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

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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."

See also: Author and Barbecue Judge Adrian Miller Shares His Rib Tips

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...

Have you had to make any changes since the rollout?

We were able to tighten up the new menu prior to rolling it out in July, and not too many changes needed to happen. Getting the quality ingredients on the plate without having to mess around with the product was the goal. The new cold-bar items have definitely taken off. Our bay-scallop ceviche and halibut tiradito are ordered quite frequently as a first course on the table. The octopus dish is the one that surprised me, mainly because most diners think that octopus is going to be tough and chewy, so they don't order it. We nailed this one by getting in a great Spanish product, then simmering it with butter and red chiles to ensure it was super-tender. As for the entrees, the Scottish salmon and pork adobo have been some of the more popular dishes. I love that salmon dish because of its flavors of Veracruz done in an elegant way with a bright appearance. Of course, the dessert menu, by our pastry chef, Xan Lynch, is crafty and fun. Choco tacos? Come on, now.

What's your leadership style in the kitchen, and how do you like things to run?

We're focusing on fundamentals, so in turn, it's an educational kitchen back there. I like to have an environment where everyone wants to contribute -- making the kitchen a place to get away from the regular world. Walk in the kitchen and focus only on making our food great. Getting the cooks to understand where the product came from and how much work it takes before we even receive it. It is our responsibility to represent those products well at that point. The cooks are being pushed hard, but I like for them to see why.

Have you had any recent fun moments with staff?

As you walk down into our prep room, you'll hear either mariachi, Toto, Cher, musica romantica, Madonna or, you know, sometimes even Celine Dion. One shift I hear the crew singing "Flashdance," by Irene Cara, and look over to see Ken, one of our lead cooks, bolt out of the prep entryway like he was one of the backup dancers in that movie. Next thing you know, Javiar, one of our dishwashers, is dancing on the pole in the room. Precious times with those guys.

What other styles do you enjoy cooking?

Spanish cuisine I love quite a bit. There's obviously a lot of similarities between the two, which helps the cause. And seafood! The first restaurant I worked in back in Michigan, I was cooking a lot of lake fish. I was fortunate enough to work on both coasts and experience the wide variety and availability of seafood firsthand. My time spent at Jax Fish House in Fort Collins sealed the deal. Working under chef Sheila Lucero was amazing. She taught me so much about seafood quality and sustainability and how to source properly.

You mentioned the Friday night "secret" dish, where waitstaff have the opportunity to sell unusual dishes. Can you give an example of one, and how diners like the idea?

Lately it's been halibut and salmon collars. The way it works is, we'll have only two collars available on a given night and will tap just one of our servers to be able to offer them to their tables. There's no description of how we're preparing it. We'll reveal a couple of ingredients, but not too much. I'll bring it out, then the first thing, I'll thank the guest for being the adventurous one at the table. The guests love it, and it gives us an opportunity to cook directly for that one person on a busy weekend night.

Have you been able to create a good devil's-tongue salsa, which you mentioned when we met?

Tracking down the Ecuadorean chile has been a challenge. I've been practicing with manzano chile, which has a heat level past an habanero. I have seeds of the devil's-tongue chile planted so we can get that going for mid- to late fall once the peppers come in.

What are your other current ingredient obsessions?

At this moment, it would be masa and yeast. I spent a lot of years in the bakery/pastry world of restaurants. I love the creation of different kinds of dough, how they react to their environments, how temperamental they can be. All in all, if you operate through your past experiences, the end results can be some of the most rewarding.

Besides the dough, I'm digging "Mama," our house vinegar at Lola. We've had the same vinegar going for years. It's a base vinegar, with onion blossoms from Spring Kite farm in Fort Collins and chile de arbol. It's so versatile -- we use it to make soft cheeses, pickle fruits, cure fish and deglaze pans. The best thing about it is, it keeps getting better by the day.

Any favorite restaurants in town besides Lola?

I'm a big fan of Acorn and Old Major. Those guys are doing it right by keeping it as consistent as possible. That says a lot for a restaurant, especially in the saturated Denver market these days. Both spots keep a high standard on where they get their product from -- from when it walks in the door to how they handle it and get it on the plate.

Any other places in the U.S. that you love?

I had a chance to go out to Charleston this last spring and eat. Great scene out there, with spots like Fig, The Ordinary and Husk. I just heard the news that Sean Brock is opening a Mexican restaurant called Minero. I'm definitely trying to go back to try out that spot.

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