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Chef Kevin Grossi of Lola Talks Salmon Collars and Flashdancing in the Kitchen

Kevin Grossi of Lola Mexican Fish House may have grown up in New Jersey and Michigan, but he fell in love with Mexican cuisine early, spurred on by the beauty and passion of a fellow student. "My first experience with cooking Mexican cuisine was back in my culinary-school days," he remembers. "Our teachers weren't too focused on cuisines outside of Europe or Japan. My partner in class, coincidentally, was a very attractive girl from Guadalajara. She taught the class throughout that semester to help the chefs. The way she spoke about growing up and the meaning of the food she was raised on intrigued me."

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After his formal cooking education ended, Grossi spent a couple of months traveling in Central America, "soaking up as much as possible about cultures and cuisine," he says. And so the art of Mexican cooking became a focal point of his career, and his continuing education. "I worked at Tamayo under Troy Guard and Ruben Herrera," Grossi recalls. "Being one of two white dudes in the kitchen taught me more than I could have asked from that experience there."

Today he heads the kitchen at Lola Mexican Fish House, which specializes in seafood true to its roots -- food based on traditional methods and dishes, but without getting overly tangled up in notions of authenticity. "Finding my way to Big Red F has been a great destination for my career," Grossi says of his employers, who own Lola as well as a string of Jax Fish Houses and other ventures. He started working at Lola as a sous chef under Duane Walker -- "and, of course, the tutelage of chef Jamey Fader, the original chef/owner of Lola," he adds -- and then moved up to open the Jax in Fort Collins.

"Fader and DQ [Big Red F owner Dave Query] had the confidence in me to let me run my own kitchen," Grossi says. "That was an amazing experience -- to open a new spot and see what it takes to get that baby moving. Being up there also helped me develop great relationships with the area's farmers, some of which we still work with back here at Lola." The Mexican fare he's designing with those products and cooking at Lola today is not fusion cuisine, he says. "We're not literalists here," he explains, "but any non-traditional dishes must have Mexican grounding."

When I met with Grossi, we talked about making salsa, using hot peppers well, and keeping the menu fun by toying with standard dishes -- like offering "non-green" salads using seasonal ingredients (root vegetables, for example) instead of greens. He had just put out a trio of new salsas and was tossing around the idea of sourcing some dangerously hot peppers with which to experiment. Later, I followed up with some questions to learn a little more about his background, to see how his menu was holding up, and to find out if he'd gotten any of those super-spicy devil's-tongue chiles.

Westword: Do you have a favorite food memory from childhood?

Kevin Grossi: When I was around ten years old, we lived in New Jersey. My dad's side of the family is Italian. They'd take us to the neighborhood delis and bakeries on Sundays after church. I remember standing in line for way too long to walk in and see an enormous log of provolone hanging from the ceiling, miles of salami Genoa, and bread galore. There was not enough time in the day to be able to see everything in this deli.

The guy behind the counter leaned over and asked me, "Hey, kid, what you thinkin'?" I was sold on the "Holy Cannoli." It was an iconic cannoli that people came from all over the area for. My dad had been building me up on the Holy Cannoli just so I could make it through church without causing a scene. Once the deli worker handed me the cannoli, I think I wolfed it down in less than a minute. At the time, it was the most amazing food I'd ever tasted.

How did you get into cooking?

When I was fourteen, my dad was hounding me to get a job. My first attempt was being a caddy, which lasted for about nine holes. My brother Dave was working at a restaurant in Michigan called Kruse & Muer making pizzas. He came back home to tell me they needed a dishwasher. I had no choice at that point. I would watch the older line cooks sling dishes like no other, then turn and chuck the dirty pans into my dish sink, covering me with oily fish water. Eventually I worked my way up from dish to pantry to pizza to grill, then finally sauté. There was something about that kitchen that made me want to learn everything. I had no intention of making it my career. I was pretty uncertain of my direction, but I knew I loved to cook. Randomly, I found out about Schoolcraft College, where I attended the culinary program. Little did I know, some of the best chefs in the country were the instructors there at the time.

As time went on, I used cooking as a way to travel the country. I've been fortunate enough to cook and live in Aspen, Vail, San Diego, Detroit and Boston.

How has the new menu been going?

Our new summer menu has done us well. It's a great representation of what's going on with Lola right now. With this menu, we have a solid lineup of ingredients that speak of the summer season. The main focus is still about re-creating the feelings and memories of visits to the Mexican coasts.

Keep reading for more with chef Kevin Grossi of Lola...

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Mark Antonation is the former Westword Food & Drink Editor. In 2018, he was named Outstanding Media Professional by the Colorado Restaurant Association; he's now with the Colorado Restaurant Foundation.
Contact: Mark Antonation

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