This is part one of my interview with Brett Smith, the executive chef at Zolo Grill. Part two of my chat with Smith will run in this space tomorrow.
"I know it's probably overkill, but we just butchered a pig, and even though this dish probably doesn't need it, you should try it," says Brett Smith, plopping down a plate of tamales augmented by fresh corn and two generous ropes of pork sausage. "I'm a pork fiend," admits Smith, the executive chef at Zolo Grill, Dave Query's Southwestern restaurant in Boulder. "I know that some people have said it's had its heyday, but I can't get enough of it. Pig is king."
But while Smith now knows how to butcher his own swine, he didn't learn much about cooking while growing up just south of Poughkeepsie, New York, in the small town of Wappingers Falls. "I definitely didn't grow up in a food family, and my first job was at a deli, and even though I learned how to use a knife -- that was the good part -- it wasn't a job that exactly made me want to be a chef," says Smith. But there was something about the fast pace of restaurant life, the adrenaline rush of working on all cylinders, that did appeal to him, and after moving to Boulder in 1994 (he wanted to ski), he snapped up a prep job at the long-gone JJ McCabe's, where he did this, that and everything else -- and it didn't take long for him to settle on his career path. "I loved the competitiveness of it, the excitement of being in the kitchen and the pulsating energy, and after a month of working there, I decided I wanted to be a chef," says Smith, who eventually landed the "illustrious title of assistant kitchen manager."
While Smith was shlepping burgers and fries behind the line at JJ McCabe's, Query was opening his first Jax Fish House, and Smith set his sights on crashing the kitchen there. He did a stage, which went well, and two days later, when a line cook didn't show up, he was hired. He stayed at Jax for four years, ending his tenure as the sous chef, and then did some time at Zolo Grill, starting as the sous and ultimately stepping into the exec-chef role -- a job, he says, that may have been too much, too soon. "I was 24 and didn't know shit -- or even half as much shit as I thought I did -- but I managed to do pretty well, and I was, at the very least, efficient," he notes.
And restless. "I decided that I needed to broaden my horizons and do some other stuff, so I left Boulder to bounce around San Diego and New York, but I was kind of spinning my wheels and eventually went back to Colorado," remembers Smith. He didn't stay long: "A buddy of mine, who was working down in St. John, called me and said I'd have a great opportunity down there, and at first I was like, I'm totally not going to do this, but he talked me into it, and by the time he was done, I wanted to get down there as quickly as possible."
And it was on St. John, while Smith was working at a Northern Italian restaurant, that everything clicked: "John, the owner, was amazing, and working for him forced me to grow up, to be more responsible and to see the big picture of running a restaurant rather than just churning out food. He was my mentor."
Smith followed him to Massachusetts, where the two were planning to open a new restaurant, but when the deal fell through -- "the previous owners totally screwed and hosed us," he says -- Smith returned to Boulder. "I'd kept in touch with Dave the whole time I'd been away, and he said that he'd have a job for me, so I went back to Jax, and when the opportunity to become the exec chef at Zolo opened up, I was ready this time to take it," explains Smith. "Zolo's been around for seventeen years, and we have incredibly loyal customers, and keeping them happy is incredibly important to us, but the real thrill for me is switching things up and keeping everything as fresh as possible" -- and, he emphasizes, "cooking with pigs."
In the following interview, Smith issues a plea for more East Coast-style delis, hints at a second Zolo Grill and admits that he's wistful for crispy pig trotters.
Six words to describe your food: Simple, flavorful, seasonal, soulful, Colorado- and pig-centric.
Ten words to describe you: Father, husband, cook, humble, hungry, passionate, loyal, protective, and a swine lover.
Favorite ingredient: Pork. Some people say chefs overuse pork and that bacon is way overused. I don't care; I love pork, and I'm constantly learning new ways to utilize the animal. To me, it's the most versatile animal there is, and any chef could spend a lifetime trying to perfect all of its uses. That said, I get that it's important to have a balanced menu, and I try not to overload it with pork. Easier said than done.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: Anything from the gang at Isabelle Farm, but specifically their chiles. It's almost time for their poblanos, Big Jims and Jimmy Nardello's, and we'll be using a ton of them at Zolo later this summer and in early fall.
Best recent food find: We recently found a small farm in Weld County that raises beautiful pigs -- and we were able to hand-select our own a couple of weeks ago. It was a cool experience to be so hands-on throughout the whole process -- and to see it all the way through to our customers. This is the fourth whole pig that I've had the opportunity to butcher, and we learn so much each time we do it -- and this time I think we made the best use of it yet.
Most overrated ingredient: I try not to get on my high horse and bag on ingredients that other chefs might be using with great success, but to me, beef tenderloin is overpriced and not very flavorful. I'd much prefer a ribeye or a skirt steak with a great marinade over a beef tenderloin any day.
Most underrated ingredient: Honey. I use it a lot at Zolo to give some of our salsas and sauces a little sweetness and balance.
Favorite spice: New Mexican red chile powder from a company called The Chile Guy out of Albuquerque. There aren't many recipes at Zolo where we don't use New Mexican chile powder.
One food you detest: The only thing I truly detest is nuts, and that's only because I'm allergic to most of them; eating nuts earns me a trip to the hospital. Fortunately, I can eat peanuts and I love them. Tree nuts kick my ass, and you don't see too many of them around the restaurant.
One food you can't live without: Pork. And more pork.
Rules of conduct in your kitchen: We don't have a whole lot of specific rules in our kitchen, mainly because I'm super-fortunate to have a crew that consists of five people who have been there for over ten years -- and several more who have been here for three or more. These guys know the routine; they come in and work hard every day and just get it done with a minimal amount of bullshit. When new people start, they either fall in line or they don't last too long. Our sous chef, Jed, is nicknamed "Sarge," so he keeps everyone in line.
Biggest kitchen disaster: On St. John, they don't have gas that comes from the ground, like we have here. They just have large tanks at restaurants and smaller ones at people's homes that you just replace -- or the company comes and refills them. One night during a busy service, we ran out of gas at the restaurant during a dinner rush, and we had to stop cooking and make a couple of guys go and grab the tanks from their own houses. The tanks were smaller than the ones at the restaurant, so they ran out of gas quickly, and we had to keep running outside to change the gas while we were trying to put food out. Ah, yes, life in paradise.
What's never in your kitchen? Tofu. Yes, we're in Boulder, which is probably the tofu capital of the world, but you will not find any tofu at Zolo.
What's always in your kitchen? At least two -- and usually a lot more -- hardworking hombres from Zacatecas, Mexico. I swear these guys were born to cook, and we're lucky to have the crew that we do.
Favorite music to cook by: I personally prefer silence, but my day team -- they kick butt -- rock out to Radio Romantica or Mexicanisima, or whatever the Spanish-language station is called these days. And if they're happy, then I'm happy.
Favorite dish to cook at home: Anything simple that we can throw on the grill, although I also like to make big batches of red sauce and meatballs on cold Sunday mornings in the winter.
Favorite dish on your menu: Probably our pork blade steak with grilled peach salsa, roasted potatoes and creamed corn. The pork, a bone-in shoulder that's not on a lot of menus, is brined, cold-smoked and then grilled. I think we do a pretty good job with it.
If you could put any dish on your menu, even though it might not sell, what would it be? Crispy pig trotters in fennel broth. It would be a take on probably the best dish of my life -- a dish I ate at Charlie Trotter's about eleven years ago. Maybe we'll try it out with our next pig. Who knows? It might even sell.
What's your favorite knife? I have a six-inch Messermeister cleaver that's ten years old and cost me just $35. I use it every day at work; me and that knife have been through thick and thin together.
What's next for you? We're working on our next dinner at Isabelle Farm in late August -- and those dinners are always a highlight of the year. In the long term, maybe a second Zolo -- I'm ready, Dave Query, call me -- and eventually a little neighborhood spot of my own in my current home town of Erie.