You never know when your luck’s going to change. But with the benefit of hindsight, Nicholas Ames, executive chef at Abejas, which opened last year in Golden, can pinpoint the moment when his life took a turn for the better. It wasn’t when he succeeded John Broening as executive chef at Spuntino. It wasn’t when he rubbed elbows with some of the world’s greatest chefs at a food festival in Bangkok. It wasn’t even when he landed a job at a highly respected restaurant in San Francisco early in his career. No, for Ames the pivotal moment came when he was working at a very different job — in a Toyota plant — and talking to a girl in the cafeteria. Find out what she said that changed his life, as well as his thoughts on everything from homesteading to one-star Yelp reviews, in our conversation below.
Westword: How long have you been in the business?
Nicholas Ames: I have been in the business for about twenty years, so I’m very much a veteran by now. Well, it’s been twenty years if you include my first job as a dishwasher in a retirement home.
Why did you decide to start cooking?
I had the ambition to do something better with myself, but no college classes really appealed to me. The idea of being white-collar just didn’t suit me; I had too much energy to be in an office. While working in the cafeteria of a Toyota factory, I met a girl who had just graduated from the California Culinary Academy’s baking and pastry program. She told me about the school, and on my next day off, I went to their open house. Instantly I fell in love with the idea of being a chef and being in San Francisco. The next day I took out a school loan and told my mother I was going to go to culinary school. The next Monday, I was enrolled and sitting in a food-science class. It all happened that quickly.
What stands out from your early career?
About halfway through culinary school, I started working at the prestigious Fifth Floor (located in the Hotel Palomar) under chef George Morrone. At the time, it was one of just a few four-star restaurants in San Francisco. How I got the job in one of the most immaculate restaurants in one of the greatest food cities in the world — and why they were so patient with a nineteen-year-old, inexperienced culinary student — I will never know, but I couldn’t be more thankful. It really set the tone for my career, as far as cooking with finesse and discipline goes.
What’s your earliest food memory?
One of my first food memories was when I was working at the Fifth Floor. Back then, organic vegetables were the major trend. Most of our vegetables were organic, and we were considered to be cutting-edge with our expensive, organic vegetables. I had my hand on a parsnip and was asked to peel and dice it up. The first peel of the parsnip just exploded; it was a sensory overload to my brain. It was so fragrant; I had never experienced such a thing.
You’re passionate about fresh, seasonal ingredients, both in the kitchen and at home. In the past, we’ve even talked about your “homesteading approach to life.” Can you tell me more about this?
Oh, yes, my attempts at homesteading. Before moving to Denver four years ago, the only cities I’d lived in were San Francisco and Tokyo. I’d always been cooped up in small studio apartments. Now I’m living in a house in Highland; it’s my first time living in a house with a back yard. I’ve always romanticized the idea of retirement and one day owning land where I can farm and raise chickens and goats for myself and for one restaurant. (Hopefully, one that I own.) Now I have the opportunity to dabble in gardening and raise chickens, and I love it. The excitement of seeing beans sprouting and bringing in the harvest to work and passing it on to customers is incredibly fulfilling.
What’s a career highlight?
So far, the highlight of my career was accompanying chef Sarah Schafer [then of San Francisco’s Frisson] to cook at the World of Food festival in Bangkok in 2006. It was my first time in Asia, and there were master chefs from all over the world. I got to meet them and cook with them.
Do you have a signature dish?
It would have to be the beet salad we have at Abejas. Beets can grow pretty much year-round in California, so the quality is very consistent. I like to pair beets with fruit. I originally had them with plums, but when plums went out of season, I went with elderberries from the Pacific Northwest. I like the idea of taking an unassuming and underappreciated vegetable and showing off its versatility.
Biggest flop you’ve ever served:
Hopefully this will be my one and only flop! It would have to be the chocolate-and-blood-orange Bavarian cake I did for New Year’s this year. I was trying to do an elegant layer cake, but it ended up tasting like a moon pie from 7-Eleven.
Hardest moment in your career, and what it taught you:
I worked in a lot of cutthroat kitchens with a lot of chefs who make Gordon Ramsay look like Mister Rogers. But by far, the first six months of being a chef at Abejas have been the hardest and most challenging — the day-to-day grind, staying strong and healthy and taking care of myself. It’s a lot more responsibility than being a sous-chef; now my food is in the public. You have to learn to not let a one-star Yelp review keep you up at night.
Guilty pleasure in terms of food:
It’s all the rage now in Denver, but when I lived in Tokyo, I basically survived on ramen and never got burned out. It is an incredibly satisfying meal. I especially love how cherished and beloved by the Japanese it is. If you have never seen the Japanese cult movie called Tampopo, I recommend watching it before your next bowl of ramen. It will change your entire outlook on it.
What ingredient are you excited about right now?
With spring here, I’m excited to get my hands on some white asparagus. Last summer I was introduced to ground cherries, and I instantly fell in love. At first I thought they were baby tomatillos and actually ran a special calling them baby tomatillos. I had a customer tell me they were, in fact, ground cherries.
Do you cook at home? If so, do you have a go-to dish?
I do cook at home. I enjoy throwing a dinner party here and there. On a day-to-day basis, I try to stay disciplined and eat a big breakfast every morning; it might be the only chance I get to eat a full meal. Pretty much anything with an egg sunny-side up is what I turn to.
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What changes would you like to see in Denver’s food scene over the next five years?
This city really needs a Chinatown.
Best tip for a home cook?
Just keep it simple. Don’t be afraid of salt, and don’t think a recipe has to be followed to a T.Nicholas Ames
Abejas is located at 807 13th Street in Golden; for more information, call 303-952-9745 or go to abejasgolden.com.