This is part one of my interview with Jenna Johansen, co-owner/chef of dish restaurant in Edwards. Part two of this interview will run in this space tomorrow.
"I can talk about an apple for an hour," insists Jenna Johansen. "No, really, I can. I love food more than just about anyone I know -- certainly more than most people, and even more than most chefs." Johansen, the chef/co-owner of dish, one of the Vail Valley's most highly regarded restaurants, is sitting at her bar, noshing on soups, salads and sweetbreads with Kelly Liken, who owns her own restaurant in Vail. The two of them banter back and forth, bouncing cooking ideas off one another and discussing everything from apples to Asian ingredients. And long after Liken leaves -- and dish closes for the night -- Johansen's still immersed in her menus, still as enamored with cooking as she was twenty years ago, when, at fourteen, she got her first job in the kitchen, working for free in a bakery in Boulder.
"I've been lucky enough to know that I always wanted to be a chef," says Johansen. "I didn't really come from a foodie family, but I was a latchkey kid growing up in Boulder, and I was more than happy to come home and make the family meal for dinner" -- and to bust her butt in every type of restaurant imaginable, just to learn the ropes. "I worked at the Rio Grande in Boulder to learn how to make food quickly, as a corporate chef at Pappadeaux, where I learned how to cook really high-volume, on the opening team of a restaurant in Walt Disney World, and as a server at Zino in Edwards -- all because I wanted to know every single aspect of working in a restaurant."
Along the way, she got her degree in restaurant and resort management from Colorado State University, graduating early, she says, because "I wanted to hurry up and go to culinary school," which she did, at Johnson & Wales, in Vail, before the campus relocated to Denver. And then she took off for Italy to spend a year in Tuscany. "I'm incredibly passionate about Italian food, and I wanted to meet the people, drink the wines, eat the food and really submerge myself in Italian cuisine and culture."
When Johansen moved back to Colorado -- and eventually to Denver -- she was tapped as the opening chef of Ventura Grille (now Le Mistral). "I helped build that concept from start to finish, and was involved in every single aspect of that restaurant," she says. When Steve Shelman, the owner of Ventura, opened Ocotillo in the same suburban strip center (it's now the Dusty Boot), Johansen spearheaded that kitchen, too. "I was running two concurrent kitchens, which was a crazy opportunity -- the kind of opportunity that I was incredibly grateful to have," she says.
But she missed the mountains and wanted to open her own restaurant, as well as run the kitchen, and her future business owner at dish, Pollyanna Forster, already had a wine-and-cheese shop in Edwards, just below dish, that Johansen was smitten with. "I wanted to be a part of what Pollyanna had already set in place -- a wonderful place for wine and cheese -- and she shared the same vision for a restaurant as I did, a restaurant with beautiful food, reasonable prices and a small-plates concept that encouraged people to try a lot of different foods without a lot of risk," she recalls. When dish opened in late 2006, Johansen was trailblazing the line: "I have complete creative freedom here, and I can cook whatever I want without being censored, and I've got to admit that I really, really love that."
In the following interview, Johansen dishes on the best salumi she's ever had, thanks the universe for supplying the world with pig, and admits that she moans with pleasure.
Six words to describe your food: Delicious, seasonal (shame on any chef whose food isn't), inspired, elegantly simple, evolving and unique.
Ten words to describe you: Sassy, passionate, funny, driven, original, compassionate, candid, creative, optimistic, vivacious and a dreamer.
Culinary inspirations: Teaching cooking classes; reading cookbooks, written by everyone from star chefs to Junior League members; reading menus; the seasons, mainly because of changes in produce and weather; researching food on the Internet; and whatever my mom is asking me about at the time. I must dream about food, because I always have an idea or two about what I'd like to create as soon as I wake up. Recently, a local painter, Quang Ho, did a one-of-a-kind painting of the dish kitchen, and every time I look at the print on my screensaver, I feel inspired to be that chef -- a representation of a lovely, focused, talented woman who is so obviously making something delicious. That amazing painting really inspires me.
Favorite ingredient: Vegetables. I'm very proud of the fact that I can make people enjoy something that they may not normally take any notice of. You certainly don't need meat to make a meal. In fact, I find that the true test of a chef is how her vegetables taste. Anyone can grill a steak.
Most overrated ingredient: Beef tenderloin. It's certainly not the tastiest cut of the cow, and it's a shame that there are so many people who believe it's the best part of the animal. Ugh. I'd rather eat almost any other part of the cow instead -- balls, stomach, tongue -- or I'll enjoy a ribeye. Filet mignon may have a velvety texture, but it's totally flavorless. Gimme the fat and a little texture.
Most underrated ingredient: Artisan vinegar. The differences between quickly fermented vinegar and a nice, long fermentation made with artisan craftsmanship are remarkable -- and vinaigrettes are the easiest way to make the ingredient shine.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: Fresh herbs straight out of our garden right outside the restaurant -- and Olathe sweet corn. Ever since I was a kid, I've only served and enjoyed it fresh off the cob, so I wait all year long for that stuff.
One food you detest: There are more then a few. Celery, green peppers, mackerel, green beans, star anus -- oops, I mean anise -- salmon when it's cooked beyond rare, and swordfish. Did you know that swordfish pee through their skin? But even though I don't like these things doesn't meant that I don't serve them, because, you know, I'm not the only one I cook for.
One food you can't live without: Bacon. Bacon. Bacon. I'm so happy people are on the pig bandwagon. What a delicious, delicious, delicious animal. Thank you, universe, for creating pork.
Best recent food find: Il Mondo Vecchio. As soon as I bit into their salumi, it was literally love at first bite, and I was transported back to the market in Tuscany. I left their booth at a food show, walked away and then turned around and headed straight back again. I dreamt about that meat all night long. It's hands-down the best salumi I've had in this country, and it's currently my favorite snack, plus it enhances my menu at dish.
Favorite spice: Cayenne pepper. I use it sparingly, but I really like that super-subtle layer of flavor it gives, especially in desserts. The kick it adds to chocolate cake makes your tastebuds completely explode.
What's never in your kitchen? No microwaves or green peppers. They haven't been in my cooler in almost five years. They taste like dirt.
What's always in your kitchen? Butter; passion; music; clean hands; a little stack of papers, because my kitchen is my "office" and organization has always been my biggest challenge; and great conversation, since we have an open kitchen and share dining experiences with all kinds of people. Open minds are always in my kitchen, too, along with a nicely evolving collection of Asian ingredients that we're constantly experimenting with.
Biggest kitchen disaster: I'd love to pretend there weren't many, but I'm only human. At my very first exec-chef job, I got hired two weeks before we opened, cleaned a ton, hired my staff, wrote a menu, polished a concept, organized everything, ordered the goodies and had our soft opening. We planned for thirty people, sat fifty, and I flailed. I couldn't remember what was on what dish and hadn't finalized garnishes -- and the wheels came off the bus. So did the owner, who screamed at me after the dinner-rush-bus had already hit me. He said that if we couldn't do more than fifty dinners, we might as well just close -- like, today. I shamefully cried like a baby, because I was the cracked link. I learned my lesson that night: The chef drives the bus.
Rules of conduct in your kitchen: Be nice; have fun; and play with your food. We have an open kitchen, so there's no screaming, yelling, throwing anything or having a tantrum, and I insist that we work -- the entire restaurant works -- as a team. Keep your apron, hands, station and floor clean; label, date and rotate your food; respect the life cycle of the ingredients and make sure there's no waste; don't cook or serve anything that you wouldn't pay for yourself; and accept responsibility for whatever you do.
Favorite dish to cook at home: I don't. I eat cheese and salumi at home.
Favorite dish on your menu: The one where I learned something new while creating it. My menu can change every single day, so I never get too attached to one dish.
If you could put any dish on your menu, even though it might not sell, what would it be? Luckily, I can put any dish on my menus, and I don't really ever hold back. Our small plates make tasting new and ballsy food less risky for the guest. I do, however, call tripe "trippa a la fiorentina"; the chicken liver "chicken pâté"; and pig's feet "trotters." Making the names sound sexier also makes them sound more palatable.
Guiltiest food pleasure? Let's be clear about this: Americans find plenty of things to make themselves feel guilty about. Dinner shouldn't be one of them. Food nourishes the body and gives you all the energy you need to do everything you do. Everybody eats; it's the one thing we have in common with every single other human being. Food enriches our relationships; think of everything that happens around the dinner table -- connections, communication, sharing, conversations, laughter. I dare you to name one person who doesn't crave that. Food makes us happy -- and that's the most important thing of all. Eat what you like and smile about it. I eat food that makes me moan with pleasure -- and it never embarrasses me. Another truffle? Yes, please. Do you want radishes on your tacos al pastor? Actually, I want extra. Would you like strawberries with your champagne? Definitely. Do you want bacon for breakfast? Yep, I sure do. If food makes you feel guilty, then just move your ass a little bit more. Exercise cancels out the butter, or the lard, which I'll never say no to or feel guilty about.
Best culinary tip for a home cook: If you love to cook, and have passion, that's enough, and if you find that you're not good friends with your kitchen, just learn a few basics. Buy a book or take a class, or surf the web for a couple of hours to learn basic techniques. Knowing how to hold a knife, cut an onion, grill a piece of meat and toss some veggies in fresh vinaigrette is the difference between dreading cooking -- I can't imagine how awful that must be -- and feeling confident to make a dinner that doesn't involve a box or cling film. It's all about pure, whole foods cooked with respect and a little technique.
Last meal before you die: French fries, gelato, foie gras, pork belly, rosé , a really great French dip, Cheetos, Diet Coke and salted caramel chocolates -- not necessarily in that order.