Cafe Society

Chef and Tell: Eric Stein from Johnson & Wales rips on former Westword restaurant critic Jason Sheehan

This is part one of Lori Midson's interview with Eric Stein, instructor and chef at Johnson & Wales University. To read part two of that interview, click here.

Eric Stein Chef/instructor Johnson & Wales University

Eric Stein is using his fingers to count. "Fifteen, sixteen, seventeen," he says to himself, finally stopping when he reaches twenty. Stein is ticking off the number of jobs he's held during his 27 years on earth, and by the time he's finished rattling off numbers, it's clear that he's had nearly as many jobs as he is years old -- every single one of them culinary. "I've never had a job -- any job -- that didn't involve cooking," says Stein, a cooking instructor at Johnson & Wales University, a position he's held since he was 23.

Born and raised in Rhode Island, Stein, who is the Colorado state coordinator of vegetarian nutrition and teaches courses in spa cuisine, vegetarian cooking, light and healthy desserts, new world cuisine, international cuisine, sensory analysis and nutrition, scored his first food job when he was twelve. "I started off working at my uncle's cafe, but he didn't have a kitchen, so we made everything at this house -- macaroni and cheese, lasagna, homey stuff -- and took it all back to the restaurant," he remembers. While a culinary school student, he spent a three-month break working at restaurants in different states. "I've stepped foot in roughly twenty kitchens across America, even if it was just a three-day stage," says Stein, who now calls himself a "glorified home ec teacher," albeit one with more experience than teachers twice his age.

Stein was immersed in the culinary program at the Johnson & Wales campus in Providence, the only J&W branch that, at the time, offered a nutrition program, when the department chair asked if he'd be interested in teaching nutrition classes at the Denver campus. "I sort of fell into the job," admits Stein, who set out to be a biologist, but instead got a master's degree in nutrition. "But once I got into it, I found it really interesting. I realized that there are actual reasons to eat food, beyond just for fuel -- that you should eat garlic because it lowers your cholesterol, or eat beans because they're high in iron."

Culinary school, explains Stein, is a "fast track for culinary students who want to reach their goals quicker than they would in a restaurant kitchen." While chefs from the school of hard knocks might disagree with that assertion, he insists it's a "great way to go if you want to learn the basics, be a leader in your craft and hone your skills." Still, if you're interesting in pursuing a degree in the culinary arts, Stein advises working in a restaurant -- or twenty -- first. "Passion for food is way more important than going to culinary school, so work in as many restaurants as you can to make sure that you've got that passion before spending all your time in cooking labs," he advises. And Stein has one more tip: Become a master of sauces, "because even if you make a mediocre steak or piece of fish, if you have a great sauce, people will gravitate toward it."

Stein will soon vacate his teaching position at Johnson & Wales to gravitate toward the Greenbrier resort in West Virginia, where he's embarking on a three-year apprenticeship, a grueling commitment that he hopes will help him secure a spot on the 2012 United States Culinary Olympic team. In advance of his departure, we caught up with Stein, who dished about his new career path, his adulation for lamb, ginger and cupcakes, and his contempt for Jason Sheehan, Westword's former restaurant critic.

Six words to describe your food: Multiple taste bud orgasm, global and functional.

Ten words to describe you: Inquisitive, ambitious, motivated, trustworthy, adventurous, witty, compassionate, stubborn, spiritual and blessed.

Culinary inspirations: As cliché as it sounds, I'm truly inspired by ingredients. Seasonal produce is huge for me. I don't think anything beats cooking with foods that've just been harvested, be it from a farm, the sea or the wild. I love going to the farmers' market for inspiration, talking to the farmers and other artisans and seeing the enthusiasm they have for their products. Vegetables in particular can be simple, yet so complex. Take a parsnip, for example, which you can juice, roast, braise, steam or fry, and depending upon which method you pick, it'll offer completely different flavors and texture. Entire tasting menus can be built around a single vegetable.

Favorite ingredient: I really love working with lamb for its versatility, distinct flavor and because it can be easily cross-utilized. Chefs all know the benefits of using all the parts of a pig from its head to its tail, but lamb has very similar characteristics, except on a richer, earthier level. I love braised meats, so lamb shanks and shoulder are my definite favorites, either served on their own or worked into other dishes such as pasta, stews or sandwiches. A new technique I've been using lately is to encase the loin of a lamb rack with mushroom duxelle, wrap the whole thing with the fat cap from the rack and roast it. If you've deboned the rack, then you have the Denver ribs left over, so you can serve a lamb duo, or save them for another use. I also highly recommend poaching lamb tongues in duck fat if you've never tried it.

Best food city in America: Boston has a lot of daring chefs, and I feel like it's sort of a breeding ground for chefs before they venture out into bigger cities. Some of my favorite places are Clio, No. 9 Park and Oleana. Seafood is a huge influence on the cuisine in Boston, since it comes right off the boat and goes straight into the hands of the chefs. The range of flavor profiles in Boston is also really broad; having grown up in Rhode Island, I'm kind of partial to the Chinatown in Boston over New York and San Francisco. Besides nothing beats a Fenway frank in October...

Favorite restaurant in America: Persimmon in Bristol, Rhode Island, which is a restaurant that's very similar to Fruition in cuisine, style and philosophy. The chef's name is Champe Speidel, and his food is considered some of the best in the state at the fine dining level. He was the chef at a restaurant named Gracie's, which he made famous with his decadent food and innovative presentations. He then opened up Persimmon on his own. As a culinary student, I tried to eat at his restaurants every season. I still use his menus in my new world cuisine class when explaining new American cuisine to the students.

Favorite music to cook by: I most enjoy cooking to acid jazz and trip hop: RJD2, DJ Food (appropriately enough), Thievery Corporation, and Portishead. I've really been getting into Gym Class Heroes lately, too, although when I'm setting up cooking demos at 5:30 a.m., I'm definitely listening to Tool, Mudvayne, Sevendust or the Deftones.

Best recent food find: I'm a big fan of finding the best restaurant for certain foods. I've gone on many food adventures here in Denver to find the best hot wings, barbecue, tacos and Cuban sandwiches - and that's the short list. When Westword came out with this year's Best of Denver edition, I went to Tarasco's immediately, because it was named "Best Posole," and while I still believe La Cueva on Colfax has the best posole, Tarasco's has amazing mole, tamales and tortas as big as your head. The next showdown is the sticky toffee pudding at Argyll, Duo and TAG.

Most overrated ingredient: Bacon. It does not make everything better.

Most undervalued ingredient: I'm a big fan of quinoa, because whole grains are a huge part of my cooking style. The Aztecs referred to quinoa as the mother grain due to its superior nutritional qualities. It's locally grown, a vegan complete protein, has a great earthy flavor, can be used to replace rice in most recipes, and it's available in a variety of forms including whole grain, flour, pasta and even as cereal.

Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: Madhava agave nectar. It's vegan, a little bit like maple syrup, but not as dark and it has a good flavor. Their facility is in Lyons, but it's very widely available at local grocery stores. They also produce an amazing wildflower honey.

Rules of conduct in your kitchen: Taste your food; it's the most important component of a dish. Have your physical and mental mise en place under control; ask questions if you're not sure of something; continue to always learn new things; and push yourself as hard as you can.

What's never in your kitchen? I would never cook with margarine. We're the only animals that eat margarine. Nothing will go near margarine except for humans - not even bugs or rodents.

One food you detest: Dill, ugh ... I tell my students right off the bat that dill is my aversion.

One food you can't live without: Ginger. Whether it's raw, pickled, candied, or juiced, I love ginger. My love for ginger originated when I was the chef at Chopra Center at La Costa in California. The menu was all ayurvedic and we used ginger in everything.

Favorite celebrity chef: Morimoto is my favorite. He has a playful, quirky, smart and funny personality that really comes across in his food. His cuisine is innovative, but approachable, but the thing that really sets him apart for me is that his name is not plastered all over the kitchen section at Target.

Celebrity chef that should shut up: Jason Sheehan. I often wondered if he ever even went to some of the restaurants he reviewed.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Lori Midson
Contact: Lori Midson