This is part one of my interview with DJ Nagle, executive chef of Humboldt: Farm, Fish, Wine; the second installment of our chat will run tomorrow.
Even though it wasn't a requirement, DJ Nagle always sported a tie when he sat down to Sunday dinner with his family in New York - -- or, as he likes to say, "New Yawk." Born and raised on Long Island, Nagle, the 45-year-old chef at Humboldt: Farm, Fish, Wine, actually wanted to wear a tie. After all, if his parents were willing to haul out their best china, the least Nagle could do was play the part of the respectful kid. "There was a formality to Sunday dinner at my house, and I'd always wear a collared shirt and usually a tie; we all got dressed up for a big plated meal with china," says Nagle, who also grew up watching Julia Child, Graham Kerr and Great Chefs of the West.
"I was always geeking out on food," Nagle admits. In junior high school, he got his first taste of a professional kitchen, working at a deli that became his after-school stamping ground for six years. But cooking wasn't his calling -- at least not then, he says. Instead, he enrolled in a community college in New York to study architecture, but then dropped out after a year and headed to Vail to become a ski bum. "I just wasn't feeling the whole college thing -- it wasn't for me -- and I was interested in being a ski instructor, so I moved to Vail. But I realized I wasn't the greatest skier, either," he says, so he returned to cooking "because that's what I knew best."
He landed at Two Elk, a now-closed, on-mountain Vail restaurant, where he started as a line cook and moved up to the grill station before being named the kitchen supervisor. "I had never seen the white coats, the clogs and the white hats before, but I loved them, and after being there a while, I realized that I was good at cooking -- that cooking came very, very easy to me, and I was very much into the instant gratification of knowing whether I was making was a tangible success or failure," explains Nagle, who stayed at the restaurant for three years, leaving to become the sous-chef at Cook Shack, another on-mountain restaurant in Vail.
Following that stint, he headed to neighboring Beaver Creek, where he secured his first exec-chef gig, at Gundy's Camp, a barbecue trailer that's now the Ritz-Carlton. He'd tied the knot while cooking in the Rockies, and he and his then-wife wanted to buy a house, but even mountain slumming comes at a high price, so they moved to Denver in 1998, and Nagle was hired as the sous-chef at Sfuzzi, a long-gone Italian restaurant in Cherry Creek.
From there, he took his knives to YaYa's Euro Bistro, and after a year and a half as the sous-chef at the Denver location, Nagle became part of the chain's nationwide opening team, which gave him the opportunity to open Ya Ya's locations in Memphis, Kansas City and Leawood, Kansas. "It's a really great, chef-driven company that treats its chefs really well, but I was living in Kansas City and wanted to get back to Denver," says Nagle, who returned to the Mile High City five years after joining the company.
When he returned to Denver, he was offered a line-cook gig at the now-closed Bloom, and two weeks after he was hired, he was promoted to executive chef. Fox Concepts, the company that owned Bloom, also owns North Italia, and in 2005 Nagle was reassigned to the exec-chef position at that restaurant, where he oversaw the galley until he was offered an opportunity to open two restaurants in Greeley, both of which have since closed.
He came back to Denver, he says, "to find my Humboldt." And after a few short layovers at TAG Burger Bar and Udi's in Arvada -- now Silvi's Kitchen -- he found it while scouring a Craigslist ad. "I'm really proud of the food and how much we've accomplished in seven months at Humboldt, and I'm really proud of my staff and how well we execute every day," says Nagle, who in the following interview weighs in on oversized, over-the-top meals; the myth that fresh seafood doesn't exist in a landlocked city; and why kitchen staffs should always respect the bubble dancers, aka the dishwasher.
Lori Midson: What's your first food memory? DJ Nagle: Making scrambled eggs at home with my dad. To this day, I still can't make them taste as good as his tasted.
Ten words to describe you: Loyal, a great dad, humble, patient, thoughtful, passionate, a mentor and respectful.
Five words to describe your food: Delicious, simple, craveable, comforting and playful.
What do you enjoy most about your craft? I love the creative process and working with a team to collaborate on a new menu. I have such an amazing staff at Humboldt, and they love to talk about food and try new things. It's a very cool time for us here.
What's your approach to cooking? I have a tendency to stay right down the middle, with fun, little twists, and things that make people go, "Hmmm, what is that?"
Ingredient obsessions: Oysters. Before coming to Humboldt, I didn't have much experience with oysters, and now I'm obsessed.
Your favorite smell in the kitchen: The smell of searing meat in hot oil, bread baking in the oven, and fresh basil.
Favorite local ingredients and purveyors: Pea sprouts and tendrils from Plants Naturally. A local couple owns the company and grows them for us.
Favorite kitchen-gadget obsessions: Knives, always knives. With all the fresh fish we cut at Humboldt, I'm slowly becoming addicted to my sushi knife. It's really sharp and perfectly built for the job.
Favorite piece of kitchen equipment: Spoons. I prefer them to be a little larger than tablespoons, because I use them for everything from basting to turning.
One ingredient you won't touch: Green peppers. I had a really bad stuffed-pepper experience as a kid, and it totally changed my outlook.
One ingredient you can't live without: There are so many, but salt and garlic are definitely at the top of a long list. Flake sea salt and kosher salt are two of my favorites, mostly because they can do so much, including curing things, enhancing flavor and finishing dishes with a pleasing salty crunch.
Food trend you'd like to see more of: We're becoming such a great food city, and the talent in Denver is rivaling that of the "big cities." Chefs of Denver: Please keep on keepin' on, because we're killing it. I'd like to see the national media outlets that are recognizing smaller markets like Austin and Santa Cruz give Denver and its chefs some love, too.
Food trend you'd like to see disappear: The oversized, over-the-top meal, like the fifteen-pound burrito, the 52-ounce steak and the glazed-doughnut burger.... It's just way, way too much. I'm into restrained portion sizes.
What's next for Denver's culinary scene? I hope more local chefs will be cast in the national spotlight. This is an exciting time for us in Denver, and as diners from larger cities continue to move here, I think that will bring a challenge to chefs and restaurateurs to up the game -- and I'm sure the culinary talent in Denver will rise to the task.
If you hadn't become a chef, what would you be doing right now? Even though I wanted to be an architect when I was younger, I'd probably be doing something with my hands, like carpentry or construction.
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What's in the pipeline? We're continuing to evolve our daily fresh sheet with many more items, and we're working on an oyster-and-wine-pairing menu that I'm pretty excited about. I'm always planning my next monthly chef's dinner, too.