"Cooking wasn't my passion; music was," says Drew Middleton, who moved from San Antonio to Denver in 2001 at the coaxing of a music producer who was interested in signing Middleton's former band, Medicine, after hearing a demo CD. "We were playing at the Bluebird, at Herman's and the Gothic, and we were doing all right, but I wasn't fulfilled," admits Middleton, who had briefly attended Baylor University before dropping out -- "It just wasn't for me" -- and heading to Denver. So he did what any wayward twenty-year-old would do under those circumstances: He went to culinary school. "I'd been working in kitchens on and off since I was seventeen, so it was something that was familiar to me, and I thought the experience would be helpful one day -- plus I needed to get a job to pay the bills," he remembers.
In between tackling the culinary curriculum at the Art Institute of Colorado and appearing on music stages to make ends meet, Middleton learned something about himself: "Even though it was a reach, cooking came naturally to me, and I was really good at it. The more I cooked, the more passionate I became."
When Middleton graduated, he landed a line-cook gig at Randolph's at the Warwick Hotel, where he worked for a year and a half until his executive chef, Dave Olivier, introduced him to Patrick Mangold-White, who was opening a small breakfast and lunch restaurant on South Pearl Street called Gaia Bistro. "I didn't have a lot of experience," recalls Middleton, "but Patrick hired me off of Dave's recommendation." Still, the transition from line cook to executive chef was a big leap. "When I first started, it was so chaotic, and I didn't really know anything about running a kitchen -- I was just doing what I thought I should be doing -- and it took me a while to find my groove," he admits.
I recently met with Middleton in the dining room of Gaia Bistro, after a predictably busy lunch service. "I'm having fun. I've got a great garden out back, I've got creative control over the menu, and I've really grown as a chef," he says, before gently reminding me that he has to be at work at 5 a.m. In other words, can we get this interview started?
Six words to describe your food: Balanced, simple, innovative, comforting, colorful and inspired.
Ten words to describe you: Introspective, dedicated, inquisitive, determined, loyal, laid-back, careful, perfectionist and soft-spoken.
Favorite ingredient: Wild mushrooms, especially in the summer. Patrick, one of the owners of Gaia, and I hunt for mushrooms in Bailey and Evergreen, and we've found everything from porcinis and chanterelles to morels. The intensely earthy flavors add so much to my cooking, and it's pretty cool when you can forage for your own food. Patrick is an outdoorsy kind of guy, and he's taught me a ton about mushroom hunting.
Best recent food find: Primo chutneys and preserves. It's a local company owned by Vic Papazian, and everything he makes is awesome...maybe because they infuse chiles in all of their products. I love the blueberry jalapeño preserves, raspberry habanero preserves and pineapple lemongrass chutney. They go great on a pizza with arugula and goat cheese, as a sandwich spread or just with cheese and crackers. You can find them in Whole Foods and specialty markets like the Truffle.
Most overrated ingredient: Caviar. They kill the fish just for the eggs: It's such a waste. If you're going to kill a fish, use the whole fish.
Most undervalued ingredient: Carrots. Not only are they great on their own, but they're the foundation of soups, stocks, stews, sauces and braised meats. They help create many of the complements of the protein or main focus of the meal, and those complements are sometimes the most important part of the plate. For our wine dinners, we sometimes do a carrot curry with a little bit of white wine that's amazing with fish.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: Ela Family Farms peaches, apples and pears. They come from Hotchkiss, and the peaches are the best I've ever eaten.
Rules of conduct in your kitchen: Take the time to get it right the first time, respect the food, each other and your work space, which is especially important at Gaia because we work together in very close quarters. I'm also a stickler for organization. The tongs have to be put back in the right place every time, and if they're not put back in the right place, I'll keep bitching about it until I annoy my staff into submission.
One food you detest: Mayonnaise. I can have a little on my sandwich, but not in chicken salad, egg salad, tuna salad or artichoke dip. It just makes my stomach turn.
One food you can't live without: Chocolate chip cookies -- homemade, of course. I have to eat one a day at Gaia, and I try to have a roll of dough in my freezer at all times, too. I could easily eat six or seven at a time with a glass of milk. Most embarrassing moment in the kitchen: When I cooking was at Randolph's, I was trying to teach a new cook how to light the pilot light on the oven. I did exactly what I told him not to do and burned my eyebrows off.
What's never in your kitchen? Anything fried. We actually can't do fried food at Gaia, because we don't have the capability or capacity for it, but more to the point, I really just don't like it.
Culinarily speaking, Denver has the best: Comfort food. My definition of comfort food might be a little different from everyone else's. For me, comfort food is a labor of love, and it takes a lot of thought and time to do it right. The food at Table 6, to me, is really comforting, especially their chicken pot pie and the bacon-wrapped dates. So effing good.
Culinary speaking, Denver has the worst: Tex-Mex. Everything here is refried, or smothered in red sauce or green chile. I seriously can't find a good Tex-Mex restaurant anywhere in Denver. I want seafood enchiladas with tomatillo sauce, which is quintessentially Tex-Mex. Where can I find those in Denver?
Best culinary tip for a home cook: When you're buying groceries, try to think of as many recipe combinations as you can so you can make dishes using what you've bought for the next week. It'll really help you cut down on wasting food and throwing things away.
After-work hangout: Home, usually. I have to be at work at 5 a.m., so I'm usually asleep by 9:30 p.m.
If you could cook for one person, dead or alive, who would it be? I would want to cook for two people: my wife Amy's grandfather and my grandfather. They never met each other, and family always comes first for me. They were both funny guys, too. It would have been fun.
Favorite celebrity chef: Mario Batali. His personality, storytelling and great food make him really entertaining.
Celebrity chef who should shut up: The Neelys -- Patrick and Gina. They just annoy me. I mean, they'll be making barbecued ribs, get sauce all over their face and hands and then kiss each other. It's gross.
What's your favorite knife? An eight-inch Henckels chef's knife. It's so versatile. You can cut chicken with it, cut vegetables and you can fabricate fish with it. Actually, there's not much of anything you can't do with it.
What's next for you? Keep cooking the best food I can, eventually open for dinner at Gaia, and be an integral part of whatever new restaurants Jon and Patrick [Gaia's owners] pursue in the future. Oh...and I need to start thinking about what I'm going to roll out on the new spring menu.
To read the rest of Lori Midson's interview with Drew Middleton, click here.