This is part one of my interview with Bentley Folse, exec chef of Finley's Pub. Part two of our chat will run tomorrow.
I suppose my parents liked the car," muses Bentley Folse, whose first name conjures images of a wealthy frat boy who scoots around in, well, a Bentley. "Yeah, whenever people meet me, they think I'm that rich kid," he says, pointing out that the assumption couldn't be further from reality. "My parents may have named me Bentley, but they had an old Ford F-150 that leaked oil all the time. I ain't rich, honey."
But he can cook, which is what he told the guy at a Boulder coffee shop who berated him for his regal name. "I was wearing a collared shirt, and apparently the guy heard me say my name, because the dude totally went off on me, and I was all, 'Look, I'm a line cook, and I work at country clubs -- I'm not a country-club member,'" recalls Folse, who admits that he once tried to "hit on a girl" named Bentley, which "didn't pan out so well."
Despite a few obstacles along the way, his professional cooking career did. He started his time on the line in Louisiana, his home state, and later attended the Culinary Institute of Louisiana, graduating and moving on "to cooking at real restaurants in Baton Rouge," private cheffing and catering. "I've always had a love/hate relationship with being a chef, so I took a few breaks from the restaurant kitchen in my career to cater and cook for families, but cooking is what I do best, and I keep getting sucked back into the industry," he says, adding that when he was going through his "hate" phases, he'd take time-outs to work at bike shops to feed his passion for extreme cycling and dirt-bike jumping.
He got his first taste of Colorado on a snowboarding trip to Steamboat Springs, which included a side jaunt to Boulder. "I was in a cramped Honda Civic with four friends, but I didn't care, because as soon as we got to Boulder, I fell in love with it -- with the atmosphere, the lifestyle, the people, everything," remembers Folse, who eventually moved to Denver after leaving a job as the executive chef of a start-up country club in Baton Rouge.
"I got to Denver and pounded the 16th Street Mall until I got a reasonable call-back for the sous-chef gig at Willie G's," says Folse, admitting that the "whole corporate thing wasn't really my style." He later worked at the Denver Country Club and at Papillon, sharing the burners with Radek Cerny, now the chef-owner of L'Atelier in Boulder. "It was getting all these awards for best restaurant, and I really liked what Radek was doing -- except for the potato baskets -- and I really enjoyed it until I got to work one day and there were two notes on the door, one in English and one in Spanish, that said something like 'We are closed,'" he recalls.
He returned to the Denver Country Club to run the breakfast shift, loathed it, left and went back to catering, securing a back-captain job at Whirled Peas, a Denver-based catering company that eventually dissolved. Disenchanted with the food industry, Folse switched gears to open a medical marijuana dispensary on Colfax Avenue. "It was 2010, the time was right, it was an awesome location and we had great reviews," he says. And then he lost everything. "Nineteen days after I gave the state a non-refundable $8,500 for a state license, the city shut us down because we were 970 feet away -- we needed to be 1,000 feet away -- from a 'childcare facility'" -- a "facility," he says, that was "a juvie hall operating out of a house without a sign."
Downtrodden and broke but not beaten, he picked himself back up and started scouring Craigslist for kitchen jobs, and he found one at Trillium, Ryan Leinonen's Scandinavian-influenced restaurant in the Ballpark district. "I was one of the first guys who Ryan hired," notes Folse, who came on board as the lead line cook. He departed, he says, "for a way better opportunity to do my own thing and cook my own food."
That opportunity was at Finley's Pub, which opened last month in West Washington Park. "I knew Pete, the owner, from my days working at Whirled Peas, and I'd always liked him, trusted him and knew he was a man of his word, so I was willing to leave Trillium to do this," he explains, adding that he "gets to run his own show, be creative and push the envelope."
It's new, he admits, and the budget is tight, but "I want to wow people with my food and blow them away, and I thrive on being the underdog." He's already working on adding more dishes to the menu, but while you're waiting to see what Folse does next, you can chew on his reflections about egos, pig's eyes and roasted chicken (recipe included) in the following interview.
Six words to describe your food: Thoughtful, comforting, unique, time-consuming and rustic.
Ten words to describe you: Picky, compact, loyal, hardworking, family man, resourceful, versatile and open-minded.
What are your ingredient obsessions? Duck fat, egg yolks, sea salt, lemons, locally grown arugula, pretty much all cheese, short ribs, pork belly, heirloom tomatoes and oysters...just to name a few.
What are your kitchen-tool obsessions? There are no fancy gadgets in my kitchen, although my Shun Premier knife is pretty rad; it's stainless Damascus, baby. Don't get me wrong: I'd love to have a Pacojet -- hell, I'd be happy with a convection oven -- but I guess I'll have to wait on both.
Most underrated ingredient: Quinoa, which is so versatile. It can be used in hot or cold applications, in salads or entrees, lightly or heavily. We use black quinoa from White Mountain Farm in the San Luis Valley in several of our dishes, and I'll probably be turning out a veggie burger utilizing it soon. Our demographic contains a large number of vegetarians, and they deserve just as much of a selection as the carnivores.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: I love the goat cheese from the Jumpin' Good Goat Dairy in Buena Vista. The texture is amazing, and the flavor is more like triple-cream Brie with hints of Gorgonzola. Paired with local arugula, it's a perfect match. Palisade peaches rock, as well.
Favorite spice: The smoked paprika from Penzeys Spices doesn't last long in my home. It's such a well-rounded spice, and I find myself using it in everything from hollandaise to grits to dry rubs for chicken and ribs. In fact, whenever I go to Penzeys, I'm like a kid in a candy store. I often spend way too much money in there, but with no regrets. Pretty much everything they have is superb, from the saté to the tandoori spices. It's all ultra-high-end, and the smells are so enticing.
Food trend you wish would disappear: Molecular gastronomy. It's pure nonsense.
One food you detest: Cottage cheese, although it's a hard question to answer because as a chef, I take it as a challenge to make every food taste phenomenal. That said, I'm simply not motivated to use cottage cheese for anything. Nonetheless, I've turned cottage cheese into a dark-chocolate pot-de-crème-type thing in the past, and while it wasn't bad, it certainly wasn't ready for prime time. I used a cheesecloth and...never mind.
One food you can't live without: Although it's been thirteen years since I left the South, I still find a reason to indulge in fried chicken. Wings fall into this category, too, and seem to be far more popular. We'll soon be implementing a late-night happy-hour menu with the addition of two to three wing selections. Coconut-Thai will most likely be one of the options. I could eat wings on a daily basis.
Most memorable meal you've ever had: Brunch at Bittersweet Plantation in a town called Donaldsonville, just off the mighty Mississippi. I was with my brother Trent, my mother and my granny. I don't remember what I ate, but it was the last meal I had with my grandmother, and it was most enjoyable.
Favorite dish on your menu: The short-rib-and-sirloin burger with smoked bacon, sharp Tillamook cheddar and Béarnaise on a brioche bun with shaved onion and Bibb lettuce. It's a great contrast of flavors.
Biggest menu bomb: There are too many to mention, but early in my career, I thought that because I was the guy cooking, everything I did was the bomb -- and it definitely bombed. I thought everything I touched would turn to gold. That was clearly not the case.
Weirdest customer request: A juicy, well-done steak. And during my very first cooking job, someone sent some fries back because they were too cold. I sent out a brand-new batch, and they proceeded to send them back again because they were too hot.
Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: A pig's eye. I joined the Army in the early '90s, and my father threw me a "couchon de lait" -- a pig roast. The pig was slow-cooked overnight and basted, and the result was tender, juicy goodness. The eye was pretty mushy, but it was a great time with family and friends.
Best recipe tip for an at-home cook: Learn to properly prepare a whole roasted chicken. It's affordable, easy, and you can feed your friends. Season it liberally inside and out with salt, fill the cavity with aromatics like thyme, rosemary and parsley, and roast it on a bed of carrots and celery if you don't have a roasting rack. Drizzle it with olive oil and put it in a 425-degree oven. After 45 minutes, lower the temperature to 350 and cook it until the thermometer registers 180 degrees in the thigh. Let it rest and then dig in.
Last meal before you die: King-sized oyster po'boy, probably from Crabby Jack's in New Orleans. But if I'm preparing the po'boy, than I'd go about it like this: crispy cornmeal-coated Gulf oysters on buttered fluffy French bread with lemon-chive tartar sauce and Bibb lettuce with Creole tomatoes. I totally wouldn't mind dying after I enjoyed one of these amazing Southern treats.