This is part one of my interview with Tony Clement, exec chef of Roam. Part two of our chat will run in this space tomorrow.
A few months ago, when the former Wild Catch temporarily shuttered after then-executive chef Justin Brunson packed his knives and walked out, followed by numerous other staffers, including the kitchen line, owner Daniel Kuhlman was on the hunt for a new chef -- and he got lucky, because Tony Clement, who'd cooked alongside Frank Bonanno for nearly six years at Mizuna, was available -- and willing to take a risk on a restaurant that was weathering a wicked storm.
After Clement jumped on board, Wild Catch changed its name and concept, and now all roads leads to Roam, the title of which is indicative of Clement's meat-and-game-heavy menu -- and of his love of the outdoors: He lives on 200 acres of land in Evergreen, cooks at home in his wood-burning fireplace, and admits that his greatest triumph as a chef was learning how to slaughter animals.
But first he learned how to cook, which was an early hobby. "I definitely played around in the kitchen a lot as a kid, and my mom would take me to the library, and rather than getting a children's book, I'd always check out books from the cookbook section," remembers Clement, who also spent time learning the ropes at his aunt and uncle's cafe in New York. "Working there was my biggest inspiration, mainly because they allowed me to be creative and come up with a lot of recipes, which was super-exciting for a kid who was only fourteen."
One afternoon when he was messing around in the kitchen, Clement had a chat with his mom that gave him plenty of food for thought. "My mom and I were having a what-are-you-going-to-do-with-your-life? talk and she mentioned culinary school, which sounded cool," he recalls. It sounded cooler when he spotted a poster at his high school ballyhooing the Culinary Institute in Philadelphia: "I wanted to get out of the small town where I lived, and I figured that even if I didn't like culinary school, at least I'd learn how to cook better."
He liked it enough to stay the course and graduate, then bounced around kitchens in Philly for three years before heading to the Big Apple. "New York was the next big step; I wanted to learn to cook in fine-dining restaurants but didn't have the money to tour around Europe," Clement says, "so I staged at a few restaurants and ended up getting a job at an upscale American restaurant with a huge wine focus.
Between shifts, Clement was climbing boulders in Central Park, an extracurricular activity that was the impetus for moving to Colorado. "I got into rock climbing while I was living in Manhattan, and I knew that Colorado was the place to really get serious about it, plus my brother was living there and needed roommates, and Denver was becoming a great culinary scene, so I packed up and left," says Clement.
But after a month of summiting mammoth rocks, Clement had emptied his pockets of diversion money and needed a job. He staged at Mizuna, got hired and climbed his way up the food chain, eventually running the kitchen until Bonanno let him go. "Frank said I wasn't happy there -- and he was right. The bottom line is that there were a lot of promises that weren't kept, and six years is a long time to be in one kitchen," he says, then adds, "It was a good kitchen to work in, and I loved being around an all-star lineup of experienced guys."
Clement and his wife, Mandi, were on the East Coast for Thanksgiving when he received a text from Kuhlman. "He was looking for some help, so when I came back, we talked, and his story was compelling. I believe in this restaurant and want to do what I can to help keep it afloat," he says. "I have a lot of experience, and I'm confident that I can cook great, simple food."
In the following interview, Clement weighs in on living life on -- and off -- the land, explains why some farmers' markets should be ashamed of themselves, and reveals the odd food request from rapper Dr. Dre.
Six words to describe your food: A focus on quality ingredients and classic technique.
Ten words to describe you: I imagine flavors and enjoy the adventure of creating them.
Favorite ingredient: Tomatoes. They're versatile as well as diverse. Through many different cultures, we've created so many different tomatoes, and I truly believe anyone who says they don't like tomatoes hasn't tried many types. There really is something for everyone.
Best recent food find: Ribs in Kansas City. We recently did a little road-trip food tour on the way back from New York, where we had some great wings in Buffalo and awesome pizza in Chicago, but holy shit to the barbecue in Kansas City. If you ever go, you have to have the ribs at Oklahoma Joe's. It's gotta be the best food anywhere in the country that's sold in a gas station.
Most overrated ingredient: Liquid Smoke. If you want your food to taste like the sludge on the inside of my smoker, come by the restaurant anytime, and I can scrape you off a bit and save you a couple bucks.
Most underrated ingredient: Fresh, organic carrots. It doesn't get any more basic in terms of ingredients than carrots. People in America wonder why simple food in France, Italy and many other places is so amazing -- and it's simply because those countries excel at using basic ingredients, like carrots. We need to stop trying to produce as much as possible with as little as possible in this country, and remember that while natural and organic farming methods may take a bit more effort, they're well worth the result. This summer, go to the farmers' market with a bag of conventional carrots and try one side by side a fresh, organic carrot. You'll see what I'm saying.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: Porcini and chanterelle mushrooms from my back yard. My landlord owns 200 acres of woods in Evergreen, and we find at least fifty pounds of mushrooms every year. I may enjoy eating fresh tomatoes from my garden, but nothing beats the thrill of finding a gigantic porcini.
Favorite spice: Spetzi forti, a spice blend of twenty or thirty different spices, including nutmeg, mace, clove, cinnamon, coriander, fennel and more. It's a great background flavor with a lot of subtleties. A chef I worked for in New York imports it from Tuscany, and it's become my "secret ingredient" in my sausages, soups and sauces -- and even our fried chicken.
One food you detest: TBHQ and BHO. I guess they're food additives -- not actually food -- but I absolutely despise unnecessary preservatives. I just want to be able to buy a box of cereal without having to read the label to make sure it doesn't contain poison.
One food you can't live without: Kimchi, although I love all fermented foods, including pickles and kraut. Not only are they good for you, but despite all the arrogance of modern chefs, mankind can't duplicate the complexity of flavor that the humble little bacteria create.
Favorite music to cook by: Old-school country. I'm a huge Merle Haggard fan, and honestly, the kitchen is chaotic enough for me, so I like something a little calmer to listen to when I'm cooking.
Rules of conduct in your kitchen: I'm pretty easygoing in the kitchen. My only real demand is that you care about the food you're cooking. If you don't have a passion for cooking good food, this business will chew you up and spit you out pretty quick, no matter where you work.
Biggest kitchen disaster: Last summer I was making aspen-log flowerpots for a wedding and managed to mangle my foot with a chainsaw, which resulted in more than thirty stitches in my foot. It was three days before I catered a ninety-cover wedding reception on a 20,000-acre bison ranch in northern Colorado. We cooked over an open wood fire, and there I was hopping around the fire pit on crutches. The food went out okay, thanks mostly to my good friend Royce, who's the chef at Axios. But I'm sure I looked like quite the disaster.
What's never in your kitchen? I'm excited to say that for the first time, there's nothing artificial in my kitchen. I'm not saying that other chefs pull their food out of a box and serve it, but you really have to make every little detail from scratch to completely avoid the additives of commercially produced foods. I put a lot of time and effort into making sure all of our food comes from honest and wholesome sources.
What's always in your kitchen? These days, it seems like just me. I have a great, young and motivated staff working with me at Roam, but with a tight labor budget, I'm pretty much making everything myself.
Weirdest customer request: One night in New York, I had the opportunity to cook for rapper/record producer Dr. Dre. He ordered arctic char tartare for an appetizer and salmon for an entree. Anybody who's familiar with char knows that it's very similar to salmon, but that's not the weird part: The weird part is that while he loved his raw-fish appetizer, he insisted we cook the salmon well-done. To each his own...nothing but respect.
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Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: I'd eat any part of a pig or a duck without hesitation. I'm sure the weirdest things I've eaten have been those I wasn't aware of. We've all consumed artificial colors derived from sources like coal -- and if you ask me, it doesn't get any weirder than that.