Several years ago, Jeremy Kittelson found himself at a crossroads. After his departure from Ambria, the Iowa native realized that the best way to move up was, paradoxically, to go down. “I came in [to Root Down] with no title or role, took way less money than other offers I had on the table, and started working the line,” he says. “I had been an executive chef for more than ten years, so let’s just say I was a little rusty on the line.” But now Kittelson has a title to envy: culinary director of Edible Beats, the group behind such Justin Cucci hot spots as Linger, Root Down, Ophelia’s and the newly opened Vital Root.
Keep reading to find out how Kittelson tackled the challenge of developing Vital Root’s all-vegetarian menu, which also shuns processed sugars, and what far-flung corner of the globe he traveled to for summer vacation.
Westword: You recently returned from a trip abroad. Were you doing research for a new Edible Beats concept, or just taking a well-deserved vacation?
Jeremy Kittelson: I was taking a well-deserved vacation, but the timing was terrible! I left the day we opened Vital Root. I went to Tanzania to hike Mount Kilimanjaro. I also spent three days in Doha, Qatar, on the way back. It was a trip of a lifetime, and one that was so rewarding. Even though I was hiking and vacationing, I’m always searching out delicious food and learning about cuisine. For me, that’s obviously one of the great pleasures of traveling.
This spring, you were promoted to culinary director of Edible Beats. What does the role entail?
The role really focuses on the idea of directing. I help our chefs and Justin direct the cuisine, finances and culture of our restaurants. It seems like an obvious statement, but maintaining the consistency and level of excellence that our guests expect and are accustomed to is so critical. We have to deliver each and every day for all of our guests, and I help set our teams up to do that. I really enjoy working with our culinary teams and setting them up for success. I also get to wear whatever I want now, which is cool.
Do you miss the nightly energy of the kitchen?
Nope, because I’m still there. There is certainly a larger administrative responsibility, but I’m still very involved in service. Admittedly, I don’t have the taste for blood and battles as much as I used to, but I believe it’s important to be there for the team and for our guests. I think I’ll always be a fiend for the action.
Vital Root is the latest addition to Edible Beats’ portfolio, with a healthy, vegetarian focus. That means dishes like chocolate pot de crème made with avocado and Cobb salad with coconut bacon. How’s the reception been?
The reception has been so positive. People were really excited before we opened, and they have been so supportive. We have guests who dine with us four times a week. It’s so inspiring to see people care about the food they eat and where it comes from.
Was there a discussion to be vegan vs. vegetarian? How much is gluten-free?
We always want to view Vital Root as vegetable-focused. All of our dishes are vegetarian, and with the exception of a couple, all can be vegan. This has all been motivated to provide a more sustainable environment and to provide healthy food that is delicious. Justin does say that Edible Beats has a secret vegetarian agenda, but the cuisine was more directed for the health of our guests and the planet. We started out gluten-free but have made a couple of exceptions where we could not provide the same flavor and texture. We don’t use or process flours on site. We have also eliminated processed sugars, flours and oils.
How did you get up to speed in this style of cooking? Where did you get your ideas?
It certainly took some research and development to get up to speed with vegetable-forward cooking. After that, it became really fun and inspiring. It’s amazing how much we rely on meat, fish, sugar and gluten in cooking. Vegetables are delicious, and with some thought can be transcendent. We also took a very whole-vegetable approach. At Edible Beats, we are mindful about what we throw away. Sustainability is a core value, so we started looking at vegetables differently. We asked, “How can we use all of this and not throw any of it away?” This has been a great experience for me and has pushed me to become a better chef, for sure.
What was a recipe that took a lot of tweaking to get right? These techniques/dishes aren’t exactly taught in your average cooking school.
Honestly, the juices and smoothies took the most tweaking. Fruits and vegetables vary so much, so producing a consistently delicious product was challenging. We had to rework ratios on everything to get them just right.
Quick bio: Where are you from, how old are you, and why did you decide to start cooking?
I’m from Cedar Rapids, Iowa. I’m 41 years old. I started cooking because I took some time off from college. I ended up working in a restaurant with a friend who was going to culinary school, and my chefs at the time encouraged me to go. I thought, I [have] nothing better to do, so why not? Since then, I’ve never looked back.
What’s your earliest food memory?
It’s always of my grandma, Virginia, making bread. She was an amazing cook and was always making something, but my favorite was her bread. She would let me tear into it and slather it with butter. Nobody was gluten-free back then.
How long have you been in the business?
I’m going on sixteen years.
What’s a career highlight?
My career highlight was having Mario Batali and Paul Kahan as guest chefs at Tapawingo, the restaurant [in Michigan] where I was the executive chef. I cooked for them the night before, and they were really impressed. Then the dinner we did was just epic. One of my courses was a rabbit consommé, where we went into the dining room and shaved white truffles all over the dish. Everyone was really blown away. Having Mario there was cool, but cooking for and doing a dinner with my mentor, Paul Kahan, was the best part. You don’t forget a night like that.
You’ve said that mentoring is important to you. If mentees take away one thing, what would you want it to be?
Accountability. I hope that I teach people to be accountable for their actions and others. So much of what we do in the restaurants and in life centers on accountability. Real growth happens when people embrace accountability.
What’s your signature dish?
I’ve never really liked this question or known exactly how to answer it. My food is always evolving, and I like to do new things all the time. To answer the question, right now it would be the sunflower-seed risotto at Vital Root. I think it really expresses what we are trying to accomplish there. Delicious, beautiful, vegetable-focused cuisine.
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What kinds of restaurants does Denver need more of?
Honestly, I think we need more restaurants like Vital Root. Restaurants and diners all need to show greater awareness of what’s going on in the environment, our food system and their bodies. It’s also a restaurant that provides this type of food quickly and that you can take home. We just need more restaurants that serve less meat and seafood. Globally, we all need to eat less of these foods.
Name one famous person, living or historical, whom you’d like to sit next to at dinner.
Jay Z. And hopefully he would bring Beyoncé with him.
Best tip for a home cook?
Prep in advance. You’d be surprised what you can pull off if you do some prep in advance. We call it mise en place, or things in place. People cooking at home often try to do too much all at once, and they end up going down or not getting the results they want. Do some prep the day before so you can focus on the details when you’re cooking your meal.
Vital Root is located at 3915 Tennyson Street. For more information, call 303-474-4131 or go to vitalrootdenver.com. See our slide show of Vital Roots here.