This is part one of my interview with Daniel Bradley, exec chef of 5280 Burger Bar; tune in tomorrow for part two of our chat.
When you grow up in Burlingame, California, where fields of fresh produce are within skipping distance and family dinners never include an ingredient plucked from a box or poured from a can, a hamburger from McDonald's can really screw with your body. Daniel Bradley found that out the hard way. "Everything we ate at home was prepared from scratch, and it wasn't until I was twelve or so that I had my first hamburger from McDonald's, and it made me violently, ridiculously ill," remembers Bradley. Decades later, he's now the exec chef of 5280 Burger Bar, which opened earlier this year in the Denver Pavilions.
"I haven't had fast food in fifteen years, but I'm still obsessed with burgers," confesses Bradley, who got his first cooking job at fourteen, turning tacos. "I've loved to cook my whole life, even when I was super-young, and as soon as I got the job at the taqueria, it all just clicked, and I knew that I was meant to work in a kitchen." He bounced around several California kitchens before enrolling in the California Culinary Academy, an education that resulted in an externship -- and more -- at the famed Chez Panisse, in Berkeley.
"On the first day of culinary school, one of my chef instructors had us all playing with knives, and my knife skills were already really good, so I was fast and the first one done, and a few weeks later, he pulled me aside and said that I needed to get a good externship -- and told me just to walk into Chez Panisse and talk to the chef on duty," recalls Bradley. "I went in, nervous and intimidated as hell, but it turned out that a guy hadn't shown up to cook, so I went in that night and worked, and even though I was freaking out the whole time, it was a lot of fun and not nearly as strict as I thought it was going to be."
What was expected to be a three-month externship lasted for well over a year, and Bradley might have stayed had it not been for ambition. "I learned so much about really great products -- the farmer who brought us our leeks every day was the same guy who had just pulled them from the earth -- and it was an amazing experience, but I was a line cook, and the likelihood of becoming a sous-chef was slim," admits Bradley, explaining that the "whole point of my journey through culinary school and getting a job in a good kitchen was to move forward as a sous-chef and, eventually, an executive chef."
And indeed, his next position was as a sous-chef at a now-closed tapas restaurant in San Francisco, where he cooked for five years for an owner who "was a great mentor and really taught me how to run a kitchen," Bradley says. Following that, he landed at MacArthur Park, an upscale American restaurant in Palo Alto, and got his wish: He was hired as the executive chef, overseeing what he calls "a 10,000-square-foot beast." But after four years, he yearned for something even bigger, so in 2011 he moved to Las Vegas and started cooking for Caesars Palace. "I guess I wanted to punish myself," jokes Bradley, who ran the casino restaurant along with all the banquet business. "It was a super-big challenge, not to mention one big rush," he says, recalling a 36-hour New Year's Eve marathon. "We all wore pedometers, and by the time I was done, I'd walked eighteen miles -- all inside -- in 36 hours."
Eventually, though, it was the hot Vegas summers that got to him, which is how Bradley ended up in Denver. "I couldn't deal with the heat," he says, "but I'm also strange and very spontaneous, and when one of my buddies said he was moving to Denver, I was like, awesome, when are we going?"
He touched down in Denver on August 1 of 2013, and on August 2, he was employed. His first Denver gig was a good one: chef de cuisine at Sushi Den and Izakaya Den. But several months into his tenure, while Bradley was posting a help-wanted advertisement on Craigslist, he eyeballed another job that looked promising. "I wasn't really looking for a new position, but when I saw that it was an exec-chef job for a burger concept, I was definitely interested," admits Bradley, who was hired just a few days later. "I love burgers, I love burgers with crazy toppings, and I love that there's so much room for creativity here -- more than I've ever had," says Bradley, who in the following interview compares dry herbs to dirt and insists that, unless you're an advocate of baby food and spit, foams and purées have no place on a plate.
Lori Midson: What's your first food memory? Daniel Bradley: In fifth grade, my elementary-school class had an overnight stay on an old wooden ship named the C.A. Thayer, which was docked in San Francisco Bay. During the field trip, students were assigned different jobs, and I was selected to work the galley and cook for the class, which I was bummed about, because I really wanted to be a fisherman. But once we started planning the meal, I was much more stoked about it; I had fun writing a menu, shopping for food and cooking in a tiny kitchen on the ship. From that point forward, I wanted to work in a kitchen.
Ten words to describe you: Passionate, impatient, weird, sarcastic, extroverted, spontaneous, rambunctious, huggable, modest and wicked smart.
Five words to describe your food: Bold, interesting, tasty, comfy and sexy.
What are your ingredient obsessions? I go through phases experimenting with different ingredients. A few months back, I was using a lot of koji (fermented rice marinade), and right now, I'm digging on achiote paste. It has a wonderful chile-citrus flavor that I can't stop eating. At the restaurant, we use it to baste a torta burger called the "Cinco," which we featured on Cinco de Mayo. We top it with chipotle black beans, guacamole, pico de gallo and lime crème.
One ingredient you won't touch: Dry herbs. They taste like dirt.
Food trend you'd like to see emerge in 2014: This nation is so flooded with horrible fast food that it would be really nice to grab something healthy on the run that I don't regret immediately afterward.
Food trend you'd like to see disappear in 2014: Honey mustard. I just really dislike it. And foams and purées. I don't want baby food and spit on my plate.
Favorite piece of kitchen equipment: My bacon stretcher. I like to send the new guys to borrow one from the other kitchens in our building.
Your favorite smell in the kitchen: I love the smell of roasting green chiles. We go through tons of roasted green chiles every day, and when I get into the restaurant in the morning, that's the first thing I smell.
Favorite dish on your menu: Green chile queso and fries. We make an absurdly good queso, and our fries are hand-cut every day. I also love the 5280 burger, which is just an awesome classic burger.
What dish would you love to put on your menu, regardless of how well it would sell? Cornish game hen with orange marmalade. It doesn't really fit the whole burger concept, but I ate it as a kid a lot, and I still love it.
It's your night off and you're starving. What's your go-to quick fix? My go-to is the rasta jerk-chicken sandwich and a cold beer from Goosetown Tavern on Colfax. I love that they spend time making their own bread -- and the pasta salad is yummy, too. It's just one of those bars that has great food and great people.
Weirdest customer request: Not so much a request as an eye-rolling moment: A customer was making a big deal about gluten-free everything on his plate...and then he drank a beer.
If you could make one request of diners, what would it be? Be patient. Good food takes time, and sometimes we're dealing with the craziest problems in the kitchen.
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What's in the pipeline? I'm not sure -- I'm not a plumber. I'm kind of a day-to-day guy, but I'm looking forward to making 5280 Burger Bar the best burger in Denver.