This is part one of Lori Midson's interview with Eli Odell, executive chef of Highland Tap and Burger. Read part two of that interview, in which Odell dishes on hammering eighty pounds of wings and the Deadliest Chef.
Eli Odell came into the world 35 years ago, delivered by a midwife in a cabin in upstate New York built by his father -- a hippie -- with no running water and no heat. Shortly thereafter, the cabin turned to ash when the adjoining sauna decided it was a good time to spark a fire. This is not where Odell became fascinated with food, cooking or the kitchen life.
That came later, when he moved to a house with modern amenities in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, in the Berkshire Hills, where his father and stepmother introduced him to the marvels of a kitchen -- and restaurants. "My stepmother, especially, exposed me to incredible food, and we always sat down together for dinner every night," recalls Odell. And when he wasn't eating at home, he was parked in a dining room, where he immersed himself in the whole experience. "We were going to restaurants when I was really young, and I fell in love with them at first sight," he says. "With the specials, the menus, the presentations, the setup, the food -- all of it."
His parents, who wanted a slice of island life, next trotted off to St. John in the Virgin Islands, where, at thirteen, Odell got his first restaurant gig, as a busboy and a bar back. Then it was on to Sarasota, Florida, where he landed a stint as a dishwasher and prep cook while collecting money on the side working with his dad and brother in the construction business -- a business that Odell wanted no part of. "I did it for enough years to know that I hated it," he admits. He was lucky enough to inherit a trust fund, and after struggling with how to dispose of the cash, he chose culinary school. "I didn't want to waste the money on a four-year college; I wanted to pick a specific trade and go for it, and I loved cooking and the restaurant business, so culinary school was the obvious choice," he says.
While skiing in Telluride, he saw a television advertisement for the American Institute of Art in Denver, and since he wanted to be near the slopes, that, too, was the most obvious choice. When he graduated from what is now the Colorado Institute of Art, Fadó Irish Pub had just opened downtown, and the kitchen was looking for a line cook. Odell got the job, eventually becoming the sous. But he soon tired of the bar scene, and the St. Patrick's Day mob scene, and he split -- to Vesta Dipping Grill, where he was the a.m. sous chef for three years. "I made all the sauces," he says, "and by the end of the day, I could climb up the stack of sauces that I made that day, there were so many of them." Odell was eventually let go. "I deserved it," he declares, leaving it at that.
He wound up in the kitchen at the defunct Nectar in Cherry Creek, where he stuck it out for a year before heading up to Vail to become the exec sous chef at Game Creek. Hungry for a (affordable) house, he returned to Denver, where he worked as a private chef until he secured the exec-chef slot at Highland Tap and Burger, which opened last August. "We want to become members of this neighborhood, to grow with this neighborhood, to listen to our patrons and become a fixture in this part of town," he says.
Over beers, burgers and potato skins at the bar, Odell opened up about becoming an exec chef for the first time, what he learned from Matt Selby, and what might happen if you wear chile-pepper pants in his kitchen.
Six words to describe your food: Simple, seasonal, unbastardized, real, fresh and umami.
Ten words to describe you: I guess you've decided to start with the hardest questions...scrawny, loud, outgoing, passionate, sarcastic, humorous, clever, generous, self-centered and patient.
Culinary inspirations: I've missed New England ever since I left, and being landlocked in Colorado, I often long for the smell of the ocean and all the fresh fish and seafood that comes from it. Michel Richard is another inspiration: One of my mentors in Vail, chef Darrell Jensen, apprenticed under him in California, and he passed down a lot of what he'd learned from Richard down to me. But the thing that inspires me most is simply the immediate gratitude I get from bringing people joy through food.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef: Successfully opening the Tap from the ground up...and this interview. Brandon Biederman, from Steuben's, was originally asked to consult for this job, but he didn't have time, so he recommended me. I told the owners that I'd come on board as a consultant but I wouldn't be the chef -- no way. Even as a consultant, though, I needed to impress a lot of partners, and I hit it off with Juan, one of the partners, right away, and he called and offered me the executive chef position, so I took the job. I had decided, after telling myself and everyone else that I just wanted to consult, that I'd put in too much work to walk away and let someone else come in and take the credit. Getting this job really boosted my confidence; this is my big break -- I have two pages of executive sous chef jobs -- and this is my shot to go for number one. It's my first exec-chef position.
Favorite ingredient: Fresh thyme. It's so versatile, and it amazes me how many different food types this herb can enhance. It's a wonderful herbal enhancer -- subtle and delicate, but super-flavorful and delicious. I can't imagine that anyone could ever dislike it.
Best recent food find: The Cubano sandwich at Buchi Cafe. It's crispy on the outside, with melt-in-your-mouth pork on the inside -- and there's not too much cumin, plus it won't break the bank. I also love the al pastor gorditas from any Tacos y Salsas location.
Most overrated ingredient: Aioli. It's just mayonnaise, people. Okay, it's an extra-creamy and delicious mayonnaise, but people seem to have become mesmerized by the word itself.
Most underrated ingredient: Root vegetables. They're cheap and awesome and good for you, and yet they're forgotten. Look at beets: God provided this wonderful sugar from underneath the earth, and they're shunned. It's the same thing with things like celery and sunchokes.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: Anything from Savory Spice Shop. My favorites are the barbecue rubs and the curry powders. I also wouldn't be able to make my beer mustard without their crushed brown mustard seeds. For home, I buy the various cheese-popcorn powders for movie night with Ruby, my daughter, and Leslie, my wife.
One food you detest: Sun-dried tomatoes. Their acidity reminds me of stomach acid and chewing tobacco.
One food you can't live without: Bread, toasted with a slab of butter and jam, is my favorite way to start the day. I also like an afternoon snack of Oroweat, Boar's Head Black Forest ham and Gulden's mustard.
Favorite spice: Cardamom. It's so unique, and if used correctly, the outcome is splendid.
Rules of conduct in your kitchen: Be on time; be efficient; no standing around; stay busy; have fun; and be respectful. I want my guys to have fun, but they need to be professional at the same time. If you wear chile-pepper chef pants in my kitchen, I'll kill you -- absolutely, unequivocally, no chile-pepper pants, ever; and no hacks; no chef's coats; and no Egyptian cotton -- but I welcome snap shirts.
What's never in your kitchen? Sun-dried tomatoes, butter substitute, pre-ground pepper, those big paper chef toques, anything by Justin Bieber, or too much seriousness.
What's always in your kitchen? Blue cheese and aged sherry vinegar, camaraderie, underground hip-hop and all kinds of jokes -- mostly at the expense of our profession and ourselves. Anything to keep it light, especially when we're in the shits.
What's always in your refrigerator at home? Blue-cheese dressing, butter, milk, Swiss cheese, Boar's Head Black Forest ham and artichokes. In my freezer, I've always got spaghetti -- I make a million gallons of meat sauce, Cryovac it in small batches and freeze it. I've also got Cryovac'd meatballs and chicken tikka masala. I love my FoodSaver.
Current Denver culinary genius: Matt Selby. He's a really talented dude who taught me a lot, including the realization that, after graduating from culinary school, it's easy to take a step back and wonder why you wasted all that money in the first place when you can learn from someone like him. He taught me all about flavors and textures in an amazingly short time, which I credit to him, not me. But anyone who can teach me something -- anything -- is a genius.
If you could cook for one famous chef, dead or alive, who would it be? Anthony Bourdain. We have a little bit in common -- we were both bad boys who ate well -- but mainly because no matter how the food came out, I'm sure we'd have a good time.
You're making a pizza. What's on it? Pickled jalapeños, mushrooms, pepperoni and black olives.
Guiltiest food pleasure? The burnt cheese and bacon that's been scraped off the potato skins pan at work.
You're at the market. What do you buy two of? Sticks of Land O'Lakes butter that I put in a doublewide ceramic tray with a lid. We're a toast family in the morning, and my daughter freaks out if she can't see the butter on her toast.
Weirdest customer request: A gentleman wanted to take us up on our fried-egg upgrade, but he only wanted the whites.
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Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: A macaroni-and-reindeer casserole that I had while I was in Finland. It was pretty good.
Hardest lesson you've learned, and how you've changed because of it: It's easy to have fun in the kitchen and put out killer food, but at the end of the day, this is still a business that needs to be treated as such. I've learned that professionalism is important all the way around, even when it means cracking down on the boys.