This is part one of my interview with David Payne, executive chef of Jelly Cafe; part two of our chat will run tomorrow.
My mom," sighs David Payne, "wasn't a good cook. At all." Peppers -- green bells -- cemented with ground meat and rice were a "full-on special dinner at the Payne house," he recalls, and his parents, who still live in San Antonio, the city where he grew up, consider Olive Garden a top-drawer restaurant. "For them, it's fine dining, and they love it, and that's okay, because my parents are great," says the 41-year-old chef of Jelly Cafe, a duo of quirky breakfast-and-lunch joints that couldn't be more different from the childhood chains he frequented -- and worked in.
His career path began at Denny's, where he started as a server before being poached by a fellow server, who enticed him to leave behind the Grand Slam and move up to managing a Schlotzsky's Deli. "I have mad math skills, and apparently she noticed it, so she hired me, at eighteen, to run a deli," he says. And while he was smearing mayonnaise on sandwiches (and crunching numbers), he began to like the idea of cooking. "I kinda decided that cooking was cool, but I knew, too, that if I wanted to cook, I'd need to do more than be the manager of a little sandwich shop," he says.
So he gave his notice and got a line-cook gig at the Marriott Riverwalk Hotel in San Antonio, and by the time he left, four years later, he was supervising the kitchen during dinner service. But Payne, who'd never ventured from the Lone Star State, was restless, and when a few friends suggested an extended road trip to San Francisco, he stuffed his suitcase and left.
Less than two weeks after arriving in San Francisco, he landed a breakfast stint at the famed Rick & Anne's restaurant in Berkeley, the breakfasts of which have generated a cult-like following. And for Payne, it was the perfect job. "I learned how to cook amazing breakfasts, and I loved every minute on the line. And while I was working there, I realized that there were some really great restaurants that did things from scratch -- plus, this was a place that was run by owners who had a vision that was way ahead of the curve," he says, pointing out that his menu at Jelly includes the popular red-flannel hash, a signature dish of Rick & Anne's. "That experience was a lesson in doing things right, whether I knew it or not, and to this day, it's still one of the best places I've ever worked."
Unlike Las Vegas, he says, which is where he went after two years in San Francisco. "I was young and I wanted adventure, and a friend was moving to Vegas, so I figured I'd give it a try," he recalls. He was part of the opening team of a Marriott hotel -- one without a casino that catered to a business clientele -- and the gamble didn't pay off. "Las Vegas was a letdown in every way," Payne says.
He returned to California, nabbing a line-cook position at an upscale European restaurant in Chico, where he was later promoted to exec chef. Boredom eventually set in, however, and after four years, he left to join the Pyramid Ale House, which now has multiple locations in California, along with outposts in Seattle and Portland. "It was a great place to land," says Payne. "When I got there, it was transitioning into something much bigger than it was, and I was part of the beginning of that transition. It was very cool."
Before moving to Colorado in 2010, Payne also spent years working on the line in restaurants in Austin and Chicago, where he cooked at Dunlays on the Square, where the "hours were long and the pay was unfair," he recalls. Not surprisingly, he and his girlfriend -- now wife -- wanted a change of scenery, so they "threw a dart at a map," he says. It pierced a hole in Denver.
The original Jelly was still under construction in Capitol Hill when Payne stopped in to inquire about a chef's job (the space is currently undergoing a four-week remodel). It turned out that the owners, Josh Epps and Christina Smith, were familiar with Rick & Anne's, but that wasn't enough to solidify the exec-chef job. To score that, Payne would have to cook several dishes from the stash of ingredients in the refrigerator of a friend of Jelly's owners. "They told me to open the refrigerator and cook whatever I wanted -- that was my interview," he recalls.
And he nailed it. "I did my drop biscuits, the sweet-potato-and-chorizo hash, and a frittata, and the hash really won them over," says Payne, who in the following interview explains why his food at Jelly is anything but ordinary, argues that arrogance is a recipe for disaster, and recalls the hippie guest in Berkeley who insisted that red plates are radioactive.
How do you describe your food? I try to bring thoughtful, interesting and fresh dishes to the table, along with a level of cleverness, without compromising what makes the dish great in the first place. The eggs Benedict we serve at Jelly, for example, feels like the same dish you can get elsewhere -- at least at first glance. But I've done small things to make it different. We use sourdough baguettes instead of English muffins; I slice the ham thin instead of using a small slab of Canadian bacon; and I've tweaked the Hollandaise a bit to make it subtly different by using sriracha in it. I like trying to find the truth behind the flavor of the food -- why it tastes so good. Understanding that allows you to blend flavors together so that people can follow the same "Aha!" moment you experienced when you put a dish together for the first time. And, yes, I think that we do the best breakfasts in Denver.
Ten words to describe you: Obsessive, organized, brash, focused, open-minded, directional, thoughtful, maestro, forward-thinking...and did I mention obsessive?
What are your ingredient obsessions? I love using thyme. My favorite foods are often found in the fall, and the earthy, brown essence of thyme makes my tastebuds wiggle on my tongue. I also love using pickled vegetables, and while they aren't easily used in breakfast cooking, I try to drop them into things that you might not notice.
Favorite local ingredient: Polidori sausage. I use it in so many recipes at Jelly, and not just as a main ingredient, but also as a flavor enhancer, to make foods richer and more intense.
What are your kitchen-gadget obsessions? I do love me a microplane, yes I do. A great way to add a punch of flavor is by adding a fresh grating of nutmeg or lemon zest on top of something -- anything. Try making whipped cream with a little orange zest in it. My other favorite tool is actually a home gadget that's a pepper-grinder box with a hand crank handle on top; I use it almost every night to grind fresh pepper. The cool thing is that it's quick and easy but still allows me to "pinch" my pepper into food instead of grinding it directly out of a traditional pepper grinder. Keeping my fingertips on my seasonings is something I love.
Food trend you'd like to see make a splash in 2013: Southern cooking has its heart on the farm. Immigrants from around the world picked up local ingredients and applied foreign techniques to them to create amazing flavors, and I feel like that inspiration has been rebounding for the past few years -- possibly much longer. The drive to choose local foods over industrialized, processed foods has driven many chefs to start researching food history, to learn about how food was used to its maximum nutritional potential, and to think outside the box when it comes to how food is presented in a restaurant. I'd love to see chefs think about how food was prepared on the farm, or in small communities, and to remember the home-cooking style of old Americana not so long ago -- and make that a part of how they build their menus.
Food trend you'd like to see disappear in 2013: Nothing -- I love it all. I encourage all chefs to continue to cook what you love to cook. Don't let anyone tell you to stop doing what you're doing. Personally, I love the new street-food ideas that are taking hold, and I also love the continuing evolution of Asian-inspired foods. And while bacon seems to be one of the foods that people wish would disappear, I'd never, ever want to see bacon go away. Yeah, so it's overused and played out, but I don't care. Just give me more bacon.
One food you detest: Okra. When I was a kid, we lived outside of San Antonio on several acres of land, which was just screaming for a garden. My mom and dad were crazy for two things: jalapenos and okra, and even though it's been more than twenty years since I touched my last piece of fresh, homegrown okra, I still remember it like it was yesterday. The plant was taller than I was at that age, and when I picked it, I seemed to always be looking up into the sun, no matter what side of the plant I was on. It had these small, hairy, prickly spines on each piece that would irritate your fingers during the picking, and the plant would ooze this gross sticky goo, kinda like sap, onto your fingers, and it always seemed like I had to scrub my hands forever to get it off because it would adhere to you like industrial Elmer's glue. I laugh now at how my memories are so big and dramatic, but to this day, those memories, still strong in my mind, keep me from wanting anything to do with that poor, harmless, benevolent vegetable, despite knowing that anything fried is delicious.
One food you can't live without: Different varieties of vinegar. I use balsamic vinegar for our oven-dried tomatoes and to roast portobello mushrooms; I use champagne vinegar in dressings and for pickling asparagus and other various vegetables; I use rice vinegar to pickle the green beans that we use in our bloody Mary; the jalapeno jelly is made with apple cider vinegar; and we add white vinegar to our poaching water to help coagulate the egg whites into a nice shape.
Most memorable meal you've had: I was very impressed with Frontera Grill in Chicago. We were there on a packed Saturday night and had to wait at the bar for what seemed liked forever before a table opened up, but once we sat down, we shared a trio of great ceviches and margaritas. I had the carne asada en mole negro, an aged ribeye topped with chef Rick Bayless's mole negro -- a 29-ingredient recipe he'd been working on for years that makes it nothing short of amazing. The highlight of the evening was when Bayless learned that two chefs from Austin, Texas -- my friend Melissa and me -- were sitting at one of his tables. He invited us into his kitchen, spoke with us for a short time and gave us a tour of both Frontera Grill and Topolobampo, his upscale restaurant next door, which shares the kitchen. A tour on a busy Saturday night by Rick Bayless himself? Wow. How often does that happen? What a cool night.
What do you enjoy most about your craft? I enjoy making every person who works for me grow into a great cook. Transforming a slow, arrogant, naive culinary-school graduate into a fast, mentally strong, physically dominant kitchen badass makes me proud beyond words. I know that when I'm done with them -- or they're done with me -- that they can go to the next restaurant and shine, because they now have a foundation to absorb what they see, repeat what they've been taught, be respectful to their new chef, and take what they've learned and at some point make it their own style. The kids these days -- they just don't know what they're able to accomplish until someone forces them to grow by constantly removing them from their comfort zone. I've seen some of them look back on where they were two years ago and then smile when they compare what they were then to what they are now. It's a great feeling for me, and tells me that I've done my job.
Biggest moment of euphoria in the kitchen: The first beer dinner I did in Chicago at Dunlays on the Square. I was so nervous. I'd searched for ingredients specifically to pair with five beers from one beer company, and I even had them bring me some of the barley from the brewery that I could grind up and use as a flour on one of my dishes -- a barley-crusted halibut. Each beer was paired with a separate course, and in between courses I'd come out and explain my thoughts and reasoning behind the pairings and answer questions posed by the guests. It was incredibly fun but also so stressful. And yet the night was a complete success, down to every last detail. I was like, no way, get out! Everything was perfect...I couldn't believe it.
Biggest mistake a chef can make on the line: Losing your authority. We all make mistakes. Hell, we have to make hundreds, if not thousands, of decisions on a daily basis with just seconds to think -- and that's okay. You must believe in yourself and know that even when you're wrong, you're right. Why? Because you're the chef. You fought for it, and you've earned it.
If you hadn't become a chef, what would you be doing right now? I'd probably be doing some kind of medical research that's cancer-related, or maybe plastic surgery. Actually, I'd just be a server at a nice restaurant, to tell the truth.