This is part one of my interview with Aaron Bennett, exec chef of Boulder's Bácaro Venetian Taverna. Part two of our chat will run tomorrow.
Aaron Bennett's career in the kitchen began when he was thirteen. Like most teen boys, he was intrigued by cars, knew he wanted to hit the pavement the day he turned sixteen, and understood that if he wanted to cruise, he needed to save some dough -- a lot of it. "I started washing dishes five nights a week after school as soon as my parents told me that they'd match what I'd saved," recalls Bennett, now the executive chef of Bácaro Venetian Taverna. "I worked at a restaurant on Lafayette, saving just about every penny I earned."
He eventually got the car, and while dish duty was simply a means to an end, he continued to work in Colorado kitchens, doing time on the line at the now-gone Karen's Country Kitchen in Louisville, where he worked his way up from dishes to the omelet station after the regular egg dork didn't show up for his shift. "At that point, I'd really taken a liking to cooking, and I've been doing it ever since," says Bennett, who moved to Denver when he was eighteen to take a gig as the deli supervisor at a former Alfalfa's Market, where he quickly found himself creating dishes for the hot case. "It turned out that I had a natural ability to cook without recipes," he recalls, "and I didn't just like cooking; I was really good at it, and I knew that I wanted to stick with it."
He began applying to culinary schools, but found the tuition prohibitive and instead turned to the American Culinary Federation's Chef Apprenticeship program, a three-year curriculum that requires students to find a certified executive chef sponsor to take them under the knife. Bennett enrolled and landed an apprenticeship at the Brown Palace. "I know that it was the best place at the time to do my apprenticeship, but the chef really didn't want to take one on, so I called him two or three times a week for three weeks -- bugged the shit out of him -- until he relented on the condition that I promised to stop bothering him," remembers Bennett.
"It was the best thing I ever did," he adds, noting that he worked every station in all three restaurants -- Palace Arms, Ship Tavern and Ellyngton's -- and was the first apprentice there to run the grande dame's private dining club. Bennett completed the program, and after "spending three years at some of the best restaurants in Denver, I wanted to work for the best hotel in the state," he says, so he trotted up to Aspen, where he became the chef de tournant at Montagna in the Little Nell. "It was a super-challenging job, super-busy and super-high-quality," says Bennett, who left when he spotted an ad for a sous-chef position at the Ritz-Carlton in Aspen Highlands. Not long after, at the age of 26, he was promoted to executive chef. "Right after I got the job, I had to host the Best New Chefs dinner at the Aspen Food & Wine Classic, and it was incredibly daunting," he remembers. "It was absolutely manic, and everything was total trial by fire...but it was also one of the best times I've ever had."
After several years at the Ritz, though, Bennett says his "wheels started to spin" when he got bogged down in administrative responsibilities. "I became a chef so I could cook, but I was so occupied by hotel BS that I'd stopped, so I left," he recalls. He was offered a position cooking at the Beaver Creek Lodge, but while he was back to slinging pans -- and making lots of money -- Bennett says he'd walked into an internal mess that couldn't be cleaned up. "Suffice it to say that as far as food and beverage was concerned, it was in shambles. It was the worst experience of my life, and the first and only time I left without giving notice," he admits.
Bennett returned to Aspen "with my tail between my legs" and helped opened a chef-driven restaurant called Dish, where, he says, he had the "most fun he's ever had," turning out ten-course tasting menus at a chef's table in the exhibition kitchen, and "jamming to Metallica on a seriously badass stereo system."
When Dish shuttered, Bennett returned to Ellyngton's at the Brown Palace as the chef de cuisine, and followed that gig with jobs at Tutti's in Lafayette and Arugula in Boulder before he learned that Bácaro was hiring a sous. In June, just two months later, he moved from sous to the exec-chef job. "In the last month and a half, we've drastically changed our concept," says Bennett. "We used to be much more traditional Italian with a ton of small plates -- we had 119 items on the menu -- and now we've pared down the menu to about 45 dishes, which include entrees, and our focus is on all local, all organic, small farm producers, and we make just about everything we serve right here."
In the following interview, Bennett talks about his upcoming farm dinners, explains why he's a rebel when it comes to Latin-fusion cuisine, and gives up the goods on Morimoto, who isn't above getting dirty.
Six words to describe your food: Thoughtful, clean, interesting, balanced, flavorful and umami.
Ten words to describe you: Fun, passionate, dedicated, loving, unique, original, big, stubborn, insightful and obsessive.
What are your ingredient obsessions? I go crazy for fresh, local, high-quality produce, and I get excited to the point of ridiculousness about stuff like wild porcini mushrooms from the Boulder foothills, the amazing corn that I get once a week from Munson Farms on my way to work -- and on the rare occasion that I can buy a fresh white truffle, I get giddy like a schoolgirl. I'm also obsessed with fresh herbs, which I use in one way or another in almost every one of my savory recipes, even putting fresh thyme and parsley into large batches of stocks.
What are your kitchen-tool obsessions? I'm a very simple chef: Give me a really sharp knife and a cutting board, and I'm happy. That said, I love having a good Vita-Prep blender, a strong Robot Coupe with all the attachments, and this amazing pasta cooker that I just can't tell you how much I love; I also really love a Cryovac machine, because it's so versatile and great for adding longevity to portioned proteins -- plus it really infuses the marinade that you use for your steak, or chicken, for example. It's also great for doing sous-vide preparations.
Most underrated ingredient: This probably isn't true worldwide, or in bigger foodie cities like Chicago and New York, but in Boulder, at least, it's pork. I absolutely adore pork, mainly because there are just so many different things that you can do with it -- so many preparation methods and so many other types of proteins and ingredients that are enhanced or made different by utilizing the many different parts that the wonderful pig provides. I love making my own bacon, and it's so easy and fun to do that I can't fathom why more chefs don't do it.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: Right now, Colorado peaches from Palisade. I just got a case of peaches from Black Bear Orchards last week that were the best peaches I've tasted in my entire life -- and while I even worked at the Ritz-Carlton in Georgia during peach season, these blew those outta the water. Don't tell anyone from Georgia this, but in general, Colorado peaches are simply way better than Georgia peaches. I get them through a company called Source Local Foods, a company that works with many different local farmers and keeps a small inventory on hand. I might pay a dollar or two more a case through Source, but I only have to deal with them and maybe two or three other farms instead of calling ten different farms every time I make an order. It's a great idea...only wish I'd thought of it first.
Favorite spice: Coriander seed. I love how versatile it is and how -- especially when lightly toasted and ground -- it has this really great floral fragrance to it. If you dust a piece of tuna with it, for example, and then sear it, you get a wonderful taste contrast and a nice little crunch to the outside that adds to the experience. I also use it in brines and marinades, and it's a great addition to your aromatics when pickling things.
One food you detest: Any food that that's not prepared with the proper care, love and respect for the ingredients. I once ate at a Thai restaurant -- we'll leave it nameless -- and while we couldn't put our fingers on what was actually wrong with it, we knew it was bad. It turned out that the owner of this restaurant was arrested for smuggling people into the USA from Thailand and basically keeping them as slave labor in his three restaurants to "pay off" their debt to him. And then I got why the food was so bad: The people in the kitchen were angry, and they were translating that anger and lack of love onto the food. I know it is a total cliché to say "The secret ingredient is love," but I really do buy into that.
One food you can't live without: Bagels. I grew up with a Jewish mother from New York, so good-quality bagels were always a staple in our house. And to this day, I always have bagels and cream cheese in my own house. One of my top five favorite foods is a nice, dense salted bagel that's lightly toasted, spread with cream cheese and topped with thinly sliced smoked salmon, paper-thin sliced red onion, some juicy slices of fresh tomato and a few capers. That's absolute heaven to me.
Food trend you wish would disappear: Latin fusion. I freakin' love authentic Mexican food, and usually don't enjoy myself when I go somewhere that plays around with those original recipes. Not to take anything away from the talented chefs that have successful Latin-fusion restaurants, but I personally can't stand them, and would much prefer to just get a big plate of crispy carnitas with some hot, handmade corn tortillas; that, to me, is perfection. Why on earth would you want to change that? This whole Latin-fusion thing is different from utilizing different ethnic ingredients in your cooking. For example, I love using stuff like ginger and lemongrass, but I have zero idea how to cook any authentic Asian dishes. And anyway, that's what I feel American cuisine is: taking ingredients from all over the world, using basic, solid technique, and letting the ingredients speak for themselves.
What's never in your kitchen? Anything bought or pre-made. We make nearly everything from scratch, and that includes bread, pasta, stocks, desserts, gelato, sauces, and a whole lot more. I'll never have mashed potatoes in the summer or use ingredients that are out of season. In this day and age, you can get pretty much any ingredient you want at any time of the year, but that doesn't mean you should use it -- plus using out-of-season ingredients is very expensive.
What's always in your kitchen? Garlic, shallots, butter, fresh herbs, tomatoes and me.
Rules of conduct in your kitchen: Be willing to learn; keep busy; if you have a question, ask; if you think you know something that I don't, never be afraid to teach me; and don't just disappear from the line without telling me first. My favorite quote from any movie come from Dinner Rush and sums it up how I feel really well: "There are three acceptable answers in my kitchen: Yes, chef; No, chef; or I don't know, chef." Those three responses are a big part of how I excelled during a grueling three-year apprenticeship at the Brown Palace Hotel and how I became sous chef of the Ritz-Carlton Aspen at 24. Also: A big no-no in my kitchen is complaining, because it tends to catch on like a wildfire, and one discontented cook can create an atmosphere of negativity really fast. My take on complaining is, no one said you have to be here. If you don't like it, you're free to leave, but this is my kitchen and this is how we do things. I'm happy and willing to listen to my crew, and I truly do take their ideas and concerns to heart, but only if they're delivered in a well-thought-out, non-complaining way.
What are your biggest pet peeves? People who come into a restaurant five minutes before it closes, but mainly people who order a gorgeous piece of steak, salmon or tuna well done. That just kills me. They obviously have no idea what they're doing and don't care about what they're eating.
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What do you have in the pipeline? Growing my career and business here at Bácaro, changing our menu with the seasons and to just keep growing and learning as a chef and teacher. And on the third Thursday of every month, we're doing farm-to-table community-style dinners that are completely dictated by what the farmers tell me is fresh and good that day. The dinners are anywhere from four to eight courses, very casual and a ton of fun.