This is part one of my interview with Jim Cohen, chef/owner of The Empire Restaurant and Lounge and Pizzeria da Lupo. Part two of that interview will run in this space tomorrow.
For the most part, Jim Cohen is an open book. He's a straight-up, honest, no-nonsense guy who doesn't mince words -- and doesn't hold back. Still, he has his secrets. "My nickname was 'food king' when I was thirteen, and I'd eat three dinners a night at different people's houses," confesses Cohen, the executive chef/owner of the Empire Lounge & Restaurant in Louisville and Pizzeria da Lupo in Boulder.
"I always loved to eat, and when I was thirteen, I had a paper route, which ended at my best friend's house, and Dora, his mom, was a great cook and she loved me, so she always invited me to stay," he remembers. Dinner was placed on the table promptly at 5 p.m., giving the insatiable teen enough time to dart home and eat dinner again, this time with his family. But the eating orgy didn't stop there. "I had friends across the street who ate late, and they were always trying to cook from Julia Child's cookbooks," Cohen says. "There was always a lot of commotion, and it was fun to hang out and try all of this weird stuff."
But what really sparked his passion for food was eating at home. "My family spent a lot of time around the table discussing life, so I have a great affinity for dining," says Cohen, whose first kitchen gig was flipping gray matter at Burger King, a stint that, happily, didn't last long: Cohen was fired. A photography major at the University of Buffalo, he needed to make money to pay for darkroom essentials, so he landed another kitchen gig, this time working for a Frenchman. "He was grumpy and he'd yell and scream, but we did pretty good food, we were very busy, and I loved being able to handle six crepe pans at a time when no one else could," recalls Cohen, who worked his way up from dishwasher to sauté.
He eventually enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, and soon after graduation moved to Colorado, landing jobs at the Denver Country Club; the long-defunct Plum Tree Cafe, which he opened in 1981; the Wildflower in Vail, where he was executive chef; and the woefully missed Tante Louise, where he was tapped as the opening chef -- an extraordinarily talented chef, hand-picked by Julia Child to appear on her television show, Dining With Julia. "We were doing New American cuisine at Tante Louise, and Julia was doing a show that showed off young chefs trying to break away from doing European food, and she chose eleven chefs from across the country to be on the show, and I was one of them," recalls Cohen, who continued to stay in touch with Child after his fifteen minutes of fame were up. "She'd come to Denver and we'd have long conversations about what American cuisine was and how to translate that at Tante Louise," Cohen recalls. But mostly, he muses, "I appreciated her intelligence."
She clearly appreciated him, too, naming him one of the top chefs in the country in 1983. Then in 1991, the James Beard Foundation nominated Cohen for Best Chef in the Southwest. "I still love creating restaurants," says the 55-year-old Cohen, who opened the Empire, named after a local coal mine, in 2008 and Pizzeria da Lupo this past December. "I'm much better at this than I used to be," he adds, "and there are much better products around now than when I started doing this 32 years ago -- I get very jazzed about product -- plus the waiters teach me new music."
In the following interview, he riffs on Kobe beef, his wistfulness for sea urchin submarine sandwiches, the hell that was Vail, and why you should listen to his wife.
Six words to describe your food: Honest, simple, yummy, wood-fired, seasoned (like me) and rustic.
Ten words to describe you: Perfectionist, oddly charming, charismatic, loyal, competitive and funny in a sarcastic way.
Culinary inspirations: Simplicity. I grew up in Buffalo, New York, where there were lots of bars and restaurants that served blue-collar food that was great and unpretentious -- all very simple stuff. After I became a cook/chef, the product really became the inspiration. When I opened the Plumtree Cafe in 1981, in Denver, there were people just beginning to bring good product to us, mostly out of the trunks of their cars, and while some of them are big companies now, it was pretty exciting back then. When I was cooking at Tante Louise, Julia Child invited me to be on her television show, and everyone connected with the show was so gracious; she, and they, taught me a lot about hospitality. Later, when I was the chef of the Lodge at Vail, we had a guest chef program, where we probably brought in forty different chefs to do a dinner at the Wildflower. And talk about inspiration: Jean-Georges Vongerichten, who's both brilliant and creative; Paul Bertolli, who's very intense and really product-driven; and then there was Jonathan Waxman, who's just a great cook.
Favorite ingredient: This is tough, but when you strip it down, it has to be fleur de sel. It brings out the flavor of everything we produce.
Favorite local ingredient: Anything picked that day from Red Wagon Organic Farm in Boulder. I love their greens, their radishes and tomatoes. We get them in as soon as they're producing, and they deliver product to me twice as a week. We create our menus according to what they have at the time. They tell me what's good -- not the other way around. The philosophy that this is my menu and you should conform to what I do is backwards. Our menus conform to what they tell us is good.
Favorite spice: Fresh black pepper. It complements sea salt well.
Most underrated ingredient: Fresh yeast. It makes great pizza dough, and the flavor from it is just right on.
Most overrated ingredient: Kobe beef. I don't think people really understand it or how it should be used. I have a friend in Canada who spent lots of time in Japan, and my wife and I were at his fishing lodge, and he had real Kobe flown in from Japan, along with a special, hard charcoal, again from Japan. He just cooked very thin slices over the charcoal -- we probably had three ounces each, with just a little sea salt. Now we see big steaks of what's supposed to be Kobe beef, when in fact, it's really Wagyu, and since there are lots of different grades, I don't think people really know what they're getting. I use Wagyu for our burger, but I don't mention it, and even I don't really know if I understand what I'm getting.
One food you detest: Peanut butter. I don't know why. Interestingly, I love Reese's Pieces, but I can't stand straight peanut butter. I'd need years of therapy to overcome that aversion.
One food you can't live without: Now it's chicken, because I'm on a protein diet, but before that, it was pasta -- any pasta.
Best recent food find: Francesco de Padova, a really flavorful but inexpensive olive oil from a company in San Francisco. I came across it while having lunch at A-16 in San Francisco, where it was on a dish, and I asked the waiter to bring the can over so I could write everything down about it. I have to bring in pallets from San Francisco, but luckily I have lots of storage at the Empire.
What's never in your kitchen? Truffle oil, pre-prepared foods and servers.
What's always in your kitchen? Great extra-virgin olive oil, aprons at the Empire, passionate cooks, sharp knives, really good pots and pans at the Empire, some sort of wood-burning something at both restaurants, fleur de sel, pepper mills, and speakers so we can hear music while we're prepping.
What you'd like to see more of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: Great Chinese places. We loved Chopsticks in Denver, but now it's gone.
What you'd like to see less of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: Bad Chinese restaurants. When Chinese food is really great, it's amazing, but I haven't found a Chopsticks -- a place that used great ingredients and where the chef really paid attention to the food -- anywhere in Denver or Boulder since it closed.
Current Denver culinary genius: Anyone who's making a great living in the restaurant business and still has a life, because this business is so damn hard. But I'll say this about Dave Query: He's very successful, creative, has some great restaurants, a generous spirit, and he seems happy all the time.
Favorite Denver/Boulder restaurant(s) other than your own: New Saigon, even though after 28 years, the waiters still don't recognize me. Nonetheless, the food is great.
If you could cook for one famous chef, dead or alive, who would it be? Jean-Georges. He loves food, and he really appreciated the food we did at the lodge. He would get all excited and speak in that excited way that only the French do. Plus he's worked all over the world and has great stories.
Favorite celebrity chef: My wife, who's a great technician, and Jean-Georges Vongerichten. Of all the people I've worked with, he was the most brilliant.
Celebrity chef who should shut up: My wife. She should just say yes to me, because we argue, even though she's always right. I don't watch the Food Network; we have no connection.
Hardest lesson you've learned: You have to make a living at this, so sometimes you have to be practical -- not serving sea urchin sub sandwiches, for example -- and because of that, I listen to my wife, who's from Indiana. People in Indiana are practical; I'm just a dreamer.
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What's next for you? Maybe another pizzeria, or maybe a rotisserie place.
Last meal before you die: Sitting on the lagoon in Venice with my family and eating seafood risotto. Or Ming's Chinese food in Buffalo, New York.