This is part one of my interview with Jeff Russell, exec chef of District Meats. You can read part two of our chat in this space tomorrow.
Dinner was bonding time, Jeff Russell recalls. "Food was the thing that brought us together on a daily basis, and we had a family dinner every night at 5 p.m. -- no exceptions," says Russell, today the executive chef of District Meats, an American roadhouse in downtown Denver that's part of star-chef Charlie Palmer's kingdom of restaurants.
"I started playing around with food when I was really young, making tomato sauce, spaghetti and meatballs, and grilled cheese sandwiches with sharp cheddar, and by the time I got to the fourth grade, I knew I wanted to be a chef," says Russell, who was born in Finger Lakes, New York, and started working in the kitchen with his mom when he was seven. "I'm not sure if she just wanted to spend time with me or keep me from breaking bones and starting fires, but whenever she cooked, which was a lot, she wanted me in the kitchen with her," he remembers.
Russell's first experience in a professional kitchen was at the age of fourteen, when he did a one-night dish-duty stint at a local country club. It was New Year's Eve, and it didn't go particularly well. "My brother was working there, too, but he wanted to take the night off to party, so he asked if I'd help out, but it was a three-course dinner with 250 people, and we were so far behind it was unreal. We were still washing dishes at 2:30 a.m., and by the time we were cut loose, they still weren't done," recollects Russell, who thought he'd never wash another dish in that kitchen again.
But he was asked to come back, and after a seasonal stint mastering the art of scraping plates, he spent the next several years ascending the ladder in various country-club kitchens in New York and on Martha's Vineyard before eventually making the leap to culinary school. "One of the great chefs I worked with, Bull Dunn, pushed me to venture out and broaden my horizons. He said that I could stay in the same job my whole life or go to culinary school, so I applied to the CIA," says Russell, who did his externship at the Broadmoor in Colorado Springs, where he cooked for eighteen weeks before heading back to the Big Apple, a move that would ultimately cement his future in the Palmer empire.
"I landed a job at Aureole, which is exactly where I wanted to work," says Russell, who did a four-day stage before getting a coveted invitation to join the ranks of the elite, albeit at the bottom of the totem pole. "I was doing the amuse-bouches, which were very involved -- there were eight or nine components to each one -- but I was also the guy who had to go fetch ice for the stocks and sauces, which seems to be a rite of passage in New York restaurants," he muses. Within a week, he was yanked from presiding over the ice baths. "They realized that they were wasting their time making me get ice, and I moved up quickly after that," Russell remembers. "By the time I left, a year and a half later, I was the junior sous chef."
His exit was the result of a promotion. "I packed a suitcase and moved to Washington, D.C., for the sous position at Charlie Palmer Steak, and I worked my way up to the exec sous chef job," says Russell, who'd wielded his knives there for just over three years when he got the call from Palmer. "His exact words were, 'Do you want to go to Denver?' and my exact words were "Absolutely,'" recounts Russell, who relocated to the Mile High City last year to head the kitchen at District Meats, a restaurant that he admits is still developing.
"This is a new market for us, so we're still tweaking some things, but we really love Denver," he says. And in the following interview, Russell showers lots of love on the local food landscape, though there's no love for Paula Deen, whom Russell calls "evil."
Six words to describe your food: Playful yet grounded, casual yet refined, and progressive with traditional values.
Ten words to describe you: Sharp, hardworking, organized, passionate, focused, driven, energetic, open-minded, patient and good-looking.
What are your ingredient obsessions? Right now, I'm really enjoying the fresh spring produce that I'm seeing, especially ramps, spring garlic, peas, fava beans, morel mushrooms, garlic scapes, apricots, cardoons and cherries. By March, I think most of us chefs are really ready to move away from the winter squashes and root vegetables and rejuvenate ourselves with Colorado's beautiful spring ingredients. Our new seasonal menu showcases a lot of these ingredients in several dishes, including the roasted Petaluma chicken with English peas, escarole, ramps, shaved early carrots and pea tendrils, and our signature chicken-fried sweetbreads with morel mushrooms, asparagus and leeks.
What are your kitchen-tool obsessions? My prized possession is my twelve-inch Misono chef's knife. I also have an infatuation with immersion blenders, immersion circulators, Japanese mandolines, finesse tongs, offset palate knives, hand juicers, Gray Kunz spoons and my meat grinder. I try to pass these obsessions on to my staff so they can share the same excitement that I do when you've got these kinds of tools at your disposal.
Best recent food find: I haven't really had much free time since I moved to Denver, but I love the food at ChoLon. Chef Lon does a great job showcasing the flavors of Asian cuisine, and I like the modern applications that are put into place. The last time I ate there, I enjoyed the steak tartare with spicy Asian mustard and a crispy sheet of tapioca. I also love the soup dumplings with sweet onions and Gruyère; they're like French onion soup in an Asian disguise.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: I love the sopressata from Il Mondo Vecchio. It's actually featured on our Mulberry Street pizza at Wazee Wood Fire Pizza. Mark DeNittis has tons of talent, and I'm glad to be working in the same culinary playground as him.
Most underrated ingredient: Parsley gets a bad rap, but it's such a fresh ingredient that can add a lot of depth. One of my favorite side dishes is tabouleh, a Mediterranean salad that's mainly composed of parsley. It's bright and fresh and adds an element of refreshment to your meal.
Food trend you wish would go away: I don't really mind food trends, because I think they keep the food industry fresh and interesting. The public seems to enjoy grasping onto a certain item, so chefs can choose to ignore it or embrace it and have some fun with the trend it before it fades out. It's our jobs as chefs to introduce innovative ideas to the public to see what sticks. That's the foundation on which our progressive American food culture is built.
Favorite spice: I really like piment d'Espelette. I appreciate the uniquely light and sweet spiciness that it holds, plus it's such a versatile ingredient that can match up with so many different foods. We use it here in our house-cured meats, pâtés, soups, salads and pickled vegetables. I think my favorite application is just a light sprinkle on a thick, seared piece of foie gras.
One food you detest: Acorn squash. I have bad childhood memories of being force-fed the stuff by my grandmother, who's a big proponent of finishing your vegetables. I remember one day at her kitchen table when I left a generous portion of acorn squash on my plate and she made me eat the whole piece. I did what I was told, eating every last bit of it -- and then about thirty seconds later, the squash was back on the plate.
One food you can't live without: Carrots are the one vegetable that I've always loved, mainly because they can be prepared in so many different ways that you can eat them every day and never get tired of them. That said, my favorite way to eat carrots is in their simple raw form. If the carrot is grown correctly and taken care of, then it really needs no help; it's just fine on its own.
Favorite childhood food memory: I used to always make tomato sauce with my mother with this really old food mill that had so many different parts. We would grow our own tomatoes, stew them, and then place them in the top of the food mill. When you crank the handle, a spiral rod would move them through the sieve, pushing them down the chute and into the pot. It was such a fun experience for me as a kid -- and it sparked my passion for food and made me what I am today.
Favorite dish on your menu: We just changed our menu this week, and I love our new duo of pork. It's a slow-braised shoulder paired with crispy cheek croquette over cauliflower variations and preserved cherries. It's full of lots of layers of textures and flavors that scream "Order me!"
Biggest menu bomb: Crispy chickpeas. They're great for a bar snack, but I think guests were looking for something a little bit more substantial.
Biggest compliment you're ever received: It's hard to say, but when people tell you that you just served them the best meal they've ever had, that makes you feel pretty good.
Culinary heroes: George Higgins, a certified master baker who was also my baking and pastry instructor at CIA and taught us that you don't need to do intricately involved pastries to make great desserts. He was all about the basics and fundamentals, doing it right and doing it well. My late grandmother, Virginia Defendorf, was a home-economics teacher and cookbook author, and she was the one who told me that if I wanted to be a chef, then I had to eat everything. I was a picky eater growing up. I also admire Anthony Bourdain for his ability to tell things like they are and not dress them up, and I have a ton of respect for Pierre Gagnaire and what he's managed to accomplish with French cuisine over the past twenty years.
Favorite celebrity chef: Thomas Keller and, of course, Charlie Palmer. They're both such humble individuals who are so connected to all of their projects. You feel that a part of them is behind every dish at all of their restaurants.
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Celebrity chef who needs a muzzle: Paula Deen is just evil. That's that.
If you could cook in another chef's kitchen, whose would it be? Pierre Gagnaire, because I love the way he transformed French cuisine. "Facing tomorrow but respectful of yesterday" is his mission statement at his self-named restaurant -- and it's a quote that many chefs live by today.
What's your dream restaurant? A small, intimate setting with fun and amazing food on Martha's Vineyard.