Chef and Tell with Jeff Osaka from twelve

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The location has been called "low-rent," "brave" and "sketchy," but Jeff Osaka, owner/chef of twelve, the obscure, 35-seat NoDo neighborhood restaurant, whose monthly-changing menu is always a stunning adventure in food, rolls his eyes and shrugs at the misconception. "I found this restaurant on Craigslist while living in Los Angeles, came to Denver to look at the neighborhood, talked to the neighboring businesses, some of which have been here for thirty years, and it was clear that this was an area that had great potential -- an area that was ideal for a restaurant," explains Osaka, who opened twelve on Election Day 2008.

And if the neighborhood is good enough for Osaka, a remarkably soft-spoken, effortlessly drama-free chef whose professional life story includes working with several high priests of cooking -- Bradley Ogden, Wolfgang Puck and Gerald Hirigoyen -- not to mention personal cheffing for Stephen Spielberg, then it should be good enough for you. "It's true that I didn't have any money and really just needed a turnkey space where I could unlock the doors and open," admits Osaka, a Los Angeles native, "but this is an up-and-coming neighborhood with some great restaurants. Just look at Snooze and Marco's."

Still, twelve is still relatively undiscovered, still trying to secure its footing, still a restaurant whose digits aren't as dialed in as Osaka would like. "The biggest challenge has been getting the word out to the general population, and while we have our 'fans,' we still don't have a consistent clientele," he concedes. "There hasn't been the kind of quick results that I'd hoped for."

But twelve, like the 45-year-old Osaka, might just need some time to find its groove. "I didn't even start cooking until I was 28," reveals Osaka, who worked for a large grocery chain in California, "making a lot of money, but hating every minute of it" for eight years before his epiphany. "I was having lunch at one of L.A.'s hottest restaurants when I walked past the kitchen and stopped to watch everything that was going on. I felt the energy and knew that's where I wanted to take my career." After finishing his lunch, Osaka asked for a job application, returned the next day to talk to the chef and landed a kitchen gig on the spot.

Twelve, he says, is a restaurant that he's always wanted to do, and the name, he explains, has everything to do with the seasons: "There are more than four seasons a year, and there are ingredients that you shouldn't buy during certain times of year -- some ingredients are only available for a few months -- so I change my menu each month so that everything on my menu is in season. Plus, things that are in season are plentiful and cost less."

In the following interview, Osaka reflects on the high price of running a restaurant, ponders Denver's climate of chefs, shares his phone number, extols the virtues of Deli Den's ramen noodle bowl and contemplates doing his own Asian restaurant.

Six words to describe your food: Simple, seasonal, simple, playful, simple and approachable. Did I say simple?

Ten words to describe you: I am the nicest guy that you will ever know. It's true -- just ask my staff about this one. Okay, so it's a running joke in the kitchen. But, really, I am.

Culinary inspirations: My mom. She got me into cooking without even knowing it. Growing up, I didn't help much in the kitchen, but I watched and paid attention. My grandfather owned a Chinese restaurant. The Japanese weren't very popular at that time -- you know, war and stuff -- and my mom worked there part-time and learned everything she could about cooking. She cooked for the family almost every day while raising five kids. I watched her debone a chicken like nobody's business, make pâté au choux, and her Japanese food was always spot-on. She cooked out of necessity but never made it seem like work. I didn't start cooking professionally until I was 28, but not one day has passed where it's felt like work. Thanks, Mom!

Proudest moment as a chef: I'd like to think it hasn't happened yet. I've been cooking for almost eighteen years and have had many milestones along the way, each better than the last. I guess that's why I love this business, because you never know what's going to happen tomorrow.

Favorite ingredient: I'm fortunate enough to change the menu each month, so for me, my favorite ingredients change with the seasons. For January's menu, I'm using Loch Duart salmon, which comes from the super-cold waters of Scotland; it's sustainable, environmentally responsible, and the taste and texture are great.

Most overrated ingredient: White truffles. I love them, I've eaten tons of them, but if you have to mortgage your house just to get a few nuggets, then it doesn't make sense.

Most undervalued ingredient: Salt. It's the basis for most cooking -- even pastries. Too much or too little and it's worthless, but the right amount does wonders. I once met someone whose chef asked him, "How many grains of salt did you use?" Excessive? Compulsive? Maybe not.

Favorite local ingredient: Anything from Josh Halder at Verde Farms. Right now, I'm using micro-cilantro and micro-chervil -- both packed with flavor, but delicate enough to not overpower a dish.

Best recent food find: The best ramen in town is at Den Deli. They use braised pork belly, seaweed and bean sprouts. And there's just something about the broth...it's really tasty and spicy. That's most of the dish, right there. It's really, really, really good.

One food you detest: White pepper. I worked for a lot of chefs that insisted on using it, but no matter how you grind it, it still tastes like dirt.

One food you can't live without: Butter. People often ask me if I'd like some bread with that butter. When I was a kid, I made sure every square in my waffle was filled with butter. I don't do that today, but I still put my syrup on the side, because when I was little, there were no nooks and crannies to pour it in.

What you'd like to see more of in Denver from a culinary standpoint: More chefs working to build camaraderie. Sure, we want to be the best at what we do and outshine the next guy, but I always think it's easier to get to the top with help rather than trying to do it all on your own. Unfortunately, our work lives are so busy, and once we throw our personal lives into the mix, we're back to square one. I'm sort of an outsider. Chefs have big egos, but the passion needs to be shared. If we're all busy, then we're all making money. This is an open invitation for all chefs to give me a call -- 303-293-0287 -- and just say "hi."

What you'd like to see less of in Denver from a culinary standpoint: I think I'm with everyone when I say chains. Give us independent guys a chance; we've got some pretty good food here.

Best culinary tip for a home cook: Read the recipe all the way through. Many people, including myself, don't do that, and then we wonder why a dish never comes out the way it's supposed to. After you try a recipe once, go beyond it and add your own personal twists.

Favorite Denver restaurant(s) other than your own: I've only been in Denver sixteen months, so I haven't dined out often enough to have a favorite restaurant yet. But there are restaurants where I've had great food: Masterpiece Deli for the Reuben; Osteria Marco's burrata; Fruition, if you're a grazing vegetarian; Rioja's artichoke tortelloni; and Table 6 for anything that involves the pig.

What's your favorite knife? My chef's knife. I've had many over my career, from Global to WÜSTHOF, but for the last ten years, I've used a Masahiro chef's knife. It's not really about the brand, but about how you use the knife. Most people don't use the entire knife: I use it from tip to tang - and even the backside.

Hardest lesson you've learned: Choose your partners wisely. That's all I have to say about that.

What's next for you? I'm open to suggestions, but what I really want to do is Asian food in the same neighborhood that twelve is in. There's no good Asian around here. I want to do a real izakaya with Japanese tapas -- all small bites -- and beer and wine, with nothing over 15 bucks. My twist would be a more traditional, but approachable, menu. With that in mind, when I make my next move, I'm sure it'll be great. Stay tuned.

This is part one of Midson's interview with Jeff Osaka; for part two of the interview, click here.

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