The venerable Briarwood Inn in Golden hired a new chef in May. But rather than hire an industry veteran to turn out prime rib and buffet dinners for weddings, owner Lisa Paterson — who purchased the property from her father’s estate after he passed away several years ago — decided to go in a new direction, putting her faith in Jeff Jones, who may be young but comes with a résumé that fits well with Paterson’s desire to modernize the menu while still providing top-tier banquet service for the many weddings and special events the Briarwood hosts every year.
Jones graduated from Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Scottsdale, working in hotel restaurants while in school to gain experience in high-volume kitchens and banquet preparation. After a brief gig at Mosaic in Scottsdale, he moved to Denver — in a “coin-flip” choice between here and Portland. Noticing that the dining scene in Portland was already in full swing but that Denver in 2009 “was about ready to just explode,” he decided on the Mile High City, a decision justified by several positive experiences staging at a few local restaurants. And then restaurateur Mary Nguyen hired Jones as a sous-chef at the Vietnamese-influenced Parallel 17. “The jump from a kitchen manager to a chef is so difficult, and you just need someone to give you a chance — and Mary was willing to do that,” he recalls.
Jones liked the fit and ended up working with Nguyen for six years, learning from her along the way. He eventually became the head chef and helped with the transition when Parallel 17 changed to the more European-styled P17.
Although P17 and the Briarwood Inn are about as far apart as two restaurants can get on the dining spectrum — the former is a neighborhood eatery with a tiny dining room and an eclectic menu, while the Briarwood can handle more than 300 guests — Jones says he felt well prepared for his new job. “My background is in French technique,” he explains, “and a lot of Vietnamese cooking is French-influenced. It was an easy transition for me. A lot of what I learned at P17 was balancing of flavors — Mary’s very good at that.”
From Nguyen, he also learned about the business side of running a restaurant, which is important at the Briarwood. “Mary’s a businesswoman when it comes to costs and ordering; she runs a strict ship,” he notes. “I would feel comfortable opening my own restaurant based on how she ran things.”
The business side of running a restaurant runs in Jones’s family. His parents divorced when he was young, and he moved with his mother and three brothers to tiny Seeley Lake, Montana, where his mother managed the restaurant at a resort and golf club, putting in eighty hours a week during the height of the season. Although his mom was a good cook and made the family meals, once she started working at the resort, dinner often meant hanging out at the restaurant with his brothers Kevin, Justin and Patrick, who has Down syndrome and “is probably the most inspirational person in my life,” Jones says.
He soon took up golf and became obsessed with it even before he was a teen, spending hours on the course and the driving range and joining his school’s golf team. His obsession was noticed by the resort’s golf pro, who helped coach Jones but also insisted that he work in exchange for his time on the course. At twelve he started caddying, but he grew bored with that, so instead he started washing dishes at the restaurant. The chef at the time took Jones under his wing and helped him advance in the kitchen. “He was so willing to teach me, it made it fun to be there,” he remembers.
Soon he moved up to pantry and then onto the line, where he worked almost full-time through high school. As graduation neared, Jones was at a crossroads. “I had to make a decision,” he says. “Golf wasn’t as fun anymore — but cooking was.”
For his senior project, he wrote a menu for the resort restaurant, costed it out, created a training plan for the kitchen and presented the whole project in front of the school. “That process let me know that this was really enjoyable and something I could make a living at for the rest of my life,” he says.
With golf still on his mind, he chose Arizona for culinary school, but his career decision was already made. Now, after a four-year education and several years as a professional chef, Jones thinks he might do things a little differently if he could turn back the clock. Not that he wouldn’t pursue a career as a chef — he has no regrets about that — but he sees culinary school as overpriced for the end result. “I was lucky my parents backed me through school,” he says. “But I don’t know that I learned $88,000 worth. If it was all my money, I would buy the plane ticket to Europe and work my way through as an apprentice. You’re not making any money, but you’re learning need-to-know stuff. An apprenticeship is a thousand times better.”
At cooking school, he explains, students may learn about a technique and practice it once before moving on to something new, which doesn’t prepare them for the real world. “When you start out at a restaurant, they ask you what you’re comfortable with, and you say, ‘Yeah, I can break down a whole fish,’ so they give you a fish, and you’re sweating bullets because you’ve only done it once before.”
As head of the Briarwood kitchen, Jones is putting his ideas to work when it comes to teaching other cooks and even retraining veteran staffers. His new menu, which rolled out last week, is a considerable departure from the traditional, outdated fare of the Briarwood’s past. “I was expecting a little rebellion; I’m a pretty young chef,” he says. “But almost everyone was very welcoming and supportive, so that was a pleasant surprise.”
His preferred teaching method: “You show someone once, and if they’re paying attention, they can repeat it.” Jones likes his staff to take notes and to do something the same way every time, without taking shortcuts.
Jones’s new menu riffs on some customer favorites from the old menu, to give them a chance to adjust to his style. An appetizer tray that had been offered for decades included cocktail shrimp, so he created a shrimp-ravioli appetizer in which thin-pounded shrimp replaces a pasta skin and is filled with mushroom duxelles. He also replaced a tired chicken-liver mousse with a foie gras torchon, one of his favorite dishes to make. He kept a spinach salad but updated it with modern details, including a pancetta crisp.
“I lean toward classical cooking rather than molecular gastronomy,” he says, “but in a fun and witty way. I love meticulous things, like creating charcuterie — meats and pâtés — where attention to detail along the way pays off at the end.” In fact, he admires the work of all artisan food producers, from bakers to cheese makers to beekeepers. “Their patience and attention to detail is inspiring,” he says.
In addition to handling the dining room, Jones organizes banquet service for special events with as many as 200 guests at once. “I enjoy all of it, honestly,” he says. Many of this summer’s weddings have been planned for more than a year, so he’s still working with menus that were written before he started, but he makes small changes that he thinks improve on them. He’s also working with new customers on upcoming events that have not yet been planned.
Jones wants to honor the history of the Briarwood while bringing it into a new culinary era. “It’s such a beautiful restaurant,” he explains. “I want people to remember the food as much as the place itself. Lisa and Duncan [Newman, the general manager] have been great with their willingness to open up what the Briarwood was and what it can be — and their willingness to take a jump with me.”
At previous jobs, he notes, “you really had to be conscious of the price point. But people come here and expect to spend a lot. We can get in the best and serve the best — and that’s what the Briarwood name is all about.”
Outside of the Briarwood, he’s noticed plenty of improvement in the Denver dining scene during the few years he’s been here, pointing to Acorn and Il Posto as favorites. “I’m not big on all the ramen shops, but they’re doing a good job,” he says. “And Lon [Symensma] — his food is as good as Momofuku.”
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Still, for a quick bite Jones is just as likely to turn to pizza or a bag of gummi bears, which his wife buys for him. One thing he can’t swallow — literally — is natto, a fermented-soybean dish that he helped Nguyen prepare for an adventurous eaters’ dinner at P17. “It’s the worst thing,” he admits. “I couldn’t swallow a bite of it.”
Although Jones won’t be adding natto to the menu at the Briarwood Inn, his experiences with creative cooking in a small kitchen should help propel the massive destination dining room into the modern era.