Chef and Tell: Bob Blair of Fuel Cafe

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There are some chefs who insist on being called, well, "Chef," and then there are other kitchen wizards, like Bob Blair, who roll their eyes, shake their heads and politely ask that you don't address them as "Chef" at all. "I'm a cook," argues Blair, whose real job is executive chef/owner of Fuel Cafe. "We throw the word 'chef' around in our kitchen only when we're using it as a back-handed compliment. We use it when one of us screws up. I'd prefer to take the ego out of cooking, and I've just never been comfortable with being called anything other than a cook, because that's what I do. I cook."

Blair was born in Japan and traipsed around this country following his father -- "I was an Army brat," he says -- until he ended up in Littleton in 1985. He bounced from job to job to job while he was young, always searching for the right niche but never finding it until his first kitchen gig at the Greenbriar Inn, just outside Boulder. "During that first week, I was buried by people ordering filets and swordfish and chateaubriand, but the light came on pretty quickly, and it didn't take long for me to figure out that I could get it done and do it well," he explains. Blair went on to take a chef's position at the original Parisi before giving that up to return to college to finish a degree in administrative recreation. "My parents passed away, and I needed to fulfill a promise to them to go back to school and finish my degree -- but even then, I know there was no way that I wasn't going to cook," admits Blair.

He explored catering for a few years "to figure out which direction I wanted to go with my career," he says, but eventually decided that "reheating foods" wasn't exactly his idea of cooking. So when Parisi relocated, he ditched catering and managed Parisi's market and deli before becoming a stay-at-home dad, alternating between diaper duty and putting together a restaurant plan -- a plan that come to fruition on December 31, 2007, when he opened Fuel.

"I know it's been two years since we've opened, but it seems like just two months," he says. "We didn't think we'd ever get any recognition as a destination spot in Denver, but I have a great supporting staff that I'm really indebted to, a staff that's really helped me get to where we are now. In my restaurant, the staff comes first. If I put them first, they watch my back and take care of the customers for me."

Customers that aren't always easy to please, says Blair, who in the following interview opens up about a woman and her fork, as well as his irritation over bread before dinner, culinary grads who that think they're entitled to jobs delivered on silver platters, and menu prologues.

Six words (or however many it takes) to describe your food: Sentimental, seasonal, classical and relative to the weather. Yes, we really do look at the weather forecast to plan our specials for the week.

Ten words to describe you: Loyal, generous to a fault, fatherly, passionate, humble, procrastinator and sarcastic.

Favorite ingredient: Really great extra-virgin olive oil. Spanish, Italian or Californian, it doesn't matter. I love finishing dishes with olive oils. It's a condiment, a spice and a flavoring agent.

Most overrated ingredient: Bread before a meal. Why does everyone need to fill themselves up with bread before the real food comes? And why does everyone have to sop up their sauce with bread instead of using a spoon and actually tasting it?

Most undervalued ingredient: Beautiful, natural eggs. They're my most vivid memory of the time I spent in Italy. Watching a simple golden egg yolk have the ability to make pasta look as though you've added saffron to the dough is indescribable. The beauty of it makes me speechless.

Favorite local ingredient: Infinite Monkey Theorem Wines from Ben Parsons. It's really exciting to see really good wines being made here in Denver. Novo coffee is great, too. In fact, it's totally spoiled me. It's the closest thing I can think of to drinking a great glass of wine for breakfast.

One food you detest: Cooked green peppers ruin dishes for me. Raw green peppers are fine, but cooked green peppers transform themselves into something almost incomparable to the original ingredient. They just taste like ass. Yuck. I also don't like sundried tomatoes. They're just too overpowering.

One food you can't live without: Homemade pasta or gnocchi. Making either of these is therapeutic. When I eat homemade pasta or gnocchi that's done properly, it brings me instantly back to Italy.

Most embarrassing moment in the kitchen: Reprimanding a former chef in the kitchen in front of the rest of the kitchen staff, having the staff ask us to move our argument to the walk-in, and even then, they could still hear us fighting.

Rules of conduct in your kitchen: Have at it: Come equipped with ideas to bring to the table and prepare to debate your ideas, but don't be offended if your ideas are dismissed. I want every single person in the kitchen to contribute ideas -- not just sweat. Beyond that, someone has to keep the music playing and everyone has to try the wines.

What's never in your kitchen? Silence. I grew up in a family with eight kids, and if there was silence, something was wrong. I have to have music to cook to.

What you'd like to see more of in Denver from a culinary standpoint: I'd like to see more chefs think outside the box, to not cook so safely. After all, aren't we the ones who should be leading diners into new discoveries and opening their eyes to new foods? We all cook the things that we know will sell, but why don't more of us cook the things that we really love?

What you'd like to see less of in Denver from a culinary standpoint: Menu prologues -- in other words, menus that focus more on marketing angles than they do on the food. I don't care about where the water is sourced or how committed a restaurant is to the environment. I just want to know that a restaurant is using the best ingredients possible and then prove that they actually know how to use and respect those ingredients. I'd also like to see fewer culinary students thinking that they're entitled to a head chef position the moment they graduate. I want to see kids develop a work ethic and bust their ass in the kitchen, the dish pit and the front of the house before they get the keys to the restaurant.

Favorite Denver restaurant(s) other than your own: Z Cuisine, because it's like stepping out of Denver and walking into Paris -- the food, the music, Patrick speaking French to everyone, and the wine. I really love Bang!, too, because the people who run it -- Cissy, Jeff and Chris -- are three of the most decent restaurant people in Denver, and their great food and friendly service just makes you always feel so welcomed. And I really like Frank Bonanno's restaurants. It's amazing to see how well he's doing, considering he does so many different things. It must be a lot of work but also a lot of fun to channel that kind of creativity. I really admire his ability as a restaurateur.

Weirdest customer request: I try not to overreact to customer requests these days, but I did have a woman come in to Fuel for her birthday and ask for dessert, except that when our server went to set her table with forks for everyone, she demanded that the server keep the other forks. She wasn't about ready to share; her dining companions had to get their own dessert. Then, to add insult to injury, at the end of the meal, the woman complained that they should have gone to Claim Jumper.

Favorite celebrity chef: Jamie Oliver. His food is inspiring because he respects the classics. But more than anything else, he is making a big difference in the lives of kids. I think it's truly remarkable that he's been able to use his fame to bring awareness and change to the school lunch programs in England.

Celebrity chef who should shut up: I know that he's not a chef, per se, but Jeffrey Steingarten is a pompous ass. Even when he tries to give a compliment, he finds a way to make it negative. He talks about food as though he knows how to cook it. Whenever you see a show on the Food Network where there's judging involved, Steingarten always seems to be there picking everyone apart and telling everyone how smart he is. And while he's a great barbecue master, Steven Raichlen is one of the most boring chefs in the world as soon as he opens his mouth.

What's next for you? A vacation to Isla Mujeres, a little island off Cancún. It's a quiet, pristine beach with simple Mexican food and great margaritas. I think my family has earned a vacation after the last two years. Beyond that? I'm also working on bottling and selling my own limoncello.

To read the rest of the Chef and Tell interview with Bob Blair, click here.

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