This is part one of my interview with David Bumgardner, exec chef of Williams & Graham. Part two of my chat with Bumgradner will run in this space tomorrow.
The executive chef of Williams & Graham is leaning over the dish pit, aggressively scrubbing a sauté pan with a stump of steel wool. He squints every so often to inspect his progress, lest he leave behind any residue. Attention to detail is important to David Bumgardner, who freely admits that he's just as comfortable doing dish duty as he is preparing pâtés and terrines. "I'm a damn good dishwasher," he deadpans, giving the aluminum one more sideways glance before he finally puts it back where it belongs.
Bumgardner is a damn good chef, too, although he doesn't seem to recognize it. Shy, introspective and humble -- almost to a fault -- the 35-year-old former American Greetings graphic artist from New Castle, Pennsylvania, didn't start cooking professionally until his mid-twenties. "I moved to Denver, worked in a cubicle and traveled a lot, which is not how I wanted to live my life, and when the company I was working for closed down, it was my opportunity to do something completely different," recalls Bumgardner, who wasted no time getting his foot through the culinary door at Marczyk Fine Foods.
"I'd been a customer of Marczyk's since moving to Denver in 2003, and I loved their stuff, so I went up to Pete, who owns the market, and said that I'd do whatever it took to work there. I just knew that I wanted to be around food," says Bumgardner. He was hired as a cashier and eventually became a buyer for the market before he and the Marczyk crew "parted ways" in 2009.
The day he was bumped to the pavement, he went to Highland Tavern to find solace in friends and booze, a combination that turned out to be serendipitous. "I wanted to hang out with friends and commiserate my lack of a job, and as it turned out, Highland Tavern was just getting ready to open the kitchen, and the chef, Jeremy McMinn, asked me if I might want to help out."
Bumgardner cooked at Highland Tavern for the next few years, working his way up to the exec-chef title, and when he wasn't behind the line, he was hanging out at Steuben's, where he met Sean Kenyon, then the bar manager there. "Sean and I became friends," he explains, "and he mentioned that he wanted to open a speakeasy, and a few months later, he said he was ready and wondered if I'd be interested in being the chef." He didn't hesitate. "Sean and I talked a lot about the history of cocktails and speakeasys, which fascinated me," Bumgardner says, "and once I started doing some research and looking at old menus, I figured out how I could play with all of these great snacky things and appetizers -- food that I imagined would fit in well in a speakeasy, food that people would want to enjoy with cocktails without feeling gorged."
But if you do want to binge, Bumgardner makes a very good case for pork in the following interview, in which he also names alcohol as his favorite ingredient, decries food-marketing tactics and admits that when it comes to Sunday drivers, he's a prick.
Six words to describe your food: I try to make my food simple, elegant and inspired. I want my dishes to speak for themselves -- to say all the things I can't. Other times, my food is whimsical, random or just flat-out nonsense, like the time I mixed yakisoba noodles with green chile at home. It was an experiment -- and a disaster.
Ten words to describe you: I'll say this using a minimal number of medico-logical descriptors: Awkward, introspective, ergomaniac, intense, sensitive, observant, sarcastic, obsessive, paradoxical and shy.
Favorite ingredient: I'm sure I'm supposed to say pork, but right now, I'm going with alcohol. Part of it stems from my experiences of living and working in Denver and cooking at Williams & Graham. Being around so many fantastic spirits, knowing the best bartenders, meeting the most talented distillers, winemakers and brewers from around the country and the world -- just talking to these people gets my mind working. Sweetness, acid, smoke, fruit and earth -- you can find it all in a bottle somewhere. It's nothing mind-blowing or avant-garde, and I don't expect anyone to find themselves saying, "Wow, I never thought of that!" -- but we all know that food and drink go together. All I'm saying is whether it's a can of Pabst, a little mezcal or some insane botanical you've never heard of, you can alter and enhance food with the booze you choose.
Best recent food find: The best thing I've found recently isn't food at all, but a person -- namely, Jeff Bauman, who owns the Pig & Block Charcuterie, just down the street from us. We met last summer while doing the buildouts of both our places, and once we got to know each other and started hanging out on the block, I discovered something that I'd been missing for a while: someone I could totally nerd out with over meat and cooking, which we did, practically every day, in my kitchen or his. Jeff's a huge presence; he just gets so animated and visibly excited when he talks about products, techniques and his experiences. He's really been a big influence when it comes to my passion for food -- the real love of it and being in love with it -- especially during our construction, when the days were long and dirty and I was thinking about picking up part-time work just so I didn't forget how to cook. And then there he'd be, with a little cognac, a slice or five of terrine, salami or some other goodness, and a story about France or Spain or some other place I've never been, or the bocce court he wants to build behind his shop. He's become a great friend, a great partner for us, and a daily reminder of why we do what we do.
Most overrated ingredient: Food marketing. I'm all about eating the best you can get, but slapping a name on something, along with an exorbitant price tag, doesn't automatically make it better. A lot of things are more expensive because they truly are better, and to raise animals or grow crops humanely and truly naturally takes care -- and care costs money. I get it, and I love it. But telling me that your 100 percent Berkshire hog is better than another 100 percent Berkshire hog, and that it's $3 more a pound because you're selling it under its Japanese name? That I don't get so much. I'd rather we, as a society, were more concerned with simply raising and growing better food for everyone than touting Kobe hot dogs for $35 a pound. Sure, they're delicious -- at that price, they should be. But if it's Kobe -- or American Wagyu -- beef, and you're paying a premium price for premium beef, wouldn't you rather appreciate it in its natural state?
Most underrated ingredient: Aside from love? So much of how we -- or maybe it's how I -- appreciate food is connected to memories, to feelings and to emotion. I often find myself thinking of ideas, plates -- whatever -- based on those connections. Or, salt and acid are good answers too, I suppose.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: Ramps and garlic scapes from the Boulder farmers' market. I love those things. You can put ramps on anything and they're awesome, or just eat them on their own. I love grilling them with just a little oil and a pinch of salt. I could eat piles of them -- scapes, too, although I don't like them quite so much on their own. A while back, I did a lamb liver and goat terrine with garlic scapes running through the center of it, and I even took some back to Boulder to share with the farms I'd bought everything from -- that was really awesome, and a great feeling. This year I hope to have time to pickle a bunch of both so I have them for months rather than just a few weeks.
Favorite spice: Coriander. It just lends itself to so many things. We're not using it half as much at Williams & Graham as we did at Highland Tavern, but I'm still always running down to the Savory Spice Shop for more. Coriander can be that touch of citrus in this dish, the soapy flavor (in the best way possible) in that dish, or the question mark in another. It's not cornered into one style of food, either: It lends itself to Asian, Mediterranean and African cuisines and a whole lot more.
One food you detest: Ketchup. Our obsession with slathering food with condiments disturbs me, but I hate ketchup the most. I've had some good housemade versions for sure, and I wish more people would make their own, but unfortunately, most consumers don't like them. I guess they don't have the crack factor that store-bought ones do. Standard ketchups are just so saccharine to me. Maybe it's the high-fructose corn syrup thing, which is all I taste, or maybe it's that I'm not nine years old anymore. As a kid, I used to put ketchup on everything -- specifically, to hide the taste of foods I didn't care for -- but as an adult, I can't stand it. I have a hard time even watching people eat it. One of my favorite ad campaigns is Vienna Beef's "NK-17 rating." It's a big photo of a delicious Chicago dog with a "No Ketchup Unless Under the Age of 17" rule.
One food you can't live without: Here's where I get to say pork. I loved it before belly was on every menu, and I'll still love it when it's passé. I love that you can use the whole animal, from head to tail. And, really, wouldn't you rather have a pork shank over a bowl of chicken feet? Actually, I might be able to go either way on that, depending on the day. But have you ever tried making airy, crunchy chicharrones from beef skin? There's a reason that pork rules: The snout, cheeks, tail, chops, loin, liver...I love the different flavors, the versatility, and I even kinda love that it's been an unappreciated meat for so long. And don't even get me started on lard.
Favorite music to cook by: It depends on the day. Some days, if I'm by myself, it's Elliott Smith, Hefner, the Builders and the Butchers, ethereal Sonic Youth or TV on the Radio. Other days it's Beethoven or opera. If one of the guys wants to put something on, it's fair game just as long as it's got the right energy and isn't hippie jam, the Beatles, or unintelligible grind-scream-black-Norse-god death-core. I secretly believe all those songs are really about kittens and rainbows, but they still drive me up a wall.
Rules of conduct in your kitchen: Use your brain: It's there for a reason. I'm happy to help anyone learn if I've got something to teach, and I'm happy to jump in if we're behind or in the weeds, but I don't like babysitting. I try to find people who are self-reliant and who do things right; it doesn't take any longer to do something correctly. If I've done my job the right way, it shouldn't be a challenge. I also require efficiency. Running all over the kitchen because things aren't where they should be is unnerving. And move your ass! I hate Sunday drivers -- on the road, in the kitchen or on the floor. I really appreciate a good sense of urgency. And now that I sound like a complete prick, I want people to have fun. It's a new way of thinking for me, and a bit unusual at times, but it's important, especially when you spend a lot of hours in a small space with the same people every day.
Biggest kitchen disaster: Thankfully I haven't had too many major ones...yet. There was the time I forgot to close the valve all the way while I was cleaning the fryer. I succeeded in dumping about ten gallons of used oil all over the floor, cleaned that up, then turned right around and did it again with boil-out water. Or there was the time I cut the tip of my finger off while doing a wild-mushroom cooking demo with Pete Marczyk and Jeremy McMinn at Cook Street. That was just embarrassing. I couldn't get out without going through the crowd. It bled forever, and I eventually had to go to the ER.
What's never in your kitchen? Anything that we haven't made and/or that I don't know exactly what's in it.
What's always in your kitchen? Butter, cream and pork fat.
What's your favorite knife? I bought a Miyabi Fusion ten-inch knife last year that I love. The weight and balance are great for me, it's very comfortable, and the Damascus is almost like Teflon on the blade.
What's one thing about you or your restaurant that people would be surprised to know? I've only really been doing this for a few years, and I have a small talent with explosives.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef: I don't know, but I do know that I'm not there yet.
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.