This is part one of my interview with Joe Troupe, exec chef of Lucky Pie Pizza & Tap House. Part two of our chat will run in this space tomorrow.
Unless you count shit on shingles, my mom was not a good cook," says Joe Troupe, grimacing at the childhood recollection. "But lucky for us, my grandparents and my stepdad were excellent cooks, and there was nothing better than cookie days, tamale days, canning days and cabbage-roll days, where the whole family would get together and cook and eat based on whatever the theme of the day was," remembers the chef of Lucky Pie Pizza & Tap House, who grew up on a farm in Mead and spent his summers in Kansas, learning how to drive a tractor, lump bales of hay and "do weird and quirky cooking themes with my family."
His first job outside of his home kitchen was at a Round the Corner, where he helped out his uncle, an assistant manager, and got paid not in cash, but with a trip to the old Elitch Gardens, which was about all Troupe liked about his job. "At the time, working in a restaurant definitely didn't appeal to me," he says. "I didn't like the restaurant lifestyle, which seemed like nothing more than an excuse to party until 4 a.m. every day. And that wasn't my thing."
But the restaurant business has an uncanny way of stalking its prey, and it wasn't long before Troupe was caught doing time on the line at Carrabba's Italian Grill, followed by a stint at a catering company and then at Flatz, the restaurant located inside the Renaissance Boulder Flatiron Hotel in Broomfield, where Troupe was hired as a dish monkey and prep cook, eventually advancing to the grill station. While he was there, he discovered that the restaurant industry was about more -- way more -- than sex, drugs and alcohol binges. "The restaurant was ungodly slow, so we had a ton of time to just dick around with food, and I started to get really invigorated by the prospect of cooking for a living," remembers Troupe, who stayed on for a year before moving to Key West with his girlfriend -- now his wife -- and picking up at a gig at an Outback Steakhouse.
"I was a host one day a week, a server twice a week and a cook twice a week, pretty much making myself amenable to whatever they needed me to do," he recalls. But the heat of a Florida summer, which makes working in a kitchen nearly unbearable, convinced Troupe to return to Denver and Flatz, where he continued to work until one of his line cooks had a harebrained idea. "He was leaving to work at Baby Doe's and convinced me to go with him, which was, in retrospect, the worst idea -- and the worst job -- on the planet," says Troupe, who remembers "trudging around the kitchen in three inches of water and getting rained on, thanks to hoods that had holes and drains that were always clogged." The line cook, he admits, "sold me on all sorts of stuff that he thought would be cutting-edge, but instead I was sloshing through water and scooping beans and rice out of a steam table."
Needless to say, it was a short stay for Troupe. But through it all, his friendship with his line cook remained steadfast, and when the cook got a heads-up that North was opening in Cherry Creek, he and Troupe both landed there. "I was hired as a line cook, and it was an enlightening experience, to say the least," says Troupe. "I knew how to cook, but most of my prior experience was slow-paced, so I didn't know how to cook volume, which I had to learn fast, out of necessity. I had a major debacle there that nearly got me fired, and I was pushed from all sides to do it better, faster and perfect every single time."
During his tenure at North, Troupe decided to get his act together. "I knew that I really liked food and cooking, but when the chef handed me the menu and I didn't know half of the ingredients, I knew it was my make-it-or-break-it moment, that I had to either kill it or find something else to do with my life," he says. This epiphany "led to most of my discretionary money being spent on cookbooks," Troupe remembers, and also led to a new job at Bloom, the sister restaurant to North at FlatIron Crossing, where he was brought on board as the sous chef and stayed for three years.
Troupe eventually departed to continue along the learning curve. "I felt like I needed to keep moving forward and make another opportunity for myself," he admits, so he took a job at Brasserie Ten Ten in Boulder, gaining "a tremendous amount of respect for French food" during the three years he was there. By the time he left, he says, he was ready to spearhead his own kitchen, and when he saw an ad for an exec-chef position at the original Lucky Pie in Louisville, he interviewed and got the job -- a job that's now expanded to the Denver store, which opened just over a month ago. "I had four weeks to develop a menu, set up the kitchen, hire the staff and open the doors -- and that was exactly the kind of challenge I was looking for," says Troupe, who, in the following interview, weighs in on the woman who wanted her feet soaked -- and dried -- at his restaurant, among other topics.
Six words to describe your food: Simple, clean, flavorful, thoughtful and ingredient-driven.
Ten words to describe you: Passionate, respectful, honest, calm, gracious, even-keeled, ambitious, husband and father.
What are your ingredient obsessions? I can't wait for July to get here so that I can have amazing sweet corn again. In the summer, I'll put corn in everything I eat and serve. From its crisp bite on the outside to the juicy, salty goodness inside each kernel, corn just screams summer.
What are your kitchen-tool obsessions? Overhand vegetable peelers. I always have a ton of them at home, and whenever people come over, I try to give them one to bring enlightenment to the greatness of simple things. For my own personal use, it has to be good knives and our ovens at Lucky Pie. It was a little challenging learning how to use a brick oven the first time, but after figuring it out, I found that I loved cooking everything in it, from a nice big roast to mussels.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: Asking this is kind of like asking a parent who their favorite child is. I love all of the products that we buy, and not only are the products amazing, but so are the people who produce them. I always look forward to John Long's joke of the day, hearing about Jay and Cindy Wisdom's daughters' tournaments and the passion of Amy and Wyatt from Red Wagon Organic Farm. But if we're talking strictly taste, the arugula that came out of our garden in Louisville was pretty perfect. We planted our own garden last year and had an amazing summer and fall of the freshest ingredients imaginable. The arugula had the perfect pepper hint and was really bright and amazing. Our gardener, Morning Glory, kills it. I constantly strive to find exceptional local ingredients and then present them in a simple and approachable way without being expensive or precious; it's that kind of thing that sets us apart.
Most underrated ingredient: Salt. It amazes me how people still use it improperly. It's so simple, and all you need is your tongue to know if you're using it correctly.
Best recent food find: Anything from Benton's in Tennessee. Their smoked ham and bacon is amazing, and while they aren't shy about the smoke, it's not just a smoke bomb. The flavors are a perfect balance of sweetness and saltiness, and when you open the box, it's like waking up next to a campfire. I got a T-shirt with our last order and couldn't resist wearing it before washing it. It gave me that feeling of sitting around the fire with great friends while chatting and drinking.
Favorite spice: Cumin was the first spice I ever brought home. Other spices are great for nuance and building flavors, but with cumin, you can be big and bold, and it's more versatile than people think; it doesn't have to be reserved for Middle Eastern or Mexican cuisines. My personal favorite application was a cumin aioli with a pimp lamb burger at the Breslin in New York.
Food trend you wish would go away: Pizza places. We have that under lockdown now.
One food you detest: Sun-dried tomatoes. I know I'm the only person on the planet who detests them, but I just can't stand the appearance, texture, smell, taste or anything else about them. There are few things better than a fresh tomato, but why anyone would choose to dry them and consume them is beyond me. If someone needs suggestions for what to do with leftover tomatoes, I'd be more than happy to help, but to be honest, I'd just really like people to stop making sun-dried tomatoes completely.
One food you can't live without: Cheese. Not American or Wisconsin cheddar or any of that other "cheese" that floods our grocery-store shelves -- but great artisanal cheese. There are a ton of little creameries -- Sweet Grass Dairy in Georgia and Jasper Hill in Vermont, for example -- producing fantastic, unique cheeses. It's pretty awesome to see all of their cheeses becoming more readily available, and it's great that people are responding to what they're producing...and craving it.
Rules of conduct in your kitchen: I have an expectation of perpetual growth in my kitchen and in our organization. I have great admiration for someone who can do the same job for five years, but I don't necessarily want them working for me. For the continued success of a restaurant, everyone needs to move in a forward direction. I want my sous chefs to be gunning for my job, our lead guys gunning for theirs, and so on down the line. I don't want it to be in a backstabbing type of way, but I do appreciate it when everyone is hungry for more. I also expect the people at the top to want to mentor those below them. I want everyone who has spent time in my kitchen to leave with a broader understanding of food and a higher skill set than when they first walked in the door. And people need to respect each other -- not respect in the "love everyone," hippie kind of way (although a little of that might be okay), but respect as in holding each other to the standards we all know we're capable of. I would love it if a dishwasher came up to one of my line cooks and told him that his dish sucked and needed to be remade. Respect applies to everything in the kitchen, and I expect everyone to have a ton of respect for all of the food that goes in and out of our doors, as well as everything we use to produce it.
What's never in your kitchen? Ego. We're here to serve the guest and get the job done. And, yes, we are really good at our jobs; that's why we work here. I also don't like tension between the back of the house and the front of the house, which you see in a ton of restaurants. It's really amateur, and if you're a guest, you can feel the frustration while sitting at your table.
What's always in your kitchen? Great people and great ingredients are both essential to creating amazing food. I also really try to hire people based on attitude, work ethic and a desire to be in a kitchen. I can teach someone who's eager just about anything, but attitude is one of those things that you've already got prior to joining my staff. Everything we use at Lucky Pie is also hand-picked. It's really easy to get vendors into bidding wars of who can get the cheapest Pecorino, but to us, it's all about which one suits us the best.
Weirdest customer request: Working so long in Boulder County, I feel like I've heard it all, but the most bizarre request I've experienced didn't even involve food. A woman came in after spending most of her morning shopping, ordered a glass of wine and then asked her server if we had something she could soak her feet in. The server found a large bowl (which was later discarded), filled it with warm water and allowed her to soak her feet while she dined. One of our smart-ass bartenders offered to dry her feet when she was done, thinking there was no way she would take him up on the offer. The next time he walked by, the woman informed him that she was ready for her feet to be dried and, of course, our bartender was happy to help.
Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: It's hard to discern what people consider weird, but pickled lamb's tongue is probably at the top of my list. It was served in a cassoulet at Bouchon in little surprising bites. It really stood out against the earthy richness of the beans and herbs. I imagine it isn't as great in large portions, but it was pretty glorious in small amounts.
Most memorable meal you've ever had: My wife and I recently decided to run away to Vegas for a few days. The first real meal we had there was at Bouchon. I've always had a ton of admiration for Thomas Keller but never had the opportunity to sit at one of his tables. Everything about the evening was perfect. The restaurant is beautiful, and the staff is not only on point on everything, but they're really friendly as well as professional (which is harder to find than you might think). The food and the company is what really set this evening apart. We gave our server some liberty, and she brought us her favorites from the menu. I couldn't find a single flaw in any dish, from the duck confit to the boudin blanc to the lamb loin. Every dish -- every ingredient -- was perfectly cooked. Later, when I started to reflect on our dinner, I realized what our jobs as chefs really entail. People come to us for celebrations and gatherings of friends, and we should all be embracing that a lot more than trying to get as much food out as quickly as possible. This is one of our biggest goals at Lucky Pie: to facilitate great memories and celebrations.
Favorite childhood food memory: My granny used to keep a huge garden full of vegetables -- and I hated vegetables when I was young. One summer, I remember having seemingly endless piles of green beans that we cleaned for her to later can. After sitting on the back patio with my family for an eternity drinking sun tea and snipping the ends off of the beans, she'd go to the kitchen to start canning. I was fascinated by watching the top of the old pressure cooker jiggling and hearing all of the Ball jar lids snapping shut and the steam covering the kitchen window. This is where I really started to realize the difference between food that's tended with love and not mass-produced in some factory. Every year, my granny still comes over to help me plant my garden, which she knows is doomed for failure.
What's your dream restaurant? My dream restaurant is constantly changing and evolving with each of my experiences. Today it would be a restaurant focusing on the family meal. It would be a place about sharing and community, something like a holiday dinner with your family. The food would be simple and rustic and focused on the things that everyone loves to eat -- but not many people do well. The food would be all farm-fresh, with pitchers of beer and bottles of wine flowing on every table. I'd like it to have some ruckus -- loud and cheerful from open to close.
Last meal before you die: A smorgasbord of crap that doesn't go together. I'd start with a great baguette, prosciutto and a really nice farmhouse cheese. After that, I'd go back to my roots and have a big ol' slab of pulled pork with baked beans and potato salad. Then I'd move on to pork buns from Momofuku and polish it all off with some macaroons.