This is part one of my interview with Jay Leandro, exec chef of Pub 17 on Welton Street; part two of our conversation with run tomorrow.
According to Jay Leandro, it all started with a chicken. "I was nine, maybe ten, and grilling my first chicken, and I remember taking all of the spices out of the cupboard, mixing them all around and going crazy. Oddly enough, it turned out really well," says the 26-year-old chef of Pub 17 on Welton Street, the restaurant inside the Grand Hyatt. "I sort of knew, even that early on, that I really loved cooking."
It would take him a few more years before he stepped foot into a professional kitchen, but once he did, he never looked back. "I dated a girl whose dad was a chef, and he needed help with his catering company, so I started working for him, and while his food was really simple, he was incredibly passionate, not to mention patient, and it was just unbelievably cool to watch him work," recalls Leandro. And that chef saw something in Leandro, too, pushing him out into the culinary universe to explore the possibilities.
Leandro landed at a French restaurant in Newport, Rhode Island, close to where he'd grown up in Massachusetts, and while he was cooking on a line of "controlled chaos," he was also attending culinary school. But then he became restless for a change of scenery. "I was almost done with my second year at Johnson & Wales and was looking for a big change in my life, so I started looking at photos of Denver online, and decided to drive out there the day after Thanksgiving in 2006," recalls Leandro, who soon enrolled at the Johnson & Wales in the Mile High City.
While he was there, he snapped up an internship at the Grand Hyatt. "I'd done quite a bit of catering, and I'd worked in restaurants, but I'd never cooked in a hotel, and I wanted to find out what it was all about," says Leandro, who got his feet wet cooking in the banquet kitchen, eventually working his way up to saucier and bouncing back and forth between banquets and the restaurant until he became the lead cook and, finally, the chef de cuisine in 2010. "When I first started, I didn't know what I was getting myself into. Hotel restaurants have a bit of a sell-out mentality -- the kind of place where good chefs go to die -- but it's so different now," he says, noting that there are "younger chefs in the kitchen who have a lot more creative freedom." There will always be guests who "expect the staples -- chicken, salmon and a burger," he concedes, "but it's what you do with those staples that sets you apart, and we know we have to keep up with the rest of the restaurant community, so we use great ingredients, incorporate a lot of global influences, and have one of the best local beer selections in the city. We're doing some pretty awesome things."
In the following interview, Leandro confesses that he's not above frozen pizza, rallies behind the upgrading of kids' menus and reveals where he eats on his days off.
How do you describe your food? Comforting, simple, contrasting and approachable. It's definitely not food that you're afraid to look at and break apart.
Ten words to describe you: Sarcastic, loud, caring, demanding, funny, salty, adventurous, outdoorsy, confident, fisherman, goofy, playful father and loving husband.
What are your ingredient obsessions? Vinegar, salt and sugar. I like playing with contrasting flavors, and most of the dishes we come up with have some sort of sweet, salty and acidic component. My obsession with sweet and salty started when I was just a little kid. My vava (Portuguese for "grandmother") would bring me to McDonald's, and I always had to have a sip of cola with every bite of that Happy Meal. Memories. To this day, I can't eat pizza or burgers without soda in the house.
What are your kitchen-tool obsessions? Cutco shears and deep-fat fryers. Thank God I don't have one of those at home.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: I love Haystack Mountain goat cheese, particularly their chèvre. It has such a great, clean flavor.
One food you detest: White pepper is not allowed in my kitchen simply because it tastes like spicy cardboard and smells like cow manure.
One food you can't live without: Sriracha and frozen pizzas. Nope, I'm not ashamed to say that when I get home after cooking for fourteen hours, I don't really feel like cooking. The Red Baron never fails.
Best food trend of the year: So many places are putting more thought into their kids' menu and trying to get away from serving just chicken fingers and cheeseburgers, which is great. That's not to say that it's not okay to include one or two of those items -- some children are still very picky -- but it's encouraging to see more restaurants focusing on developing a child's palate and diversifying the kinds of foods they consume. Being the parent of a child who will eat pretty much anything -- except goat cheese -- it only makes sense that there should be just as much thought put into the kids' menu as any other menu. If you start them young enough, I truly believe that even a young child can enjoy diverse and complex flavors.
Worst food trend of the year: The gluten-free fad. My daughter had gastrointestinal issues, so I get diet restrictions, but there's an upward trend of being gluten-free -- and that really bugs me. Too many people are pretending to be gluten-free, when they really don't have a problem -- it's that whole, "I'm doing it because everyone else is doing it." Plus, it's really hard on the kitchen. We're happy to cater to gluten-free diets, but I just wish that people who are doing it for no other reason than it's trendy would understand that it's a pain in the ass for those of us who cook.
Describe the biggest challenges facing today's chefs: Going green. Finding and sourcing products locally and responsibly is a challenging task, especially for larger-volume places. Chefs today have to constantly fight with customer demand/expectations versus what makes sense for their kitchen and location.
What do you enjoy most about cooking? I like making comforting food that people can relate to. Oftentimes after I cook a very time-consuming meal, I won't even eat whatever it is I just made, mostly because I just want my guests to enjoy it. Teaching my daughter about cooking has been really fun, too; she always wants to make pancakes and bacon with daddy, no matter the time of day.
If you could cook in another chef's kitchen, whose would it be? My good friend Evan Brockman, who's a chef in Omaha. We used to make some pretty fantastic meals at home when we were roommates in college, but we never had a chance to work together in a professional kitchen. It would be interesting to see what we could come up with and then discuss the meal over a tall glass of Kentucky Deluxe.
What's never in your kitchen? Artificially flavored oil, which is almost identical to the dipping element on the Papa John's breadsticks plate. Also, you'll never find ThickenUp, a modified starch that thickens things but tastes funky and can make a cup of cold water as dense as a cinderblock.
What's always in your kitchen? Rice vinegar, freshly ground black pepper and some kind of jam.
Craziest night in the kitchen: I was cooking in a kitchen in Newport, Rhode Island, on a typical Friday night burn-down on the line. Dessert orders started coming in, tickets for crème brûlée were piling up, and the new cook couldn't get the torch lit. He ultimately decided he needed to test the torch, so with his hand in front of the torch tube, he gave it a few unsuccessful "clicks," and on the third or fourth click, the sucker finally lit. Needless to say, he burned the shit out of his hand and spent the rest of the night with his hand in cold milk and with the senior line brigade laughing hysterically. He was fired two days later.
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When you have a day off away from the kitchen, how do you spend your time? I usually like to do two things that are complete opposites: I like to get up really early and head up to the mountains to do some fishing, or hit a jeep trail. Or I like to sleep in (with a two-year-old, that's about 7 a.m.), relax on the couch and watch a good movie.
What do you enjoy most about your craft? I like feeding people. I cook because it's relaxing, but at the same time, it requires a great level of focus. I guess I like it for selfish reasons, as well; I like watching people enjoy the food I make.
What question should I ask the next chef I interview? What keeps you motivated?
If you hadn't become a chef, what would you be doing right now? I would've become a marine biologist/fisherman. I used to love to spend all of my time on -- or near -- the ocean, and being away from it has been one of the biggest challenges of living in Colorado. While the fly-fishing scene in Colorado is amazing, it still isn't the same for me as fishing in the ocean, catching stripers. It's a tough choice -- the mountains or the ocean.