This is part one of my interview with Wade Kirwan, executive chef of Adrift. Part two of our chat will run tomorrow.
It's mid-day, and the lights are dim at Adrift, the tiki bar and restaurant that opened three months ago on South Broadway. Wade Kirwan, Adrift's executive chef, is sprawled out in one of the chartreuse half-mooned booths, pounding water and soaking up the silence. "I love this, when I'm here alone and it's quiet," he says. Minutes later, staffers start to trickle in, and one of them, a bartender, reveals that he just lost a good friend. Kirwan excuses himself to embrace his friend and colleague. When he returns, his eyes are red and misty and he takes a deep breath.
Chefs, by and large, are emotional beings. Kirwan is no exception -- and when he's in the kitchen, that emotion is especially palpable. Born in a small town in Pennsylvania, he's been cooking since he was a kid, helping his mom out in the kitchen and scooting home at the same time every night to eat dinner. "My mother made me -- made me -- come home every single night at 5:30 for dinner. There was no getting out of it," he remembers. And while she wasn't a "gourmet chef," notes Kirwan, "her French fries were amazing. They made me so pumped, and during the holidays, we also used to make gingerbread houses together."
Kirwan's first job was as a stock boy at a grocery store, but it didn't take long to maneuver his way behind the line. "The cooks were always asking me to do stuff -- make fruit baskets, peel potatoes, lots of prep work -- and I really enjoyed it," he says. And as he continued to move from gig to gig, he learned the ropes, which prepared him for a move to Colorado. "I'd also worked as a dishwasher and a prep cook at a country club, and as a busser in a hotel, but I lived in a shit town, and when a buddy of mine called and said he was moving to Colorado -- and had a job for me -- I pretty much packed up and left," relates Kirwan, who snapped up a restaurant stint in Boulder before heading to the hills of Breckenridge, where he landed at the now-gone Cafe Alpine.
"That's where I really learned about food and good ingredients and taking care with your job and your craft," says Kirwan. "I remember getting some dragon tongue beans in one day and thinking that was the coolest name for a bean I'd ever heard of. Up until then, I didn't even know things like that existed."
He'd soon learn more about exotic ingredients, his craft and what it was like to burn his knuckles on the burners at one of the top restaurants in Denver: Vesta Dipping Grill. "I walked in, talked to the guy on the grill, who talked to someone else, and they told me that the chef -- Matty Selby -- was in New York, staging at Gramercy Tavern for two weeks," recalls Kirwan. But he wasn't willing to wait that long. "I'd been to Vesta for dinner in the past, and I just loved it. I knew that someday I wanted to work there, so I was like, fuck two weeks, I'm going back tomorrow." And he did, snatching up a line-cook position -- and, a month later, the sous-chef job. The promotions continued until he decided to take a sabbatical to San Francisco.
"I needed to change it up, plus San Francisco is my favorite city in America," says Kirwan, who only stayed for six months before carting his knives back to Denver -- and Vesta. "It was just too expensive in San Francisco, and the guys I worked with there were complete dicks. They definitely weren't cool. At all."
But the Vesta crew, where Kirwan returned as the executive chef, was waiting for him with open arms. He held that position for five years, eventually departing for good, he says, because "it was starting to feel a little stagnant." And while his exit was "all good and amicable," he allows that "it was just time to move on and do something different."
He bounced around for a bit, cooking at Solera, Crash 45 and Encore, leaving the latter after being "recruited" by the owners of Adrift. "I came in and checked out the space, and it was beautiful, plus they were willing to give me free rein with the menu, which I was super-stoked about," says Kirwan. "It's still a little bit of a learning process, and I'm still figuring things out, but so far people are responding positively to the menu, and I'm having a blast."
In the following interview, Kirwan offers a colorfully worded explanation of his pet peeves, confesses that he once appeared in a Pepsi commercial he's never seen, and explains why Jack Tripper is one of his culinary heroes.
Six words to describe your food: Fun, practical, savory, balanced, spontaneous and pretty.
Ten words to describe you: Playful, loyal, flirty, honest, disorganized, caring, dedicated, talkative, imaginative and friendly.
What are your ingredient obsessions? Man, I'm in love with so many things, and I really love it when I'm introduced to something new, but my must-haves are citrus zest, mushrooms, goat cheese, balsamic vinegar, really good tomatoes and anything duck-related.
What are your kitchen tool obsessions? Definitely my microplane and my Wüsthof Ikon knife, but my real obsession is a wooden spoon. I think it reminds me of my childhood.
Most underrated ingredient: Colorado-grown and -raised ingredients. We have some really awesome food in our state that just isn't utilized as much as it could be. Once a year, for a short time in the fall, EatDenver restaurants put on an event called Harvest Week, where they showcase Colorado products. It's really cool and allows you to see all the great ingredients we have here, right in our own back yard.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: I really love the sheep's-milk ricotta from Fruition Farms. It's so good that you could just eat it with a spoon.
Favorite spice: Togarashi. It's a Japanese seven-spice that adds heat, but also a really nice savory element that can elevate a dish to another level.
One food you detest: Broccoli is pretty much the only food I can't stand. I hate the texture, and it just smells bad. It's funny, though, because I have no problems with broccolini.
One food you can't live without: Life would be so sad if I couldn't eat dairy. Butter, ice cream, cheese -- these are the cornerstones of a nutritious diet. Ha! No, really, though, I love dairy like you wouldn't believe.
Food trend you wish would disappear: People who call themselves "foodies." Do you need to justify your food knowledge with a label?
What are your biggest pet peeves? Cooks poking holes in the plastic wrap on containers instead of just taking it off -- you know, guys that stick their fingers through the plastic wrap rather than removing it. That drives me nuts. It's super-lazy. Hanging dirty knives on the knife rack kills me, too. Actually, that destroys me. People that burn shit or fuck food up and then try to sell it -- that pisses me off, too. You made that wrong, but you're going to sell it anyway? No, dude, you should fucking know better than that. Don't do things wrong. That's pussy-ass bullshit. I don't do that. I start over and tell the server to tell the table that I messed up. If it's wrong, fucking fix it.
What's one thing that people would be surprised to know about you? When I was younger, I was in a Pepsi commercial, but it only aired in Japan. I've never even seen it. Have you?
What's your best piece of advice to culinary-school grads? Don't settle for a job that isn't going to challenge you -- or stop you from learning. Go after a restaurant you really love. I feel like sometimes culinary-school kids graduate and just get a job to get a job. If you want to work at Fruition, Mizuna, or Table 6, be adamant about wanting to work there. That's how I got my job at Vesta. Be persistent and passionate. If they tell you to come back in two weeks, come back the next day...and the next.
Biggest compliment you've ever received: Having a table call you out of the kitchen just to tell you how much they loved your food and how they had an amazing meal. That's a really great feeling.
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What do you have in the pipeline? Nothing at the moment. I just opened Adrift a few months ago, and I'm still working on that. It's going well.