Eric Chiappetta knows the Denver restaurant scene. He's been cooking here for three decades, in establishments from the most expensive white-tablecloth eateries to the most casual neighborhood burger joints. He's seen the industry in this city evolve from mainly steakhouses and classic French restaurants to what it is today.
And he likes to talk.
Earlier this year the chef launched his own video podcast, Chef or Death, to address issues in the food-service industry, spotlight the men and women putting food on plates, and examine the relationship between the people of Denver and its restaurants. Since the inaugural podcast on July 22, Chiappetta has led a discussion about mental health in the restaurant business and has brought a group of food-truck entrepreneurs together to talk about launching their mobile kitchens and creating food on their own terms.
Tonight (Monday, October 1), Chiappetta is filming a new episode of Chef or Death that will focus on Denver food writers. The guests will be former 5280 food editor Amanda Faison; the magazine's current food editor, Denise Mickelson; national freelance writer Rebecca Treon, and yours truly. The show is filmed live, so you can be part of the audience just by coming to the Fox Street Compound, 725 West 39th Avenue, at 7 p.m. (filming begins at 7:30).
After this week, the next scheduled filming is set for October 15, when the chef will be joined by Simone FM Spinner, author of Denver Food: A Culinary Evolution, along with Table 6 owner Aaron Forman, chef/restaurateur Justin Brunson and chef Ryan Leinonen.
Chiappetta will be asking us a ton of questions tonight, so I asked him a few in advance just to get a sense of where he's coming from in the culinary world:
Westword: What prompted you to create Chef or Death?
Eric Chiappetta: I did a lot of soul searching last year and started asking myself some hard questions about where my life was headed. I had just lost a great job, a woman that I loved with all my heart, dismissed a handful of friends that were always kind to me and just couldn't stand being who I became. I was broke, friendless and lying about my life to anyone that knew me. Then Anthony Bourdain killed himself, and that changed everything for me. This guy had everything I'd ever wanted for my life and even he couldn't quiet his demons. I was devastated. So I started a blog that was supposed to be a cookbook but quickly turned into more personal commentary than recipes. My friend/therapist suggested that I put my thoughts into something that fits my personality — and Chef or Death was born. Originally this was going to be a true podcast, but my old guitar player caught wind of my idea and asked if I was interested in filming it like a talk show. I was immediately intrigued — I'd always wanted my own show — so I made one. I was religious about watching David Letterman and Charlie Rose, and admired and envied what they had. Aside from a network home and a house band, I have a show.
How long have you been in the food-service industry in Denver?
This is my thirtieth year. I sold wine for a few years, owned a few restaurants, sold food for a broadline distributor, worked with some of the best chefs in Denver and worked in almost every facet of the industry. My first executive chef job was at the Normandy, when Pierre Wolf was still involved; that was in 1998. I cooked for Julia Child when I was a grill cook for Sean Kelly at Aubergine Cafe. My mom has a picture of her and I blown up hanging in her house.
What are the big differences you've seen between when you started cooking professionally and the current restaurant scene?
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I grew up in kitchens, and back then the chefs were allowed to be drill sergeants. That's not allowed today, and there are parts of me that really understand it and parts that don't see any way around it. I guess it's all about the verbiage and volume [at which] those "orders" are delivered.
The "Look-at-the-new-fucking-ingredient-I-discovered" days are finally behind us...I hope. But those were exciting times, too, trying to balance those new ingredients and adhering to philosophies like what Alice Waters started and what Jeremiah Tower mastered.
Clearly the advent of the Food Network cannot be ignored. Now everyone can speak our "language," and because of this, several handfuls of young, aspiring chefs have desires to carry our torch to new heights. I hope that trend continues — but I warn them that it's not the easiest route to make the jump from line cook to chef. This is a trade. Master your trade and only then can you make it art.
Join us tonight or catch up on the episode on the Chef or Death YouTube channel. As Chiappetta says: "Let's do a fucking show!"