This is part one of my interview with JP Krause, exec chef of Aloft Broomfield. Part two of our interview will run in this space tomorrow.
"Right. My name. It's John Patrick, but ever since high school, I've gone by JP, because there are just way too many damn Johns in the world, and every time I'd go to the grocery store, I'd hear someone yell my name and a billion people would turn around. That doesn't happen so much anymore," says JP Krause, executive chef at the Aloft Hotel in Broomfield, where he oversees everything from banquets to the bar menu in the swanky lounge.
But before he named himself JP, he was growing up in Aurora, hanging out in restaurants just about every night with his parents and grandparents. "We didn't have a lot of home-cooked meals in my house -- I don't have any 'My grandma cooked that!' stories -- but the family would get together all the time at restaurants, and I always felt like I'd been transported to another world," remembers Krause, who admits his grandmother still wants to take him to White Fence Farm every year for his birthday. "We didn't eat at the fanciest restaurants, but we went to an awful lot of places, and many of them, like White Fence Farm and Dino's, an old-fashioned Italian restaurant on Colfax, are still family traditions for us."
And so is pizza, which is what lured Krause into the restaurant business. He was fifteen and started scrubbing dishes at an Armando's Pizza in Aurora, but in a matter of weeks he'd been given a solid promotion...to dough-slinger, which had its perks. "Not only did I love to cook and eat pizza, but there was this little window cut-out that allowed people to look in and see me show off my pizza-tossing skills, and I always kinda looked forward to that," admits Krause, who still stuffs his piehole on a regular basis with Chicago deep-dish.
After graduating from Regis High School, Krause hightailed it to San Diego, where he enrolled in a continuing-education culinary program that allowed him to attend classes and apprentice alongside chefs who showed him the ropes. "It wasn't a full-blown culinary school, but I learned a tremendous amount," recalls Krause, adding that it was enough to secure his first job in fine dining at a hotel restaurant in Pebble Beach, where he bounced around every station. "They called it a junior sous-chef job, which is just another name for slave," he jokes, "but the chef wanted to teach me everything, and I wanted to learn as much as I could, and by the time I left, I had really fallen in love with cooking."
But he hadn't fallen entirely in love with San Diego, so when he got wind that a new restaurant, Summit, was opening at the Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs, he jumped at the opportunity to return to his roots. "It was an awesome experience," recalls Krause, who worked under Rollie Wesson, Jacques Pépin's son-in-law. "There was a two-month training program in place before Summit opened, and Rollie couldn't have been more willing to put himself out there. He's the kind of chef who's so willing to share his knowledge, and he spent a ton of time showing me everything he knew. He expected the best, and I did my best to give it to him." Krause even had the opportunity to spend a few days in the kitchen with Pépin himself: "Cooking with him was always one of those pinch-yourself moments, and his advice was always amazing," he says.
While he was behind the burners at Summit, Krause met a girl, went on one coffee date and promptly got hitched...in Poland, before moving back to Colorado and securing a banquet-chef position at the downtown Westin, where he cooked for five years, eventually moving up the ladder to the head of garde manger. "I loved that job, but after five years, it was time to do something different," he says. "It was time to move on." And the opportunity that awaited him -- the exec-chef position at Aloft -- "just felt right. I have the opportunity to cook and learn a lot of front-of-the-house stuff, which is important to me, and the owners have given me the chance to do some really creative, chef-driven things in a fun, modern setting. Yes, it's a bar menu, but we're working really hard to get the food up to speed, and it's ever-evolving, so I have a lot of freedom." In the following interview, Krause extols the virtues of Casa Bonita, takes aim at restaurants that misrepresent where their food comes from, and explains why Anthony Bourdain deserves more credit than he gets.
Six words to describe your food: Fun, simple, social, fresh, exciting and honest.
Ten words to describe you: Family man, strong in my beliefs, positive and excited about life.
What are your ingredient obsessions? Potatoes. My wife is Polish, and she loves potatoes, so when I spent time in Poland, I had to learn the right way to make them. Of course, there are a million preparations for potatoes, but only my mother-in-law's way is correct at our house. Since she taught me so much, I've loved sharing her skills with my staff, as well. I'm also obsessed with celery root, broccolini, blood oranges and beets. They're so relative of the season in which they grow, and they lend themselves to so many flavors. How could you not love them?
What are your kitchen-tool obsessions? I'm obsessed with the soda stream. I use it at home all the time, and now I have sparkling water, root beer and Coke Zero all at my fingertips. It's the most eco-friendly way to drink soda, without all the waste. Although I don't endorse drinking soda, once in a while it's good.
Most underrated ingredient: I love the smell and the quiet licorice taste of fresh tarragon. Next time you make mac and cheese, put a little in there and you'll see that even that small change goes a long way. It's also really great in tuna salad for a quick and healthy snack.
Favorite local ingredient: Grandpa's Gourmet white honey, which you can find at some farmers' markets or online. I worked with the founders during the Feast in the Field event for Douglas County Schools, and not only is the staff friendly, but the white honey is amazing. It's almost the consistency of peanut butter, so when you spread it on your toast, your mouth just melts with the honey.
Favorite spice: Old Bay seasoning. I know everyone uses it for crab cakes, but it's just as good on pita chips, chicken and fried sweet potatoes.
One food you detest: I've never liked the taste of ginger. I know it's good for you, but if even the smallest amount of ginger is in a dish, it's the first thing I taste. I'll eat foods with ginger, but I'd rather not.
One food you can't live without: I couldn't live without Colorado peaches. I've had peaches from all over, and I can definitely say that we have the sweetest and juiciest peaches in the country. I love the fact that when you eat a ripe Colorado peach, you need to change your shirt because of how much you dribble. I also like to think of them when I describe myself: Colorado native, sweet and really compatible.
Food trend you wish would disappear: I'm so tired of hearing about cupcakes -- the shows, the small shops, the mall stands, you name it. I tip my hat to the 5 percent of cupcakes that have amazed me, but they mostly have too much frosting, the designs aren't that special, and they aren't healthy. I've done some volunteer work with the Chefs Move! to School program, and two of the big focuses are childhood obesity and childhood diabetes. As a society, we should be more conscious of the food trends we teach our children.
Rules of conduct in your kitchen: You have to have passion. Cooking is like a wonderful wife -- and let me add that Monika, my wife, is amazing -- but you can't teach passion, just like you can't teach love, and that's why they're intertwined. You need to be excited to be in my kitchen and really want to spend time together. I tell people that it's hard to keep that passion going when you do the same thing every day, like washing dishes or plating the same dish 500 times, but that's where the love is. You need to live life and bring everything you've learned to your food. If you're not happy, I guarantee that your food will flat-out taste gross, but when you ooze love and you season your food well, you just want to share that passion with the world.
What's never in your kitchen? Brown-gravy mix and garlic-butter spray. Why does a gravy mix have to have over ten ingredients when it's so simple to take drippings, butter, flour and seasoning and make your own? As for the garlic-butter spray, I saw a school lunch lady take a baguette, cut it in half and spray it with the stuff until the grease dripped off the sides -- and that's what she used for garlic bread. That's when all you can say is, "Really?"
What's always in your kitchen? Maggi seasoning, which is similar to soy sauce but much different in flavor. It's amazing in chicken soup, on breaded pork or with potatoes. I also never go without a timer. Considering all the unexpected things that pop up while you're on the job, it's easy to forget about the pecans toasting in the back oven, so it never hurts to have something in place to remind yourself.
Favorite dish on your menu: The fried chicken and polenta cheddar waffles. Not only did they turn out way better than I anticipated, but the number of people who have commented on the dish only solidified that it was a great choice. It's one of those crave type dishes.
Biggest menu bomb: I had this great idea to make an interesting shepherd's pie with leftovers, plus some Okinawa purple potatoes. About ten minutes into service, the color of the stew turned an unappetizing color of gray, so people didn't even try it, because it looked like porridge.
If you only had 24 hours in Denver/Boulder, where would you eat? Casa Bonita. Every kid who grew up in Colorado had to go at least once...even though the food is horrible. The sopapillas, the cave, the magic show and, of course, the gorilla that always got loose -- it's all about the fun and the experience. Every time I went, it felt like a world away -- like you were somewhere really special. That's why I started working in hotels: I love their ability to take you away, even if it's only a mile from where you live. But for a really amazing meal, I'd go to Restaurant 1515, Biker Jim's or Corridor 44.
Favorite cheap eat in Denver/Boulder: Taco House. I guess it's because my mom grew up eating there and always wanted to drag us with her, but they do make a mean "burrada": It's a mix between a burrito and an enchilada, and it's so deliciously simple. Every time I go, I remember my sister's boyfriend being so sick from the rides at Lakeside that he turned green. And then my mom took us all to Taco House, so we got to see this boy's face go from green to white with fear over the menu, which still makes me laugh.
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Last meal before you die: Deep-dish Chicago-style pizza. I can't stand the thin pizza: If you can fold it, it's not worth eating. Give me the thick, in-your-face, sauce-down-the-chin pizza.