This is part one of my interview with Derek Dietz, chef-owner of Bocadillo; part two of our conversation will run tomorrow.
I've always had an eating problem," jokes Derek Dietz. "When I was a kid, I was always the one who was most excited about cooking, and I was intently focused on what my next meal was going to be, especially dinner," says the 24-year-old chef-owner of Bocadillo, who grew up eating cheesesteaks in the land of Amoroso rolls: Philadelphia.
His mom would assign a different dinner night to each of the three kids. "My brother would order a pizza, my sister would make some sort of Chinese curried chicken, and I'd always make something different," Dietz recalls, adding that "I was lucky to figure out that I loved cooking when I was really young; I've never done -- or wanted to do -- anything else."
His passion for cooking eventually led him to the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, where he landed a privileged externship at the Four Seasons in Philadelphia. "I wanted to learn as much as I could in a professional kitchen, and cooking at the Four Seasons was just too valuable of an experience to give up, so I stayed there for another year and then went back to culinary school with experience in a five-star kitchen and a solid grasp of the fundamentals of cooking," explains Dietz.
And once Dietz finally graduated from said school, Martin Hamann, the exec chef at the Four Seasons, called with news that he was leaving to open his own restaurant -- and he wanted Dietz to join him. "I started working for Martin, and it was the most awesome experience ever," says Dietz. "The food was amazing, we had an endless budget, truffles coming out the yazoo, and it was always raining foie gras." But after two years in Hamann's kitchen, Dietz decided that he wanted a different backdrop, and he moved to Denver in late 2011. "I love the mountains and Colorado's beautiful climate, and I knew that Denver was a really cool city with access to great ingredients, so moving here was an easy choice," he says.
In June 2012, he opened Bocadillo, originally as a Spanish-influenced sandwich shop. "I fell in love with the Sunnyside neighborhood, the huge kitchen and the space, and it had always been my dream to open a restaurant," says Dietz. Before long, Bocadillo had generated a scroll of accolades; the restaurant was a hit with the neighborhood, foodniks and food writers alike. But that November, Dietz's world took a heart-wrenching turn when his sister was in a horrific car accident that completely paralyzed her. "I lost it mentally and broke down because of the stress and the grief, so I closed Bocadillo and moved back to Philly to be with my mom and sister," says Dietz.
But he was aware, too, that the kitchen was his sanctuary, so he returned to Denver earlier this year to resurrect Bocadillo. "I got my head right, came to accept my sister's accident and knew that I had to get back into the kitchen -- that's where I belong," acknowledges Dietz. He also knew that in order for Bocadillo to become the restaurant he'd envisioned, he'd need to make changes. Since reopening the place in July, he's added a full liquor license and a bar, and service is now devoted to dinner only. While his Philly roots are still stamped on the menu -- he'll never dispense with the Philly cheesesteak, for example -- it's now more globally intensive, with an emphasis on French cuisine and technique. "I'm doing what makes me happy, and I'm in a good place," says Dietz, who in the following interview admits that he has "sick puppy love" for pig intestines, petitions for no more dusts, foams or fake caviar, and explains the art of "fleck."
Lori Midson: What do you enjoy most about your craft? Derek Dietz: Cooking is an amazing craft that makes people happy in so many ways, whether it's in a restaurant setting, at dinner at home or at a holiday party with your friends and family. I also love the fact that I get to eat everything I cook and others are cooking for me. The only thing I enjoy more than cooking is eating, and I've eaten extremely well over the past ten years -- and take my word for it, it shows.
What's your approach to cooking? That taste is everything, and simple is best -- that's the mantra that's been emphasized to me for years. I get the best ingredients available and use simple and proper technique to enhance the ingredients and create delicious dishes. It's a love affair, and you must treat all of your ingredients with respect. I also believe that positive chi is essential for any good food. The energy in the kitchen, and in your head, comes out in every meal you prepare. If you're stressed or just cooking as a means to an end, it'll translate to your food. I can always tell when I go out to eat if the cook took pride in making the dish or just made it to check it off their prep list. A majority of the food in this country is produced to make money or provide calories, and because of that, quality suffers. Create dishes that are inspired by seasonal ingredients, and execute the cooking of these dishes by following techniques to a T -- no shortcuts. It's also important to cook food that you can relate to on a personal level, whether it's food from your childhood, your home town, or just your favorite dishes to eat. That's the food that you'll always excel best at.
Ingredient obsessions: Shallots, nutmeg, garlic, thyme, bacon, butter, olive oil, cheese and the entire onion family. Almost every dish on my menu has some type of onion in it.
Your favorite smell in the kitchen: I love the smell of cheesesteaks; they remind me of being in northeast Philly, at Jim's Steaks.
Favorite kitchen-gadget obsessions: My sausage stuffer; there are few things I enjoy doing more than making fresh sausages. Chorizo and garlic-lamb are my favorites to make, and to eat. It may be the German in my blood, or maybe I just have a sick puppy love for pig intestines.
Favorite local ingredients and purveyors: Triple M Bar Ranch in Southeastern Colorado has been supplying the restaurant with some of the best lamb I've ever had. I also love Red Wagon Organic Farm and Oxford Gardens up in Boulder. It's wonderful when you get to know the people who are in charge of growing the food you're eating and serving. The best part about having a restaurant here in Colorado is the ability to get such great local ingredients, grown by great people. I know when I spend money at the farmers' market that all of the money is going to a good place. My other favorite purveyor is my buddy Cliff out in Wheat Ridge, who provides my eggs and tomatoes. He was also able to set me up with an indoor micro-herb garden here at the restaurant.
One ingredient you won't touch: Cats or dogs, which we fortunately don't have to deal with in this country. Other than that, probably nothing. I appreciate cutting a pig's head open, eating brains and scrambled eggs, and then making porchetta di testa out of the rest of the meat. We recently had a four-course lamb-offal staff meal, with braised tongue, liver and onions, mushroom-stuffed heart and kidney stew. I love experimenting with new and weird items, and aside from our furry pets, I'd be willing to try anything you put in front of me.
One ingredient you can't live without: Salts, butter and cheese.
Food trend you'd like to see more of: Korean flavors. Not just kimchi, but also great barbecue, noodle pots and hot pots.
Food trend you'd like to see disappear: The disappearance of molecular gastronomy would be awesome. Please, no more dusts, foams or fake caviar. When I was at the CIA, there were so many kids who were so enamored of the molecular gastronomy trend, even though they hadn't even begun to learn the basic fundamentals of cooking -- and that gave me a bad taste for the whole thing. Don't get me wrong: I appreciate the mad genius of Ferran Adrià, Grant Achatz and Heston Blumenthal, but to me, molecular gastronomy has become a marketing scheme. When Adrià came to the CIA to do a lecture, he spoke about how you shouldn't be "playing around or experimenting" with food until you master and memorize the basics of cooking. Mastering the basics of cooking takes a lifetime, and I stress this point on a daily basis. The importance of simplicity, especially for someone my age, holds a lot of sway. Old-school is the best.
What dish would you love to put on your menu, regardless of how well it would sell? Foie gras torchon, otherwise known as the almighty torchon, or the holy torchon. Earlier in my career, my chef and I would clean and roll foie together every week like clockwork. It was very much a bonding experience for us every time, not to mention something to look forward to the following week. I had it on the menu for a little while at Bocadillo, but unfortunately, I wasn't getting many orders, so I had to take it off. It would be great to serve beef tartare with a poached egg and brioche, but I'm not sure that would do all that well, either.
Favorite dish on your menu right now: The Philly cheesesteak, or the cheesesteak spring roll. We do an authentic Philly on Amaroso rolls from Philly with a choice of Whiz, provolone or American and wit' or wit'out fried onions. I smile every time I see a ticket that says "Whiz wit." This is exactly how it's served in Philly -- no mushrooms, no peppers, just meat, cheese and onions. The spring roll is sort of my homage to Philly on the dinner menu.
Most noteworthy meal you've ever eaten: It was at Adour, Alain Ducasse's restaurant in New York. I trained for two days there and then ate dinner the third night. My appetizer was sweetbread meunière with an egg purse, wild mushrooms and brioche; the entree was roasted Pennsylvania squab with salmis; and the dessert was an exotic vacherin and the most amazing dark-chocolate sorbet. I'm a sucker for sweets.
Best recipe tip for a home cook: Let your meats rest. Also, taste everything and season accordingly. If your mouth isn't moving, you're not doing your job.
What should every home cook have in the pantry? Sharp knife, kosher salt, and 100 percent pure olive oil. Having a sharp knife is essential, not only because it's extremely dangerous to cut with a dull knife, but a dull knife will also affect your cuts and presentation.
What's always lurking in your refrigerator? Lots of butter, heavy cream, bacon and cheeses; Parmesan, cheddar and Brie are a must for me.
What specific requests would you ask of Denver diners? Be open-minded and go into a restaurant with a positive attitude. Trying new dishes should be a goal for everyone. Without personal experience, how can one truly know if they like a dish or not?
What's your biggest challenge as a chef working in Denver? Getting people to know we're here. Because of our location in Sunnyside, we're a bit off the beaten trail, and because we don't have an endless bag of money, we haven't been able to do much advertising or marketing. We rely mostly on word of mouth, which takes time. Another challenge for me is the dearth of quality seafood vendors in Denver. I would love to have more seafood on the menu, but because one of my main focuses is using local ingredients, I haven't been able to play with much seafood
If you hadn't become a chef, what would you be doing right now? Rehabilitating dogs. I love all dogs, and I'd most likely be working at a dog refuge or fighting the outrageous breed bans -- like pitbulls -- in the country.
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What's in the pipeline? We are shooting to get our wholesale license by January so we can start selling hyper-local and homemade hot sauces, jellies and jams, relishes, horseradish and other great condiments. A good friend and loyal patron, Vikki Robertson, and I have been practicing making hot sauces and ghost jellies and other canned products. We're creating a line of canned products that focuses on great taste and great local ingredients. Our grape jam uses grapes from the Sunnyside neighborhood, and the chiles for the hot sauce are all from Vikki's garden. Another big thing that we have in the works is creating seasonal, sexy sandwiches for lunch that change on a weekly basis -- not just the cheesesteak, but also a fried tomato bocadillo, a local beetwich, weekly mashed-potato sandwiches, and several more. I think we need more great lunch options in this neighborhood that aren't more than ten bucks.