Chef and Tell with James Mazzio

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James Mazzio sneaks a look at his ticker. He's doing a dinner for a hundred people in less than three hours and his cooks need him on the line. It's the final hurrah in his three-month stint at Le Chateau, the French restaurant where he's been cooking since last October. "They let me go," he says flatly. "I don't know...I guess the owner thought that my name would bring people through the doors. I never thought that, so I don't know why he did." Mazzio pauses for a moment, then breaks into a wide smile. "But I'm really, really excited about my new project."

The 1999 Food & Wine magazine Best New Chef winner, an honor bestowed upon Mazzio while he was cooking at the long-departed 15 Degrees in Boulder, isn't the kind of guy who dwells on the past. "I'm just so looking forward to getting back into a working kitchen, cooking what I want to cook," he says of the new restaurant he's opening with Fried Zarie and Donna Levine, the owners of Tipsy's Liquor World in Littleton, which houses Pickles Deli and the next-door Olive Oil, both of which Mazzio will oversee. "Olive Oil is going to be rustic Italian with lots of modern twists and turns, and the deli will have everything from great sandwiches and an olive bar to ice cream and a fantastic cheese selection," says Mazzio. "We'll be doing Neapolitan pizzas in the restaurant, and we'll make our own gnocchi, a lot of the pastas and pizza doughs in-house. From there, the sky's the limit."

Which has always been the motto of Mazzio, who grew up on the Campbell Soup estate in Gladwyne, Pennsylvania, where his father was a caretaker and Mazzio spent his time harvesting fruits and vegetables and cooking in his Sicilian grandmother's kitchen. He moved to Aspen when he was nineteen to fulfill his lifelong ambition of becoming a ski bum, but soon found himself more enamored with cooking than with fresh powder, a revelation that landed him in the kitchen of Renaissance, a now-defunct Aspen restaurant owned by chef Charles Dale, himself a Food & Wine magazine Best New Chef. "I asked Charles for advice about pursuing a culinary career, and he thought I'd be, uh, ill-suited for culinary school, so he offered me an internship at his restaurant," explains Mazzio of the gig that lasted for more than four years. "Because of that job, I was really able to tap into the knowledge and experience of some of the finest chefs in the world."

And it was that job that gave Mazzio the confidence and foundation he needed to leave Aspen in search of a kitchen to call his own. He landed at 15 Degrees in Boulder, where he was hired as a sous and quickly promoted to head chef. Eight months later, Mazzio was a Food & Wine Best New Chef. Four months after the elation, 15 Degrees closed.

In this interview, Mazzio, who's cheffed at numerous restaurants throughout Denver, including the Ice House Tavern and the former Neighborhood Flix and Via, talks about the day Food & Wine editor Dana Cowin caught him off guard, his frustration with mediocrity, and why Denver will never be a great culinary city like New York unless diners step up to the plate.

Six words to describe your food: Rustic, simple, approachable, bold, seasoned and comfortable.

Ten words to describe you: Enthusiastic, adventurous, outgoing, persistent, loud, bold, fun, exciting, spontaneous and passionate.

Proudest moment as a chef: When Food & Wine magazine gave me the Best New Chef award in 1999, it was simultaneously the proudest and scariest moment of my life. I was working at 15 Degrees in Boulder and had only been there for eight months when Dana Cowin, the editor at Food & Wine, called to tell me that I was a Best New Chef. I picked up the phone right after I'd burned a whole tray of lamb shanks, and I was all, "Who the fuck is this?" I had totally forgotten that I'd even been nominated, and I had no idea who Dana Cowin was. She asked how my day was going -- I told her it sucked, and she said that it was about ready to get a whole lot better. When she told me the news, my stomach dropped and my hands started to shake. I never honestly believed it would happen. The fear started seeping in.... I was so young -- just 29 -- and I didn't go to culinary school, so I didn't have this backlog of knowledge or the technique a lot of the other chefs had. I've come full circle since that day.

Favorite ingredient: I love salt. The way a chef uses salt in cooking is incredibly important. I call it the layering effect: As you cook a dish, you use salt to bring out the flavors already there, and it just makes your tongue a lot happier.

Most overrated ingredient: Olive oil with bread. All it does is disguise the taste, plus it always soaks into the bread and ruins the texture. Bread should be served with butter. Not olive oil. Ever.

Most undervalued ingredient: Fresh vegetables. I always look at plates and wonder why there's such an absence of fresh vegetables. You see lots of vegetable sauces and elements of vegetables, but what about bringing the vegetable out as a primary ingredient? Everything always comes with a damn starch, and protein and starch don't digest the same. Not too many people know that, but it's true.

Favorite local ingredient: Black Angus beef from Greeley.

One food you detest: Breadfruit from Jamaica. It was disgusting. Durian is pretty bad, too. I had to try both of them on national TV, on Sara Moulton Live, which made it even worse.

One food you can't live without: Mirepoix. I cook a lot of soups and stews and do a lot of braises, and you can't make any of those without mirepoix. I would know the smell of sweating carrots, leeks, onions and celery anywhere. It comforts me.

Most embarrassing moment in the kitchen: I was cooking at Restaurant Daniel, and one of the cooks asked me get a couple of sheet pans, so I grabbed a few from the speed rack in the pastry kitchen without paying a whole lot of attention to what was on them. I brought them downstairs, and the cook looked in between the sheet pans and completely freaked the hell out -- you got reamed for everything in that kitchen -- because there were these unbelievably delicate little cookies on parchment paper in between the two sheet pans. I went running back up the stairs to return the sheet pans and totally fell. So did the cookies, so I was down on my hands and knees picking them up as fast as I could and trying to put them all back exactly where the grease impressions were. I was sweating like crazy and my heart was racing. I wanted to shoot vodka after that.

What's never in your kitchen? A dull moment.

Culinarily speaking, Denver has the best: Gourmet hot dogs from Biker Jim's.

Culinarily speaking, Denver has the worst: Drive to be a great culinary city. There are enough chefs here pushing for culinary greatness, but the fact of the matter is that Denver doesn't have enough foodies to appreciate their efforts. The people who eat out in Denver don't have the same drive as the chefs to elevate the Denver dining scene. I'm probably going to get hate mail for that comment, but it's true. Unless people embrace and support what we're doing, Denver will never be a great food city. That's just the way it is.

Favorite celebrity chef: Mario Batali, who's just an all-around great guy. I like real people, and he's always been very gracious to me, plus his food is unbelievable. Shit, I could talk about Mario forever. How much time do you have? I mean, the guy just kills it. I love Anthony Bourdain, too. He's doing what I want to do: travel the world and eat weird food.

Celebrity chef who should shut up: I've seen enough of Bobby Flay for a lifetime.

What's your favorite knife? I have a ten-inch Wüsthof named "Prep Bitch" that I've had for fifteen years. She's never let me down yet.

Hardest lesson you've learned: Managing people is tough. If you're too hard on them, they run away; too soft, and they run all over you.

What's next for you? I'm opening a new restaurant and deli in Littleton, Olive Oil and Pickles, that I'm really, really excited about. Eventually, I'd love to do a small neighborhood restaurant again, like I did in Boulder, but it's a huge commitment, and I still have tons to learn. I'm always learning.

This is part one of James Mazzio's Chef and Tell interview. Click here to read part two of the interview.

Pickles Deli and Olive Oil 5869 South Alkire Street, Littleton 303-551-7000

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