"I got my ass kicked, but man, did I learn a lot," recalls Tyler Wiard, talking about the early '90s and his days as a line cook for Dave Query and John Platt at Q's Restaurant in the Hotel Boulderado. He must have been up to the task, because Query pulled him off that line and into the fray of Jax Fish House in Boulder before Wiard was eventually lured to Denver by Cliff Young, a former Mile High City restaurateur who opened Napa Cafe and stationed Wiard at the helm.
But while Wiard, now the executive chef at Elway's in Cherry Creek, has spent time in some of the best kitchens in Denver, including the Fourth Story and the original Mel's Bar and Grill, he credits his success to hard work, a passion for cooking...and taking the path of least resistance.
Westword caught up with Wiard in the bar at Elway's, where he dished on culinary students with attitudes, a horrible experience at Tom Colicchio's Craftsteak in New York, his admiration for Dave Query and Mel and Janie Master, and the very real possibility of more Elway's concepts.
Six words to describe your food: Intense, bold, flavorful, creative, balanced and clean.
Ten words to describe you: Uncompromising, caring, funny, hyper, passionate, creative, curious, intense, giving and cynical.
Favorite ingredient: Any type of onion, whether it's chives, a scallion or a yellow, white or red onion. The onion is the most essential ingredient in my kitchen. Raw, cooked, braised, confited, charred, grilled -- it doesn't matter. Onions are the spice of my cooking. There's no way in hell I'd ever make a soup without an onion. I don't care if it was Thomas Keller's soup. If he didn't have an onion in his soup, I'd put one in -- I'm not kidding.
Most overrated ingredient: Lobster. It's so overpriced for the limited flavor you get out of it. I understand that people can eat it all day long, and that's cool, but it's just not my gig. I mean, look at it: It's nothing but a sea roach. I would much rather eat a grilled spot prawn or a poached Mexican white shrimp.
Most undervalued ingredient: Parsley is my unsung hero. There's a reason why the Italians, French and Spanish use so much parsley. It's an amazingly balanced herb that brings out so many great flavors in other foods.
One food you detest: Peanut butter. I detest the texture and the flavor. I can't even stand the smell of it.
One food you can't live without: Salsa. I eat it almost every day. The combined flavors of tomatoes, onions, chiles and lime are unbeatable.
Rules of conduct in your kitchen: This is not just a job; it's a way of life. If my cooks don't love to eat, cook and learn, then they don't work for me. Someone once told me to shut the fuck up and cook, and that's sort of the theme in my kitchen. I also insist that it doesn't matter who walks through the door at Elway's: The house salad should be just as amazing as the porterhouse. If you slight a customer because they order the burger instead of a steak, then you shouldn't work for me. Every single person who walks through our door deserves the best, and my rule is that we give it to them.
Most embarrassing moment in the kitchen: I was working at Mel's on a busy Saturday night with three new line cooks, and we were completely in the weeds. No one, including me, knew that two of the ovens weren't working until we had over twenty plates come back to the kitchen at the same time because nothing was hot. I had a major meltdown tantrum and blamed everyone but myself. I should have owned up to all of it, but I didn't. Instead I blew up and lost it and humiliated myself. Talk about a humbling experience. I learned a lot from that night...
What you'd like to see more of in Denver from a culinary standpoint: I'd love to see a real farmers' market, one that's totally focused on agriculture. I'd also like to see more butcher shops, more cheese shops and more ethnic grocers.
What you'd like to see less of in Denver from a culinary standpoint: Less arrogance in the industry as a whole, but especially in the kitchen. These fresh-faced culinary students are skipping the first ten chapters of becoming a line cook or a chef. They're going straight from a culinary degree to being a chef, so that they're missing all of the blue-collar parts of the job. They'd rather take the path of least resistance. Aspiring chefs need to realize that they need to get their hands dirty. They need to clean, wipe and scrub; that's part of being a professional in the kitchen. I'll pearl-dive if I have to. I'll bust suds. In my kitchen? No pain, no gain.
Favorite celebrity chef: Mario Batali. He's serious about being a chef, but he doesn't take himself too seriously. I ran into him during the Aspen Food & Wine Classic one year, and he was just such a great guy. He's down-to-earth, humble and fun-loving, and I love his spirited, fun approach to food.
Celebrity chef who should shut up: Tom Colicchio. He has such an elitist attitude. My wife and I went to Craftsteak in New York, and it was shit. We barely ate anything, and when we got the bill, I was just angry. The guy just has no humility.
What's next for you? We're in the initial stages of coming up with new concepts for Elway's. We're playing around with a burger or a fish concept, even Southwestern food. We're definitely looking to expand our brand locally and nationally, and whether we do a burger joint or a bistro or another steakhouse, I definitely want to be involved.
For part two of Lori Midson's interview with Tyler Wiard, check back here tomorrow.