This is part one of my interview with Adam Watts, chef de cuisine at Jax Boulder. Part two of our chat will run on Thursday.
Cycling makes you hungry, says Adam Watts. The former professional pedaler, who spent the majority of his teen years cycling around the world as part of the Junior Olympic Mountain Bike team, grew up in a food-focused family, but wasn't a fixture at the dinner table. "My mom is kind of a self-proclaimed gourmet, and I still have fond memories of going to the local farmers' market in Grand Haven, Michigan, where I grew up, but I was on the road all the time, living in host houses or camping, so I'd travel with little burners, and wherever the races brought me, I'd be cooking -- and carb-loading -- on whatever I could to keep it interesting," says Watts, now the chef de cuisine at Jax Fish House Boulder.
His love of cycling ultimately led him to Durango, where he dabbled in catering while attending Fort Lewis College to pursue a journalism degree, but he dropped out of school -- and cycling -- after two years and moved to Kalamazoo, Michigan, where he snapped up his first gig in a professional kitchen, working as a line cook at a French bistro. He soon headed off to Grand Rapids for culinary school -- and then was sidetracked again. "I got a job as a line cook at an Italian restaurant, and the chef took me under his wing," recalls Watts, who quickly progressed to sous chef, a promotion that put the classroom on hold. But he made it there eventually, enrolling in a two-year program at Secchia Institute for Culinary Education in Grand Rapids before skipping off to Edinburgh, Scotland, for a job at Rhubarb, in the swanky Prestonfield Hotel. "It was there that I really paid my dues," says Watts. "It was where I transitioned from being a cook to a respected chef."
In the years that followed, he cooked at a Relais & Châteaux property in California, built his own small farm -- "I have a super green thumb," he reveals -- and then moved to Boulder and a slot as line cook at the Kitchen, where he moved his way up to sous chef and then chef de cuisine. He returned to Kalamazoo to test the waters there, but his wife, Sarah, who'd remained in Boulder while he was tearing up his knuckles in Michigan, persuaded him to come back. "She got her way, but she'd given me mine plenty of times, so I came back to Boulder, and connected with Sheila Lucero, the executive chef of Jax, and after two months of interviews and stages, they gave me the choice of the chef de cuisine job at Jax Denver or Boulder, and I chose Boulder," he says.
All three Jax outposts -- one opened in Fort Collins last year -- are part of the Big Red F empire, which also includes West End Tavern, Lola, Zolo Grill and Centro. Watts says he "loves the people, the freedom and the opportunities" that Big Red F owner Dave Query gives his staff. "I've learned a whole helluva lot since I've been here." In the following interview, Watts weighs in on the guest who asked for a bag of weed with his breakfast, reveals his pet peeves (the roster is lengthy), and explains why home cooks should "Google it."
Six words to describe your food: Simple, classic, honest, rustic, approachable and clean.
Ten words to describe you: Passionate, father, loyal, trustworthy, independent, thoughtful, present, traditional, resourceful and open-minded.
What are your ingredient obsessions? Colorado fruits. We have such a short window of opportunity here because of our sensitive climates, but I really look forward to our fruits every season. Strawberries, cherries, apricots, pears, gooseberries, peaches and apples are always on my radar at the farmers' market. And right now, Palisade apricots are out of this world.
What are your kitchen-tool obsessions? Shark Freestyle classic watches, a Thai mortar and pestle and Grey Kunz spoons. I never use tongs unless I'm plating something finicky; I prefer to work a station with just my spoons, and always have them on me. My mortar and pestle is perfect for making olive oil-based sauces and grinding curries, pistous and even spices. It's in constant use. As for the watch, I use the timer religiously. I'm always timing something that's cooking at the other end of the restaurant, and I can never stay in one place. It ensures that I never overcook or burn anything. Then again, I should never ever say never. Oh, and I can scrub it clean after dealing with seafood all day.
Most underrated ingredient: Anchovies. I love them in sauce bases, pasta, croutons, plain, fresh, cured, grilled, on pizza...the list goes on.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: Bob Munson's heirloom pumpkins. Each year I buy one full ton of pumpkins (he weighs them on a semi-truck scale) that I use on my menu for basically the whole winter. They have great longevity if cellared correctly, and the varieties are super fun. Blue hubbards are my favorite, by far. The best part is that you can get them at his farm stand out on East Valmont Road during the entirety of the fall season and into early winter.
Favorite spice: Smoked paprika adds a certain depth and body to a dish that regular ground paprikas can't. I use it in sauces, broths, marinades and in our sausages.
One food you detest: Reduced balsamic vinegar "drizzle." I see it on dishes in weird attempts to dress the dish up, but it never makes sense to me. Plus I've watched one too many guys burn reduced balsamic to ever warrant putting it on my menu.
One food you can't live without: Fat. Once you can appreciate the different types of fats, how and when to use them in your cooking, you'll be become consumed.
Food trend you wish would disappear: The custom frozen-yogurt shops. They're a dime a dozen now in Boulder, and by the time you build the ultimate concoction, you're in it for like $15.
What you'd like to see more of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: Brotherhood. The Denver restaurant scene seems really tight, with lots of collaborative chef dinners, monthly powwows, sticking up for one another -- you know, a brotherhood. I'd like to see more of that here in the Boulder bubble.
What you'd like to see less of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: Pizza joints. But natural selection will weed out the bad ones. I believe the meatball trend is going to take over next, and then we'll see the rebirth of doughnuts. But for now, I've had enough of all the pizza joints.
Weirdest customer request: I was working as a breakfast chef at a posh Relais & Châteaux property in the central mountains of California when a former Saturday Night Live cast member ordered his breakfast with the addition of a "bag of herb." As an employee of the hotel, you weren't allowed to tell a guest "No." The hotel's management ended up taking good care of him; he got his weed, but I'm sure he didn't remember my breakfast.
Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: Squirrel meat. It's a delicacy in Northern Michigan, but only in certain crowds. Ha! And, yes, it tastes like chicken.
Favorite junk food: Birthday Cake ice cream from Glacier Homemade Ice Cream in Boulder.
Favorite childhood food memory: My dad had an old Chris Craft fishing boat that we'd take out on Lake Michigan to day-fish for lake trout and whitefish. We'd get home after dark, but he'd always clean the fish and cook it as soon as he walked in the door. He dusted it in salt, pepper and all-purpose flour, fried it in butter and oil, squeezed it with fresh lemon and served it on a paper plate. I loved it.
Most memorable meal you've ever had: Los Caracoles -- "The Snails" -- in Barcelona, Spain. My wife and I ate there three nights in a row. It's classic Catalan cuisine, but it's the ambience that really makes it. You have to enter by walking through a kitchen that dates back to 1835, and it's super hot, and everyone is cooking on these wood-burning planchas. There are cured hams hanging from every inch of the ceiling, and the food is out of this world. Fresh snails, sardines, paella and crema catalona...yum.
Favorite restaurant in America: The Marshall Store in Tomales Bay, California. It's basically an oyster shack on the bay that sells its own oysters from the Tomales Bay Oyster Company down the road. You just sit out on the patio eating super-fresh oysters, cold beer in tow, and watch the sailboats whiz by.
What's your dream restaurant? Tapawingo -- it's Native American for "place of peace or joy" -- in Ellsworth, Michigan, was basically the French Laundry of Northern Michigan. It was hyper-seasonal, locally focused, chef-driven and a true destination restaurant. There was a talent pool of chefs and cooks picked from the finest restaurants around the country, and it had the heart and soul with all the fine touches. I'd love a destination restaurant with property for farming and the like. I just gotta keep playing my cards right, and maybe someday I'll have my own Tapawingo.
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What do you have in the pipeline? My wife, Sarah, and I are proud new parents. Opal, our daughter, just turned six months old, so we've been totally consumed with her. She's wild, wonderful and crazy. I'm also really excited about staging in some cool restaurants; one of my perks/requirements as a chef at Jax is a mandatory push for continued education. Last year, I worked in three separate three-star Michelin restaurants, and this year was a no-holds-barred trip with all the Jax chefs down to New Orleans. Soon, I'd like to check out our own oyster beds, where Jax's Emersum oysters are grown by the Rappahannock River Oyster Company in Virginia; I want to spend a few days seeing the whole process, and it'd be cool to toss in some sightseeing days in between.