This is part one of my interview with Drew Hardin, exec chef of Lola; part two of our chat will run tomorrow.
Drew Hardin grew up watching Julia and Jacques, sometimes begrudgingly, but when dinnertime came around, he appreciated the fact that his mother would often force him to turn off cartoons and divert his attention to French cooking techniques. "We always had family dinners, usually every night of the week," remembers Hardin, "and my mom loved to cook -- she was very good at it -- and she'd make us dinner using Jacque and Julia's recipes, so we always ate really well."
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And while Hardin, the new exec chef at Lola, hadn't mastered much beyond eggs by the time he got his first cooking gig -- at a local Einstein Bagels, when he was fifteen -- he realized after proofing a few thousand bagels that cooking came naturally to him. "It was the easiest job ever, and I was good at it," he recalls, "and a few weeks after I started, I was promoted to sandwich maker, and I was pretty good at that, too."
He worked there through high school, then went to Fort Lewis College to study zoology. But going to class, he says, "was way too damn hard" in Durango, a playground of skiing and fishing, so instead of immersing himself in textbooks, he soaked up the diversions. "I didn't get invited back to college," he quips, but he did return to the kitchen, cooking on the line in two restaurants to make ends meet. After two years living the high life, though, he made the decision to leave town. "I knew that I needed to do something with my life at some point," he explains, "and it wasn't going to happen in Durango, because I was having way too much fun."
He had a good time at culinary school, too, which is where he ended up, enrolling in the cooking curriculum at the Art Institute of Colorado and working at the Palace Arms during his days away from the classroom. "I thought I could make a career out of cooking, and while I'm still paying for that education, it was the right decision," says Hardin, who went on to spend nearly six years in the galley at Vesta Dipping Grill, following that stint with kitchen jobs at Steuben's, Elway's Cherry Creek, Deluxe and Root Down.
And it was while he was at Root Down, cooking alongside Daniel Asher, that he got a phone call from Jamey Fader, culinary director of Big Red F, the restaurant group founded by Dave Query. "I had sent my resumé to Big Red F long before Jamey called, mainly because he was a chef that I always wanted to work with and I love Mexican food, so I couldn't say no, at least not to an interview," says Hardin. The interview went well, and so did his three stages in the Lola kitchen. He was hired as a sous chef, a position he's had for the last two and half years. And just this month, Hardin was promoted to executive chef, following the departure of his predecessor, Duane Walker, who's joining Fader in running the culinary side of things at Big Red F. It's a gig that Hardin hopes to keep for a long time. "I love it here; there's a really great family vibe, and we always have a really good time. I don't think I'll ever leave unless I get fired," he says.
In the following interview, Hardin talks about his affinity for Mexican cuisine and chiles, harps on today's younger generation of chefs who feel entitled, and wonders why Denver is so obsessed with pho shops.
How do you describe your food? Mexican with modern twists and big, bold flavors made with simple ingredients and traditional techniques.
Ten words to describe you: Dashing, daring, courageous, caring, faithful, friendly, handsome, spontaneous, fun and sarcastic.
What are your ingredient obsessions? Right now I can't stop using dried chiles. They make amazing sauces, and you can do so many things with them: roast them, reconstitute them, grind them into a powder -- the list is endless. I like guajillos, aji amarillos, chile de arbol and anchos. They each have something unique to add to a dish, whether it's a smoky or earthy component.
What are your kitchen-tool obsessions? I love Mac knives. There was a time when I was all about Wüsthof and Global, but I got a Mac knife for Christmas last year, and I'll never go back. In fact, I wish I had more of them.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: The best greens I've had in a long time come from VertiFresh, which is owned by one of our bartenders, Bob Dittman, and his brother-in-law -- and they kick ass. All of their greens are hydroponically grown in vertical beds, and they grow the most perfect crisp lettuce with an actual crunch. In the summer, we get produce from Isabel Farms, just outside Boulder. They have great seasonal produce, from melons and peppers to every type of squash.
One food you detest: I can't stand peanut butter...at all. And that admission is really odd, because I love peanuts, and I especially love boiled peanuts. I could eat those all day, but unfortunately we can't get them in Denver. But I hate peanut butter. I think it's a textural thing. I can't do peanut butter cookies, peanut butter cups or Reese's, either.
One food you can't live without: I love tacos. The simplicity of taking anything you want and wrapping it in a tortilla is pretty badass. One of the oldest foods in the world is the tortilla, and that's what I love to eat every day.
Most memorable meal you've ever had: I can't pinpoint just one, but I've always loved the meals that take place with my family in Florida. Once a year, my family gets together in Homosassa, and we have a giant weeklong feast. There's a table covered in newspaper with piles of blue crab that we caught, and whatever other fish we hooked that day -- redfish, sea trout, cobia or scallops. We also feast on real grits, okra and tomatoes, and cottage-cheese rolls. In essence, it's really about drinking some beers, catching some fish and making a kick-ass meal.
What's always in your kitchen? Dried chiles, lard, masa, onions, garlic, sweet potatoes, chorizo, lots of seafood and a shitload of poblanos. And fun. We take what we do seriously, but we always have fun in the process.
What's never in your kitchen? Cooks who are only there for a paycheck. I can't stand it when someone wants to go to work just to get paid for it. If that's the case, then why are you in this business? If you don't want to grow your craft, learn new things and better yourself, then you have no place in our kitchen. If you just want a paycheck, then another kitchen or career is probably better suited for you.
Best food trend of the year: Breweries. There are so many local breweries popping up everywhere, and we had the honor of being paired with the Denver Beer Company this year at the Great American Beer Festival. I have no reason to go to any other brewery, because their beer is just so amazing. I wish there were more dinners paired with breweries.
Worst food trend of the year: I don't know if it's the worst trend, but it's definitely one that I don't understand: pho. There are just so many pho places, and every day, I hear someone say they ate at Pho (insert number here) and it was so good. You ask them where it was, and they say, "I don't know -- somewhere on Colfax or Federal." Well, thanks, that sums it up. I think pho is delicious, but there's just too much of it. New trend, please.
What's always lurking in your refrigerator? I'm not home a lot, but there are lots of condiments in there: yellow mustard, some barbecue sauce, may ploy, sriracha and Cholula, along with frozen White Castle cheeseburgers, frozen bacon, eggs, some skim milk (that's my wife's, not mine) and Budweiser. I love a nice "beechwood-aged" freedom lager.
What do you enjoy most about cooking? It makes people happy. Everyone loves food, and we try to give people what they love. It pumps me up to go talk to a table that tells me that our food, drink and service was spot on. It makes me happy.
Favorite childhood food memory: Going fishing in the morning to catch all the fish we needed for dinner. After cleaning the fish, the boats and the poles, it was time to cook, and I just wanted to help as much as I could, but my grandma, my mom and my aunts just wanted me out of the way, I think, because they always said they had a very important job for me: "Stand here and don't stop stirring these grits until I tell you." I'd stand there for an hour or so, continually stirring to make sure the bottom didn't burn.
Favorite junk food: Skittles, Sour Patch Kids, frozen White Castles, any flavor of Doritos, those spicy Cheetos, and the best Heath bar cookies you've ever tasted, courtesy of my wife. If you ever want some, let me know; she'll be happy to make them for you.
Last meal before you die: My mom's fried chicken. But she passed away, so I think I'd have some blue crab, sea trout, grits, okra and tomatoes, and maybe some black-eyed peas with ham hocks...and coquilles St. Jacques.