Gene Tang hired Joseph Arena as 1515 Restaurant’s new executive chef in February, a move that reflected his penchant for bringing in young talent that appreciates the restaurant’s combination of classical fine-dining technique with modern culinary sleight of hand. Back in 1997, when Tang opened 1515 in the century-old storefront that once housed the legendary Cafe Giovanni, Arena was a kid on the East Coast getting his first taste of the food that would turn him from a picky eater into a passionate cook and explorer of flavors. And now, almost two decades later, Arena’s culinary training and natural curiosity make him a great fit for 1515’s upscale yet playful style.
Arena grew up in Rochester, New York, in a big Italian family; his grandmother cured her own meats and made bread from scratch, in addition to cooking up all the simple and homey dishes that Italian grandmothers are known for. While Arena’s early preferences were for peanut-butter sandwiches and white-meat chicken, he loved to watch his grandmother and learn from her. “I was always cooking as a kid,” he recalls.
His dad also loved to cook, and Arena remembers one of the dishes that helped expand his horizons: “He made this sundried-tomato-and-shiitake-mushroom risotto. It broke me out into wanting to try different things.” Later, he and his dad would watch food and cooking shows together, “back when the Food Network was still good,” he remembers. “Molto Mario, Emeril, shows like that.”
In high school, Arena showed an aptitude for science, excelling in AP physics and chemistry; he later earned a bachelor’s degree in pharmaceutical chemistry. But once out of college, he found that the kitchen was still calling to him. He sat down with his dad, who encouraged him to follow his heart: “My dad always told me that if I pursue what I love, I’ll never work a day in my life.” So instead of finding a job in the pharmaceutical industry (which he admits would have been lucrative), he enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park. Before starting classes there, however, he immersed himself in Italian techniques at the Apicius Culinaria cooking school in Florence, Italy, which was mostly “Italian grandmothers teaching the art of rolling pasta,” he recalls. He learned to make pasta, and he ate veal pizzaiola in a little osteria off the Palazzo Vecchio; he also visited Viareggio, a beach town where he ate his fill of bomboloni: “There’s always a guy walking the beaches selling doughnuts, screaming at the top of his lungs.”
After he completed a CIA program heavy in classical French technique, Arena’s final step was a restaurant internship. From choices all over the country, he selected Colorado, where he worked for a year at Boulder’s Flagstaff House. He was already a fan of the state from childhood visits to relatives living on the eastern plains (near Bennett, Byers and Strasburg), so moving to Boulder was a chance to explore Colorado further. “I realized I could move out here and learn something — and still have fun,” he says.
After that internship, he took a job at Jax Fish House, owned by Dave Query’s Big Red F restaurant group. That led to a position at Happy Noodle & Bitter Bar; he eventually became the executive chef there, after the eatery dropped the Happy concept and became just Bitter Bar. Without the fusion-noodle-house theme, the kitchen had a chance to experiment with the menu. “I was big into making terrines and curing my own meats,” Arena recalls.
When he left Bitter Bar, he says, he became a “culinary mercenary,” working at restaurants in New Orleans (Borgne, Herbsaint) and the Caribbean, including Zozo’s on St. John in the Virgin Islands, before heading for coastal Maine and an executive-chef job at a private club last summer.
Finally back in Denver after his culinary wanderings, Arena applied for the position at 1515, intrigued by Tang’s passion for molecular gastronomy. “We find the most creative, most talented chefs,” Tang says. “I was interviewing someone from Eleven Madison Park [in New York City], and Joe won out.”
And although Arena prefers the term “modernist” or “avant-garde” cuisine to “molecular gastronomy,” he says he definitely wanted to tackle the new challenges of Tang’s ideas, having been a fan of Spanish modernist master Ferran Adrià and technical-cookbook author Hervé This. Arena and Tang agree that 1515’s menu should not be dominated by flashy techniques and chemicals, but should instead let the ingredients come first: “Classic, with a modern twist,” Tang explains.
Arena is a quick study, reading prodigiously and watching some of the better current cooking shows; PBS’s Mind of a Chef and Netflix original Chef’s Table are two of his favorites. He can rattle off modernist ingredients — soy lecithin, agar agar, carrageenan and methylcellulose — and offer examples of the best way to use each; for instance, he knows that methylcellulose is crucial for re-creating David Chang’s puffed egg with bacon dashi, as demonstrated on Mind of a Chef.
Since Arena’s arrival, the menu at 1515 has focused on modern steakhouse dishes incorporating high-end ingredients. American Wagyu beef from the 7X Ranch in western Colorado features prominently in several dishes, including an appetizer with thin strips of raw beef presented alongside an oven-hot stone so that customers can do their own cooking. There’s also a corn soup with uni served in a spiky sea-urchin shell. A bouillabaisse Americana has a more dramatic presentation: It comes in a large bowl atop a towel-lined dish, and as a server pours liquid nitrogen into the towel, the resulting temperature differential between the hot seafood stew and the cold towel creates a breeze that wafts the maritime aroma to the diner (without chilling the broth).
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Although Arena is having fun in this new kitchen, he admits that at home, “peanut butter and crackers is my go-to meal. But on Sundays I always have a pot of sauce on the stove — I have to.” He makes two to three gallons at a time, enough to last all week, and following his grandmother’s recipe — with a few changes. “She would always put in a chunk of pork neck,” he says, “but I use country ribs.” He also makes his meatballs “fattier than they should be,” with a two-to-one ratio of pecorino Romano to breadcrumbs. “I put it on at 7 a.m. and it’s ready by 5,” he notes.
But whether Arena is making old-school red sauce or plating lamb tartare with housemade pickles and mustard at 1515, “it’s always cooked from the heart,” he says. “Food cooked with love always tastes better. It’s how you treat the food. Respect the ingredients and you’ll get better results.”