This is part one of my interview with Beau Green, exec chef of the Denver Zoo. You can read part of our interview in this space tomorrow.
It was a juvenile-court judge who forced Beau Green into a kitchen. The 37-year-old chef of the Denver Zoo, who oversees a staff of 75, was a self-described troublemaker growing up in Texas. "I was a punk skateboard kid and did some things that got me into a lot of trouble when I was young, and I had a juvenile judge tell me that I had way too much time on my hands, so I had to go to high school and get a full-time job, which I did, in a restaurant -- and it was probably that judge who saved my life," says Green, who's been cooking ever since.
His first job at fifteen, the one he was coerced into taking, was at a Souper!Salad! -- a gig that Green admits he genuinely loved. "I immediately felt like I belonged in a kitchen when I got that job, and I was spending so much time there that the people I worked with became my friends and family -- the people who I wanted to spend my time with, including holidays," he recalls. Away from work, Julia Child and Jacques Pépin inspired him to tinker in his own kitchen, where he would "try to get weird and mess things up," Green says.
He eventually dropped out of high school to cook full-time, moving on to "real restaurants to get some real experience." He ended up in Leon Springs, Texas, where he singed his knuckles behind the burners of several restaurants, including Outback Steakhouse. He also picked up some Spanish along the way while delving into Mexican cuisine. Several years later he relocated to Arizona, where his sister lived, and rejoined Outback before landing a stint at Whole Foods, when it was owned by "hippies," Green jokes, who even gave him maternity leave when his child was born. "I started at the line level just to get my foot in the door and then was promoted to the big stage, so to speak, when they made me the prepared-foods team leader," he remembers.
After a few years at Whole Foods, followed by several more years as the bistro manager at another gourmet grocer, Green stuffed his suitcase and packed his knives for Colorado Springs to be closer to his kids -- and return to Whole Foods, where he worked as a seafood team leader in Cherry Creek and opened the store in Tiffany Plaza. Eventually, however, his schedule became too demanding, so he simplified his life by snapping up a stint at Cheyenne Mountain Resort as the food and beverage director for its country club, a job that serendipitously led to the zoo. "I had a buddy who was doing some catering functions who kept complaining that the staff didn't know what they were doing," explains Green, "so he asked me to help him, and I was sneaky and got myself hired as a temporary banquet server, and while I was directing a crew of twenty for a catering function, I was approached by the owners of KM Concessions, the company that contracts food and beverage services for zoos and aquariums all over the country, including the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo and the Denver Zoo, and for the next five weeks, they tried to woo me into taking the exec chef of the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo...and I finally gave in."
Green walked and talked with the animals for four years, opening a new zoo property restaurant and elevating the dining choices above and beyond burgers that double as hockey pucks and soggy French fries. And when the owners of KM Concessions approached him to see if he'd be interested in bolstering the grub at the Denver Zoo, he jumped at the opportunity. "Zoo food typically sucks," he freely admits, "but we're addressing the quality of our food, and we want to offer a superior quality product with excellent service, so we streamlined all of our restaurants and gave each one its own identity."
And, promises Green, the burger at Samburu, the Denver Zoo's main cafe, is "competitive with any bar or grill burger you can get, plus it has a killer brioche bun, too." He insists that zoo food -- at least his -- doesn't have to be a different animal. "I want to provide a culinary experience here at the zoo, and I know it's possible, because I've already done it in Cheyenne, and I know that we're already doing it here, because guests are telling me that we're getting it right," he says.
In the following interview, Green trumpets the zoo's honey program, reveals plans for a street-food cart using all Colorado products, and admits that his fish doughnuts are "no bueno."
Six words to describe your food: Modern, culturally fused twists inspired by classics.
Ten words to describe you: Passionate, determined, outgoing, demanding, loud, obnoxious, neurotic, resourceful, genuine and loyal.
What are your ingredient obsessions? I love to work with fresh, local ingredients, just as any chef should. But, ultimately, I just like to work with pretty basic ingredients, and as long as they're fresh and the quality is good, then I'm happy.
What are your kitchen tool obsessions? I have a lot of cool tools and gadgets in my kitchen, but my ten-inch chef's knife is my go-to guy.
Best recent food find: Caramelized honey, which we harvest here at the zoo. I threw it out there a while ago on a tasting menu that was themed around honey, and I really dug it. I had never had it before, but I thought it would be pretty killer on a honey menu. Our general manager, Tony Smith -- or "$T-Money$" -- wants me to mention that it reminds him of Bit o' Honey, his favorite childhood candy.
Most underrated ingredient: Time. Everyone wants everything to be so easy and quick, but some things just take more time, and when we invest a little more time into what we do, we're usually better off.
Food trend you wish would disappear: The whole celebrity-chef trend on the Food Network -- you know, the guys who behave like chefs but really aren't chefs. They get under my skin.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: Microgreens from Naturescape, a farm in Black Forest, Colorado, that's a really cool operation. I went to their place to pick up an order that I put in on short notice, and they blew me away. My sous chef, Luke, and I were allowed to take a tour with scissors in hand and cut as we went along. We spent a couple of hours with them, hanging out in their shop, and put together our own blend that we now use on a daily basis, and we also got a bunch of other varieties that we use in the zoo cafes and in dishes we do for special events. The variety of crazy flavors and colors they add is just awesome.
Favorite spice: Aside from sea salt, I'd have to say one of our house chile powders. I use them in some capacity daily.
One food you detest: Fake, processed, mass-produced food of any kind. I know it's a weird statement coming from a guy who works at a zoo, since bad food is the first thing most people think of when they think of "zoo food" -- but my food is definitely not "zoo food"! In fact, we've started to change people's perception about that and intend to continue to do so. Zoo-goers will soon begin to expect a great meal and dining experience here at the Denver Zoo. We're actually getting ready to start a new concept here that's going to be a local Colorado menu that will feature whatever I can get locally and seasonally -- and I also have a small garden, where I'm growing herbs, blueberries and different varieties of heirloom tomatoes. It's not large enough to fully sustain a cafe yet, but we're working on future possibilities.
One food you can't live without: Sushi. I'm way too in love with everything about it.
What's never in your kitchen? Silence. You'll usually find clear, direct and loud communication in my kitchen rather than silence, especially since our saying in the kitchen is "Say it loud, say it proud."
What's always in your kitchen? Passion. You have to love what you do in this profession, because if you don't, then you won't make it very far. The people who have passion are the ones who are successful, and if we weren't so passionate about what we do, we'd never accomplish anything. I also always have music in my kitchen. The passion and energy, our communication style and the music are all key in taking our establishment to the next level. All of it not only encourages us to provide the best service to our guests, but it also maintains a killer work environment that we want to come back to every day.
Rules of conduct in your kitchen: We put in a ton of hours, and typically my crew and I spend more time together than we get to spend with our own families, so we should treat each other as family. That means that we help somebody in need and hold each other accountable. We constantly challenge each other to be better. What's the best food- or kitchen-related gift you've been given? I got a pretty cool set of Shuns from my lady two Christmases ago.
What are your favorite wines and/or beers? Dale's Pale Ale is my brew, plus cans are great for fishing and camping.
Favorite dish on your menu: That's a tough question, since I have several menus and we do so many events, each with their own customized menu. Most of the menus that we do are compiled of signature items that I've developed over the years and new stuff that I just dream up. But if I had to pick just one thing, I'd say the duck bacon. It's something I've been doing for years, and the response has always been great.
Biggest menu bomb: When I was a kid, I made doughnuts for the family in the oil my grandma had fried fish in. Fish doughnuts are no bueno.
What's next for you? The next immediate item on my list is to head back to the kitchen and finish working with my team on a menu that I created for a private event we have tonight. But the future holds a lot of cool things for the Denver Zoo. There's the opening of the new Kamala restaurant that offers an Asian-themed menu, and we're also doing a thatched-hut street-food cart, which will have a portable wood-fired pizza oven and grill for flatbreads, toasted sandwiches and some other cool stuff. We're using all Colorado products and working with Colorado farms. We should be rolling it out in a few weeks.