"Anything I can possibly dream up is now doable, because I'm able to really play around with food," says Ian Kleinman, Denver's answer to Alton Brown, the wacky culinary scientist (and only food personality worth watching) on the Food Network. Kleinman, too, is a culinary chemist -- a molecular gastronomist -- whose favorite ingredient just happens to be liquid nitrogen, which he loves like the rest of us love ice cream. And here's the thing: Kleinman uses it to make sorbets, ice cream and milk shakes.
Kleinman's fascination with molecular gastronomy dates from 2006, when he was executive chef at O's Steak and Seafood, the on-site restaurant in the Westin Westminster Hotel. The corporate chef of Starwood, the company that owns the Westin brand, sent Kleinman to open a restaurant in the St. Regis -- now the Ritz -- in Fort Lauderdale, and there Kleinman met another chef who'd cooked at Alinea, Grant Achatz's incredibly progressive molecular restaurant in Chicago. "This guy was telling me stories about tomato paper and pineapple gas and flash-frozen sorbets -- all new things I'd never heard of -- and I was really intrigued," says Kleinman. So intrigued that when he resumed his post at O's, he asked the general manager for liquid nitrogen, agar and methocel. "When I started using the additives, there weren't a lot of recipes, so I'd have to do tests, just like in sixth-grade science class," recalls Kleinman.
Born and raised in Breckenridge, Kleinman began working in restaurants when he was just ten years old. A third-generation chef (his father is also a chef, and his grandfather was a culinary instructor), Kleinman started out as a dishwasher and worked his way up to prepping, where he "carried twenty-pound crockpots up to the line." He spent the next several years cooking in different galleys before enrolling in the culinary program at the Art Institute of Colorado. "I wanted to play with knives," jokes Kleinman, who notes that his father, Steve, was an instructor there, which equaled free tuition.
Following culinary school, Kleinman bounced around several Denver restaurants, including the Rialto Cafe, Table Mountain Inn and now-shuttered spots like the Rattlesnake Grill, Nine75, the Hilltop Cafe, Indigo and Bravo, a restaurant with singing waiters that Kleinman says made his stint on the line the "worst job ever."
Kleinman is currently a consultant for H BurgerCo, which recently opened downtown. But his big project is the debut of the Inventing Room Catering Company, which he hopes will eventually lead to an actual storefront where he can make ice cream using liquid nitrogen -- and whatever else he's fooling around with. "We created it to make a fun new food experience in Denver that's also about entertainment," explains Kleinman. "It's a fun show for people who haven't seen the molecular stuff live."
Six words to describe your food: Textural, global, fun, unusual, tasty and delicious.
Ten words to describe you: Childish, bipolar, perfectionist, crazy, dad, husband, blogger, native, musical and different.
Culinary inspirations: The hardware store, because I like to take machines that are used for different mediums and apply them to the culinary world. I took a chalk line, for example, which is typically used in carpentry, and filled it with edible powders. If you're looking for me, you can usually find me at Home Depot. And kids will love this: I'm completely inspired by Willy Wonka. I want to replicate the experiences that he was able to give to kids in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. I've been working on food pills now for a couple of years. I've even managed to manufacture one with several layers of flavors.
Favorite ingredient: Liquid nitrogen. I'm able to get textures and shapes I could only dream about a few years ago. Plus it's really dangerous, and the ten-year-old inside of me really likes that. The possibilities for different textures are endless, and it's so much fun to see people's reactions, especially the reactions of kids.
Most overrated ingredient: Salt. Everyone uses it to enhance their food, even though there are so many better ways to get flavor: fresh herbs, the citrus of a lime, honey or maple syrup for sweetness, or even an infused vinegar. We should reach for these natural flavor enhancers before salt.
Most undervalued ingredient: Popcorn. I think we've only scratched the surface on what we can do with popcorn. It's taking a common ingredient that everyone's used to eating in its current form and turning it into textures that most people would never think was possible -- things like popcorn gelée, popcorn space foam, floating seaweed popcorn...
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: Hatch green chiles. During chile season, I just drive down Federal Boulevard and hit whatever stand I can. There's a good one at the corner of Federal and Mississippi.
Rules of conduct in your kitchen: Save the drama for your mama; bring your Frisbee so we can play if the line gets set early; anything I might say to you in the rush of the moment must immediately be forgiven; and you must promise not to call the police.
One food you detest: Ramen noodles. I used to have to cook for myself a lot as a kid, and one time I left the noodles on too long and burned them. I was so hungry that I ate a bite anyway, and to this day, I still have that nasty flavor burned into my memory.
One food you can't live without: Ice cream, because it brings me back to my happy place. Rocky Road is probably my favorite, but only when I make it. I use housemade marshmallows, chocolate-covered almonds, chocolate fudge ice cream and cinnamon foam.
What's never in your kitchen? Zen. There's always an element of chaos in the kitchen. I have to have chaos.
Culinarily speaking, Denver has the best: Taquerías. You can walk into a dozen of them on Federal and get an amazingly authentic experience. My favorite is Tacos y Salsas.
Culinarily speaking, Denver has the worst: Places for chefs to hang out. Where's our Blue Hill, the big restaurant in New York where chefs go to hang out and talk about the culinary world?
What show would you pitch to the Food Network, and what would it be about? Chef Swap. Put Thomas Keller on the line at the Breakfast King and have Pedro run the expo line at Nobo...and then sit back and watch the pans fly.
Weirdest customer request: Can I get my get my beefsteak tomato cooked medium rare? It was a room-service request when I worked at the Westin. I've never laughed so hard in my life.
If you could cook for one person, dead or alive, who would it be? Einstein. I have a few questions I want to run by him. I try to apply science to the food world, right? There's a matter called Bose-Einstein condensate that's a fourth kind of matter that happens right before absolute zero, and I have a theory that you can make new flavors using condensate. I'd like to ask him if we can combine flavor atoms using a condensate.
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Favorite celebrity chef: Frank Bonanno and Alan Wong. They both gave me some great advice early on in my career that's really helped me. Frank told me to always learn on the other person's dime; Alan taught me that every time you cut a tomato, it will always be different in flavor, texture and moisture. In other words, respect your food.
Celebrity chef that should shut up: The Swedish chef from The Muppets.
What's next for you? My wife and I started the Inventing Room Catering Company a few months ago to create fun, unique events for people tired of the same old catered experience. We do everything from liquid nitrogen ice cream parties and molecular dinner parties to mixology and Miracle Fruit parties. We'd like to open a store after we find the right investors, but until then, I plan on spending many days and nights in my lab trying to make new flavor compounds using a Bose-Einstein condensate.
To read the rest of Lori Midson's Chef and Tell interview with Ian Kleinman, click here.