This is part one of my interview with Tony Hessel, exec chef of West Flanders Brewing Co; part two of our conversation will run tomorrow.
Born in Manhattan and raised in Connecticut, Tony Hessel always thought he wanted to be a teacher -- but the 6' 5" teenager realized that while his attention span for the classroom was short, his interest in the kitchen just kept growing. "Yeah, I wanted to be a teacher when I was young, but when I got my first job as a dishwasher, I realized that I liked the kitchen a lot more than I liked the classroom," says Hessel, today the executive chef of West Flanders Brewing Co. "And I was good at cooking, even at a young age -- plus I loved the marriage of ingredients, of taking five or six things and making something amazing out of it."
And the kitchen liked him: He rose from pearl diver to sous-chef in three years, a progression that encouraged him to enroll at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park -- where his tenure lasted all of six weeks. "I was bored out of my mind, falling asleep, and didn't have the patience for the rigidity of a classroom," admits Hessel, who stuffed his wallet with his leftover tuition money and jetted off to France to cook in professional kitchens. "I preferred to be in kitchens where I could really learn, and France was the ideal place for that," he says.
Two years later, when he returned to Connecticut, he was hired as a pantry cook at Tavern on the Green, a gig that he later relinquished for San Francisco and a stint at Stars, a landmark restaurant that was touted as one of the most influential eateries in the country until it closed in 1999. Chef Jeremiah Tower, who opened Stars in 1984, towered over his staff there, demanding -- and commanding -- respect. "Working for Tower was one of the most intense experiences I've ever had, and it was the first place I'd ever worked where it was, 'Yes, Chef!'" remembers Hessel. But while he was a fan of Tower, he didn't feel the same way about San Francisco. "Maybe it's because I'm from New York, but I just didn't like San Francisco very much," he says.
So he left and moved to Denver, cooking at the long-gone Josephina's in Uptown, Tante Louise and Strings, where he was under the tutelage of the late Noel Cunningham. "Noel was amazing, and so creative when it came to plate presentation. I learned an incredible amount from him," remembers Hessel. "I loved the openness of the kitchen at Strings, too; it's still my favorite kitchen that I've ever worked in."
After shuffling around Denver for four years, Hessel, who'd long thought he wanted to settle in Boulder, finally made it there in the early '90s. "I was at Pour La France for three years, but I walked away after going through a divorce and then took some time off to figure out what I wanted to do next -- wondering, frankly, if I still wanted to be in the restaurant business," he recalls. "But I love being a chef, so I set my sights on the Mediterranean, if only because it was the hippest and coolest restaurant in Boulder at the time." He started there as a line cook, but quickly advanced to the exec-chef position.
Then, in 2003, Hessel opened Brasserie Ten Ten, which is under the same ownership as the Med. "The Brasserie was my baby, and just a great opportunity to do a fun French restaurant and build it from the ground up," says Hessel, who ran both kitchens until November 2012, when health issues -- and heart surgery -- sidelined him for nearly a year. "I took time off to get myself healthy, do some traveling, read some books and clean the house -- I did that a lot -- and finally my son was like, 'Dad, you've gotta get a job,'" recalls Hessel, who picked himself up, dusted himself off and applied for the exec-chef position at West Flanders. "I didn't want to go back to the Med or Brasserie Ten Ten, because I'd been there for seventeen years, which is a long time to be in one place, and I was excited by the prospect of creating another busy, successful restaurant in Boulder and having free rein over the menu," says Hessel, who in the following interview admits that despite his own height, he's afraid of heights, sings the praises of Alice Waters, and explains what he's learned about patience.
Lori Midson: What's your first food memory? Tony Hessel: Linguine and white clam sauce. I remember my mother making it on the stove top when I was eight or nine, and when I tasted that salty-sweet flavor combined with the creaminess from the homemade pasta, I knew it was the greatest thing I'd ever tasted. I still have a soft spot for it, and still can't replicate that first bite I had when I was a child.
Ten words to describe you: Controlling, generous, intense, dedicated, organized, compulsive, focused, ubiquitous, hardworking and a bit crazy.
Five words to describe your food: Simple, clean, familiar, European and fun.
What are your ingredient obsessions? Cheese. I was raised on cheese as a child, especially great cheeses from Europe, and, coincidentally, my brother is a cheesemonger and importer. I had heart surgery a while ago, so I'm also eating -- and loving -- grains. I especially like freekeh, which has an almost surreal taste that leaves behind a nutty, earthy flavor. And, of course, I love local produce. When you get that first crunchy sweet lettuce at the beginning of spring, it's heaven.
One ingredient you won't touch: GMO corn and its related brethren.
Food trend you'd like to see emerge in 2014: More superfoods. I really like that chefs are starting to stress how important greens and legumes are to our health, plus they just taste awesome.
Food trend you'd like to see disappear in 2014: Cupcakes and sous vide. I think cupcakes are over-indulgent, and sous vide takes away from the cooking process. I prefer to crisp a chicken from start to finish.
Favorite piece of kitchen equipment: I can do almost anything with a spoon, which is simple, versatile and inexpensive. And even while I'm looking at all the fancy pieces of equipment that I could purchase and drool over, I'm still always searching for my favorite spoon to cook with when I come into the kitchen every morning. It's been all around the town with me.
Your favorite smell in the kitchen: The scent of fermenting bread and the smell of early-morning, just-baked breads. When I was helping out in the Med's bakery, I loved pulling open the starters and inhaling that sweet smell as the first loaves emerged from the oven, then ripping a loaf open and tasting it just out of the oven.
Favorite dish on your menu: One that I have in the works: sugarcane-and-vinegar-roasted chicken and a smoked-poblano tamal. It's been an interesting procedure to figure out what works with our beer. The roasted chicken seems to fill the bill exactly, because the vinegar and the sugars meld with the Belgian beer, and the tamal is just downright fun.
What dish would you love to put on your menu, regardless of how well it would sell? Pig's-head tamal and a pig head for two. I love the richness of that part of the cut, and it would be exotic for a brewery to do.
It's your night off and you're starving. What's your go-to quick fix? A grilled cheese with really great bread and cheese, like Cowboy Creamery's Reading Raclette or Wagon Wheel.
Most memorable meal you've ever had: When I went to Chez Panisse for the first time. I went there with very good friends, and it was spectacular, truly just everything that I dreamed it would be. The food was outstanding, the conversation was great, and the whole experience was just amazing.
Your three favorite Boulder/Denver restaurants other than your own: Salt in Boulder, because chef Bradford Heap is true to his beliefs and it shows in his food. I love Steuben's, too, because it's just plain fun, and I'm a huge fan of Sushi Den. I remember going there in 1987 for the first time and having the best sushi of my life -- which says a lot, because I'm from the East Coast. I told my family how good it was, and they didn't believe me until they went there themselves. The level of service and attention to detail still amazes me every time I go.
Most underrated restaurant in Boulder/Denver: At the moment, mine. Yeah, there's a little egotism with tooting our own horn, but come on: I'm a chef. Seriously, I think what we're doing at West Flanders -- local, casual comfort food -- is great. It's been a while since I fried a chicken or made grits, but it's fun to step away from European cooking. I also tell people to go to Cafe Aion; I love chef Dakota Soifer's cooking.
Would you ever send a dish back if you were dining in a friend's restaurant? Yes. You need to be forthright and honest with your friends and fellow chefs. If you were to eat something that didn't satiate your palate and your friend cooked it, they need to know it. It's important to learn from your mistakes and fix them. When you don't know that something isn't right and you continue to do the same thing because no one you trust is telling you otherwise, that's just insanity.
What do you expect from a restaurant critic? Honesty and the ability to understand the meaning of the restaurant business. And I prefer anonymity, because it keeps us on our toes. We're not supposed to know who's in the dining room, and I like always being on my toes and striving for that perfect meal no matter who's there.
What's your biggest pet peeve? When people promise that they'll do something and set it into motion, only to then change their mind, not do it, or forget about it altogether until it's too late.
Your best traits: My generosity and work ethic.
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Your worst traits: My love of work and inability to say no.