. We use a lot of it at Project Angel Heart to keep the meals healthy, but I have no idea why anyone would actually prefer it taste-wise over dark meat if given the choice. As a matter of health, sure, but as a matter of taste, it really makes no sense to me.
Most undervalued ingredient: Personally, I love Chinese-sweetened black vinegar as a condiment with fish. It's got kind of a fruity zip about it and a wonderful tartness to balance out the sweet. I get it at Pacific Ocean Market and go through it like crazy. I don't necessarily think it's undervalued, but I don't think a whole lot of people know about it.
Favorite ingredient: I'm on a preserved lemon kick lately. I love the brightness it brings to things.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: Community-grown produce. At Project Angel Heart, we purchase shares and receive donations of fresh, organic produce of all types from local community gardens like DeLaney Community Farm, Rosedale and the Denver Botanic Gardens. We have people who just donate extra items from their home gardens, too. It's such a pleasure to see what comes through the door each week and to work with fresh ingredients that you know were grown with big doses of love and care.
Rules of conduct in your kitchen: Respect your crew and your guests, have a great sense of humor, ask questions, and don't be afraid to try something new.
What's never in your kitchen? A garlic press. That is one stupid invention. Look: Take a chef's knife and a fresh garlic clove, smash the clove with the knife, peel it and chop it up. Now, was that hard?
What's the best food- or kitchen-related gift you've been given? Last year at the end of gardening season, my gorgeous wife, Penny -- thanks, baby -- bought me a bunch of canning supplies. I had never really done it before, so I kind of went canning-crazy at home, especially with stuff from our home garden. I love Bloody Marys, so I made homemade spicy Bloody Mary mix using juice from our own tomatoes, and prepared some dilly green beans and canned them both up. We also preserved some Palisade peaches, and I made giardiniera, which was so much fun. Penny even bought this huge pressure canner that looks like a sea mine and rattles and blows steam like a freaking locomotive -- it's bitchin'. It's very cool when you've been cooking for a long time and you thought you'd seen and tried it all, only to suddenly discover something fresh and new to obsess over.
Favorite dish on your menu: We make a damn fine posole, if I do say so myself.
What you'd like to see more of in Denver from a culinary standpoint: Adventurous diners. In cities like New York and Chicago, there's a thriving late-night dining scene, and most of these places have standing items on their menus that chefs and savvy eaters alike tend to gravitate toward. I'm talking about things like various underutilized critter parts and pieces, house-made charcuterie and bold flavors. Diners in Denver have yet to prove they'd support something like that long-term. I'm really looking forward to trying Euclid Hall Bar & Kitchen when it opens, because it sounds like one of these trendsetting joints that's right up my alley. I hope it can maintain its adventurous-menu concept, is packed to the gills and can inspire more establishments to go for the bold here in Denver. Oh -- and a really good Hunan joint. We need one of those, too.
What you'd like to see less of in Denver from a culinary standpoint: Denver was built on beef. We have many outstanding steak houses, which I love. Nonetheless, I think we should just stick with the ones that we have and stop opening any more.
Culinarily speaking, Denver has the best: Generosity in the restaurant and dining community. Over 300 restaurants participate in Project Angel Heart's Dining Out for Life event in the Denver area each year. And we raise more money each year than any other Dining Out city -- even New York. Not too shabby. And the chefs and restaurateurs here are enthusiastic and vocal in their support. We have a truly generous, giving and supportive community here in Denver, and I'm very proud to be a part of it.
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Culinarily speaking, Denver has the worst: Promotion as a food destination. The Five -- Troy Guard, Tyler Wiard, Jamey Fader, Brian Laird and Matt Selby -- are working to change that, and for that, I'm thrilled. In the Colorado tourism brochures, I'd like to see pictures of the mountains, maybe an elk or a trout and a gorgeous plate of food featured as prominently as the other attractions, along with glowing descriptions of Colorado's cuisine, chefs and restaurants.
If you could cook for one person, dead or alive, who would it be? It may sound weird and geeky, but I'd like to cook for, and then sit down and eat with, Neil deGrasse Tyson. He's the director of the Hayden Planetarium of the Museum of Natural History in New York City, a place I used to love as a kid growing up in New Jersey. He makes science fun and approachable, and I need a good fix of that after being away from my scientist friends at the South Pole for so long. He also seems like he'd be a nice guy with interesting things to say. I think Steven Colbert should come along, too, just for fun.
This is part one of Lori Midson's interview with chef Jon Emanuel. To read part two of that interview, click here.