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The world according to Ya Ya's Aaron Whitcomb: pork is overrated, Espelette pepper powder is amazing and pho is pho-king awesome

Aaron Whitcomb
Aaron Whitcomb
Lori Midson

Aaron Whitcomb YaYa's Euro Bistro 8310 East Belleview Avenue, Greenwood Village 303-741-1110 www.yayasbistro.com

Aaron Whitcomb wants to show off his new menu at YaYa's Euro Bistro, the Greenwood Village restaurant whose kitchen he's commanded since April of last year, and the dishes keep coming. "We're making almost all of our own pastas, baking most of our own breads, curing a lot of the meats, making our own ricotta and all of our desserts in-house," says Whitcomb, who's also the corporate chef of YaYa's Restaurant Group, a small chain of five restaurants, with additional locations in Missouri, Arkansas and Kansas.

Whitcomb, who was born in Pueblo and reared in Littleton, embarked on his culinary career while still a teenager, working first as a bee mascot at an all-you-can-eat buffet, and later at Boston Market, Old Chicago and NoNo's Café -- all while he was still in high school. "I always knew I wanted to cook," he says. "I helped my mom cook a lot at home, and instead of watching cartoons growing up, I watched Julia Child, Graham Kerr and The Frugal Gourmet, which my mom thought was weird, but along the way, I learned that I could really cook -- that I was good at it."

So good, in fact, that after culinary school, three years at the California Cafe and four years soaking up all he could sponge about wine (the result was a first-level certificate from the Court of Master Sommeliers), he was offered the sous chef stint at Adega Restaurant and Wine Bar, which, before it closed in 2005, was named one of Esquire magazine's best new restaurants in America. From there, he moved on to Table 6, where he was hired as the opening executive chef, a gig that led to what Whitcomb calls an "incredibly inspirational experience": the opportunity to work in Chicago at Alinea, Grant Achatz's mega-famous shrine to molecular gastronomy. "It was unbelievably regimented, and when you did something wrong you felt like you'd just upset your father, but I loved every minute of working there," he remembers. "I thrived on it, and even though I never worked fully in the kitchen, when I left a year later, I was an assistant sommelier and had learned more than I ever thought was possible."

Whitcomb eventually returned to Denver to be closer to his young daughter, a move that also landed him at Strings, where he was given the exec chef reins by owner Noel Cunningham. Whitcomb "looked at the job as a challenge to resurrect the Strings of the past," he says, but concedes that while he was thankful for the opportunity, Cunningham wasn't exactly loose with the constraints. "He was supposedly going to let me do what I wanted with the menu, but the freedom that I thought I'd have turned out to be limited." Still, he adds, "Noel and Strings was what I needed at the time."

Eventually, though, Whitcomb realized it was time to move on, so he joined forces with Scott Hornick, the general manager of YaYas and a longtime friend. "We always wanted to work together, there was an exec chef job available, and the timing was perfect," Whitcomb says. "We spent the first six months breaking down and rebuilding the service and the kitchen -- getting back to the fundamentals -- and the last six months creating a really great wine list, modernizing the menu and making it very seasonally inspired and fluid."

In the following interview, Whitcomb professes his love for olives and a pepper powder from France, questions a woman's assertion that she's allergic to salt, and advises Bobby Flay to go the way of the dodo bird.

 

Favorite ingredient: It's ever-changing, because I definitely have ADD when it comes to whatever I'm cooking. Right now I'm using a lot of Espelette pepper powder, an amazing product from France. For a while, I was on to squid ink, and my next quest is hake, a really nice white fish that gets no respect in the U.S. but is prized in Europe. For a constant favorite, I can't live without tarragon, my favorite herb and an ingredient that, when used correctly, can add a wonderful next dimension to just about any dish.

Most overrated ingredient: I'll get crucified for this from lots of my friends and peers, but I gotta say it: pork. I love pork in every form. I love brining, cooking, grinding, smoking, curing and eating pork, but when I see entire menus that have pork products in almost every dish, it just gets old. There are a whole lot of ingredients out there that are just as versatile as pork -- and better for you. I liken it to saying "I love you" to your partner for every little thing. After a while, it just becomes annoying and loses its impact. Let the crucifixion begin.

Most undervalued ingredient: Olives. I love how versatile olives are, from big black cerignolas and creamy picholine to cured Greek, green Sicilian or Niçoise olives. I use them for sauces, stuffing, braising liquids, bar snacks, and I even do a duck confit recipe where I substitute half the weight of salt with kalamata olives. It's killer.

Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: Pea shoots from Verde Farms. The shoots are really tender, super flavorful and have a great texture. I use them in salads, sautés and for garnishing. The microgreens are really good, too, because they actually taste like what they are: The snozberries taste like snozberries.

Rules of conduct in your kitchen: Be respectful of our guests, our product and others. Work clean and try your hardest every single time. And stay calm.

One food you detest: Okra. I can't stand it. It's slimy and nasty -- and I usually don't have an aversion to slimy textures. Every couple of years, though, I try a little to see if I've outgrown my distaste for it, and so far -- nope.

One food you can't live without: Pho. From my first experience years ago with real pho, I've been hooked -- like heroin-hooked. It's a meal that's totally satisfying to me in every way: sweet because of the hoisin sauce, spicy with sambal, a salty broth that's tart with lime, crunchy with bean sprouts, savory because of the brisket, chewy with tendon and tripe, bitter with cilantro, and with everything combined, it's umami. I even have a shirt that a friend made for me that says, "Will work for Pho."

Most embarrassing moment in the kitchen: It was my first real cooking job, and my first Friday night by myself after training, and the chef was already wary of me. In fact, he told me years later that he started me on the grill because if I couldn't swim, I was sunk. I was rocking through my prep and way ahead of schedule -- everything was dialed in, and all I had left to do was cut gaufrette chips. Halfway through cutting the chips, I took a significant portion of my finger top off. My adrenaline was so amped that it didn't hurt, and I just wanted to get cooking, so I didn't say anything to the chef and tried to bandage it up myself and get back to work, but it wouldn't stop bleeding. Finally the chef noticed my blood-soaked, double-gloved hand and sent me home to recover. I felt like an idiot and was really embarrassed when I got back to work the next day.

 

What's never in your kitchen? Outside of the obvious stuff like bases, salted butter and iodized salt, I never have swordfish in the kitchen. If you've ever butchered a big swordfish, then you know that it's one of the most disgusting fishes ever. The fact that they're heavily overfished doesn't add to the appeal, either.

What's always in your kitchen? I always have fun stuff to play with, molecularly. I like to use some of the tricks I learned at Alinea to accent the food that I do, and even though I can't say that I do molecular gastronomy, I do use some molecular tools and techniques to achieve cool elements without it being the focus.

Favorite music to cook by: At work, I like to cook to DJ Z-Trip; he does mash-up mixes that integrate modern songs and beats with classics to create a seamless track. It keeps me moving, mainly because the songs are partials, and when they end, my brain says that the song is over already, I need to speed it up. At home I tend to slow things down and listen to Jason Mraz, John Legend, U2 or just a random mix from my iPod.

What you'd like to see more of in Denver from a culinary standpoint: We're on our way, but I'd still like to see more independent, chef-driven, seasonally focused restaurants outside of downtown.

What you'd like to see less of in Denver from a culinary standpoint: We need more chefs that have an education in wine. Wine is one of the most highly consumed beverages in restaurants, and chefs need to be on top of it. I have my first-level certification through the Court of Master Sommeliers, and although I don't think all chefs need to go that far, a basic and fundamental understanding of wine -- and, more important, an understanding of how wine interacts with food -- would be nice to see.

Favorite dish to cook at home: The kids and I love making pasta and pizza from scratch -- especially pasta. I mean, who doesn't love rolling out and cutting pasta dough, or stretching pizza dough and then getting to put whatever you want on it?

Favorite dish on your menu: Right now, it would have to be the housemade ricotta with tomato-olive-caper-berry relish and grilled bread. Or it could be the duck confit with frisee, cherries and pecans.

If you could put any dish on your menu, even though it might not sell, what would it be? That's a tough question, because I have the freedom to put any dish on my menu, but whether it would sell or not is an entirely different story. I think that I'd choose fresh sardines with vegetables à la Grecque and some amazing Ligurian olive oil. It's super simple, yet has really complex flavors and I really enjoy fresh sardines, especially butchering them.

Best recent food find: Pho Saigon on Arapahoe and I-25. Their broth is as good as most of the places on Federal, plus they serve their pho with cilantro, which isn't the case with most pho restaurants.

Weirdest customer request: It wasn't really a request, but I once had a customer tell me that she was allergic to salt! Uh, you need salt in your body to stay alive, so why don't you tell me you're on a low-salt diet or that you're allergic to iodine (I don't have iodized salt, anyway), or even that you're allergic to shellfish and worried about sea salt? I'm sorry, but I've yet to find a study about anyone being allergic to actual salt.

Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: A June bug while in Oklahoma -- and, yes, alcohol was involved. If you've never seen a June bug, they're these big, brown-green beetle-looking bugs that fly around all over in Oklahoma and elsewhere. On a family reunion trip a couple of years ago, my sister and I decided it would be hilarious to eat one -- and so I did. It wasn't bad, just crunchy and a little bitter.

This is part one of Lori Midson's interview with Aaron Whitcomb. To read part two of that interview, click here.


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