This is part two of my interview with DJ Nagle, executive chef of Humboldt: Farm, Fish, Wine; the first installment of our chat ran yesterday.
Most noteworthy meal you've ever eaten: When I was a young cook working at Indigo restaurant in San Francisco, my chef had a friend who managed Tra Vigne in Napa Valley, and he invited us to dine there. We were treated like VIPs and enjoyed at least twelve courses, including confit pork shank, quail pasta, fresh mozzarella (this was before the burrata craze) and chocolate budino. It was just an extraordinary meal and over-the-top awesome. I hope that more meals like that are in my future.
Your three favorite Denver restaurants other than your own: Euclid Hall, because they just do things right over there; Osteria Marco has great pizza and salumi; and, at Charcoal, I love the ambience, and the food just makes me happy, plus they have great service and there's no pretense.
Most underrated Denver restaurant: La Fiesta, a great standby Mexican place that's been doing things right for so many years. I totally crave their food.
Who's the most underrated chef in Denver? Alex German, who was a sous-chef of mine at North and also cooked at Osteria Marco and True Food Kitchen. Alex is taking time off now to get ready for the future, but whatever he does, it'll be great. I promise.
Favorite dish on your menu right now: Our farm-stand salad with spring peas, asparagus, haricots verts, spring onions, radishes and baby arugula with a white-balsamic dressing. It's fresh and satisfying and has all of the things I crave at this time of year, and I sometimes throw a piece of grilled albacore or salmon on it. It's an awesome way to end a shift; I need to eat it more often.
What dish would you love to put on your menu, regardless of how well it would sell? Duck, anything duck. Duck-confit risotto, or roasted duck with crispy skin and cherries. To me, duck is one of the world's most perfect foods.
What specific requests would you ask of Denver diners? Please understand that seafood in Denver is fresh. Colorado diners sometimes question eating seafood in a land-locked state, but what they don't know is that we often get the fish here long before restaurants get it delivered on the coasts. We have a network of seafood suppliers like Denver-based Seattle Fish Company, whose goal is to procure and move fresh seafood quickly. They do it well and keep us fully supplied all through the week.
Weirdest thing you've ever put in your mouth: I bet you were hoping for cobra heart or something. Nope. I'm big on textures of food -- bad, good or weird. I've tried duck tongues, cocks' combs and pig ears, all of which might be considered "weird." Weird, yes, but also tasty.
Would you ever send a dish back if you were dining in a friend's restaurant? Yes, and I would expect the same in return.
What do you expect from a restaurant critic? Honesty and to just plain be nice. Because of social media and Yelp, there are many outlets for diners to find out what and where to eat, and I think the "real" critics need to be seen as a helper to the restaurants.
What recent innovation has most influenced the restaurant industry in a significant way? Sous-vide. I don't use it at Humboldt, but I think it's here to stay. The sous-vide technique is such a great way to cook food consistently -- and it creates amazing results.
Kitchen rule you always adhere to: Respect the dishwashers, because they're the most important people in any restaurant.
Kitchen rule you're not afraid to break: I'm not afraid to have fun in the kitchen. Life is too short to not have a good time, but I also know when to button it down and get it done.
What's your fantasy splurge? Eat my way through a big city, starting with Chicago. A dear friend has become close with a big-name chef there, and I'm planning to take Chicago prisoner for a couple of days later this summer. Then it's on to New York City and Boston's seafood scene.
What cookbooks and/or food-related reading material do you draw inspiration from? Anything from Thomas Keller. He's my generation's chef-mentor of sorts, and I completely geek out on his way of doing things.
Favorite culinary-related gift you've been given: The French Laundry Cookbook, which I'm still reading fifteen years later. A lot of what I do is inspired by that book -- not specific recipes, but my philosophy around cooking.
Favorite culinary-related item to give as a gift: My cooking skills. I love cooking for people. I've hosted dinners at houses and catered weddings and parties, and I often give restaurant gift certificates to friends so I can personally cook for them.
Best recipe tip for a home cook: Taste through making a recipe, not just the end product. And if you get joy from cooking and food, you will enjoy the food and the process much more.
What should every home cook have in the pantry? Kosher salt, pepper, and a good bottle of your favorite drink to enjoy while cooking. And fun, of course.
What's your biggest challenge as a chef working in Denver? Finding good line cooks. I feel lucky to have the team I have at Humboldt and thank my line cooks every chance I get. They execute our vision every day and kill it every shift.
What advice would you give to an aspiring young chef? Don't be a jerk. Learn as much as you can, and if you don't know something, always ask. What skills and attributes do you look for when hiring kitchen staff? Respect and professionalism are at the top of my list. Always be engaged and doing something, and don't forget to leave your attitude at the back door.
Biggest mistake a chef can make on the line: Giving yourself a hall pass isn't acceptable, and neither is putting out mediocre food or taking the easy way out and thinking that the guest won't notice the mistake you know you made. I try to instill a sense of pride in the food we make, and while we do make mistakes, we recover well.
If you could dress any way you want, what would you wear in the kitchen? Just the way I do. It took me a long time to get to wear the white coat of a chef, and I'm really proud of it. I wear my big ol' Dansko clogs all the time, too.
Your biggest pet peeves: People with bad attitudes.
Your best traits: My passion for teaching and my work ethic and calmness.
Your worst traits: Wanting to do too much, even though I don't have enough hours in the day. I'm working on this.
If you could cook in another chef's kitchen, whose would it be? Jennifer Jasinski's. I love all of her concepts.
What would you cook for Jasinski if she came to your restaurant? I think I'd cook right off our current menu. I'm so proud of what we've done at Humboldt that I'd feel confident cooking anything -- and everything.
If you could have dinner, all expenses paid, at any restaurant in the world, where would you go? I'd go to San Francisco, which is such a beautiful city with great food, culture and amazing products. I'd look for local places in Chinatown for dim sum, travel up to Napa and Sonoma to taste great wine and then go the Mission for tacos. I might head to Rose Pistola for pasta, then the wharf for sourdough and chowder and the Embarcadero farmers' market to ogle the fresh vegetables and fruit.
If you left Denver to cook somewhere else, where would you go? Plymouth, Massachusetts, so I could be closer to my dad.
If you had the opportunity to open your own restaurant with no budget constraints, what kind of restaurant would you open? It would be a small neighborhood place with a little market and counter centered around an amazingly equipped kitchen where I could cook for friends and good people.
Biggest moment of euphoria in the kitchen: A good service with plates that look great and food that's coming out when it should -- the kind of service when the whole machine is working on all cylinders.
Craziest night in the kitchen: When I was cooking at North, during the Cherry Creek Arts Festival, the restaurant was busier then you could ever imagine, and all day long, it seemed like all I was doing was putting out fires, prepping more pizza dough, helping in stations, calling in all favors to get more product and making up some stuff as we went along. The beer tasted really good that night.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef: Seeing the guys that I've had in my kitchens doing super-well in their careers. What's one thing that people would be surprised to know about you? I was the kicker for my high-school football team. I played soccer for the school and was recruited to the football team to kick in my sophomore year.
What's always lurking in your refrigerator? Noosa yogurt, pickles, and probably some booze.
Last meal before you die: A grilled New York or rib-eye steak, a baked potato with sour cream, butter, chives and a lot of black pepper, and an ice-cold Caesar salad. Oh, and a huge glass of a chewy red wine to round it out.
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