Cafe Society

Jeff Jones, chef of P17: "We become a better restaurant when you give us constructive criticism"

Jeff Jones P17 1600 East 17th Avenue 303-399-0988

This is part one of my interview with Jeff Jones, chef de cuisine of P17; part two of our conversation will run tomorrow.

When you're a kid, there's nothing worse than constantly being on the move. Unless, that is, you happen to wind up in Paris, in a flat above a patisserie, where the sweet scent of fresh-baked bread, croissants and pastries drifts through your window. Then again, for Jeff Jones, the chef de cuisine at P17, even the aroma of fresh croissants couldn't overcome his first encounter with salmon. "My mother would take me to the market in Paris every day to grab our food, and I honestly didn't think much of it until one day, when my mom failed to distract me from the whole salmon that just happened to be at eye level with me," recalls Jones. "I was horrified, and salmon plagued my dreams for years."

See also: Exclusive first look: Mary Nguyen opens P17, a neighborhood bistro

But not enough to curtail a professional cooking career. "Food was always a really big deal in my life, and while we were always moving, and I hated it, I'm so thankful now that I got to see so many different food cultures," says Jones, whose family eventually moved from France to a small town in Montana -- talk about a change of scenery -- when he was in junior high.

His mom became the manager of a hotel resort restaurant, and Jones, who was a golf enthusiast, took a gig as a dishwasher in exchange for his tee times. He stayed at the resort for six years, moving up through the ranks, and found he was good at cooking -- so good, in fact, that the chef encouraged him to ditch the clubs and focus on cooking.

That advice resonated, and Jones headed to Arizona to attend Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Scottsdale; between coursework, he cooked at the Camelback Inn Resort & Spa. "It was a really fast-paced restaurant -- everything was turn-and-burn -- and it wasn't really what I wanted," admits Jones, who moved on to the now-defunct Marquesa, then a five-star, five-diamond resort restaurant. "It was the opportunity of a lifetime," he remembers. "Food costs were never an issue, the chef was a James Beard nominee, the line was an incredible cast of talented chefs, and while I was only there for seven months, those seven months were the most inspirational seven months I've ever had." After that, Jones nabbed a gig at a steakhouse at the same resort, a move that gave him food for thought.

"It's difficult working in Arizona, because there are so many hotel restaurants, so I started thinking about what I wanted to do with my career, and I knew I wanted to work for an independent restaurant," says Jones, who left the resort to work at Mosaic, exactly the kind of place he had envisioned. "I got to work with local farmers, which I loved, plus there was so much more freedom there than in a hotel restaurant, and I got to work really closely with the chef, too, which is hard to do in hotel restaurants, because there are so many people on the line," he explains.

When Mosaic shuttered in 2009, Jones paused again to reflect on his future, and the map pointed him to Denver. "I was inspired by Denver's close-knit restaurant community, the hospitality and the friendliness," says Jones, who was hired as a sous-chef at Parallel 17, chef-owner Mary Nguyen's Vietnamese restaurant in Uptown, which she recently closed and reopened as P17, a European neighborhood bistro. "Mary is very quick to let me have freedom, she's the first one to push me to do better, she's true to her word, and you can trust her," stresses Jones, who in the following interview admits that he's not keen on consuming insects, confesses that he's obsessed with tomatoes, and reveals that his favorite trend of the year is the restaurant pop-up.

Lori Midson: Ten words to describe you: Jeff Jones: Loyal, dedicated, reliable, impulsive, ambitious, charismatic, courageous, joyful, creative and sympathetic.

Five words to describe your food: Simple, honest, beautiful, balanced and comforting.

What's your approach to cooking? My family moved around a lot when I was young, and as a result, I lived up and down the East Coast, spent a few years in France and went to high school in Montana. Moving so often was really tough, but because of it, I learned to appreciate the simplicity and culture of food. In every place we lived, there was so much to appreciate, whether it was picking wild huckleberries with my mom and brothers in Montana to make fresh jam, or eating a freshly baked croissant in France from a neighborhood patisserie. Simply put, cooking unfussy, beautiful meals with friends and family has influenced the way I cook at P17.

Ingredient obsessions: Tomatoes. I worked in Scottsdale, Arizona, for Deborah Knight, the chef-owner of Mosaic restaurant, and she took me out to Duncan Family Farms -- a farm that we sourced from at the time. The farm owners grew what we wanted to feature on the menu, but nothing was better than their tomatoes. They grew hundreds of different heirloom vines, each a different shape and color, some so sweet you'd think you were eating a plum, others bright and tart like a lemon. I've been obsessed ever since. We feature tomatoes at the new P17 in three different small plates: a tomato tart with goat cheese; grilled squid with pesto and a cucumber-and-tomato relish; and a fresh tomato-and-cherry salad served in a Parmesan crust. With summer just around the corner, I'm looking forward to expanding the use of tomatoes into other warm-weather dishes.

Your favorite smell in the kitchen: I love the rich, nutty smell of butter browning, or the spicy, fresh smell of sliced jalapeños. You can't beat either one.

Favorite kitchen gadgets: I love spoons. They're simple, but I use them in all aspects of the kitchen: cooking, plating, tasting and testing for consistency. Ryan O'Conner, our "cork dork" at P17, introduced me to a spoon created by Ferran Adrià; it's a spoon that's designed like an old-fashioned ink pen, and it holds the sauce and releases it like you're drawing on the plate with a pen. If I'm in the kitchen without a spoon, I feel the way some people feel without their phone. Spoons are my comfort item.

Favorite piece of kitchen equipment: I love the Vita-Prep. There are so many different functions with a blender as effective as this one. From making purées to Hollandaise and other dressings, the Vita-Prep makes the hectic life in the kitchen a little bit easier.

Favorite local ingredients and purveyors: I love the fruits that are grown on the Western Slope, especially Palisade peaches and Rocky Ford melons. Barbara Moore, a private organic farmer, is great at getting us really beautiful produce like baby lettuces, English peas or baby carrots in between seasons.

One ingredient you won't touch: Working side by side with Mary Nguyen has introduced me to dozens of uncommon and, in some cases, downright odd ingredients. We hosted a Bizarre Foods dinner with Andrew Zimmern and made a variety of highly unusual dishes, including ant-larvae beignets, jellyfish salad, coconut caterpillar cake and pig uterus, just to name a few. I've learned that there's a place for just about every ingredient, and even if it seems strange to us, it's perfectly normal in another culture. There isn't any ingredient that I won't touch, but of the ingredients I've worked with, and taking taste, texture and smell into consideration, natto, which is basically fermented soybeans, is the one I probably wouldn't eat.

One ingredient you can't live without: Butter, especially unpasteurized butter -- that's the good stuff. My culinary background is French-influenced, and butter is very important when it comes to making pastries and mother sauces like Hollandaise or velouté, and I enjoy experimenting with different types of butters like those made from goat's or sheep's milk.

Food trend you'd like to see more of: I love all the pop-up dinners I've been seeing. The idea of setting up a kitchen for just one night, cooking for guests who may not know what they're going to eat, and working with other chefs, mixologists and kitchen teams sounds like such a good time. I love being in the kitchen, but we create community when we get out of it and mix things up while teaching each other at the same time -- not to mention putting up some killer food and drinks.

Food trend you'd like to see disappear: Flowers on plates. I understand (kind of) if they're lending flavor, but more flowers. They're too pretentious and precious to accompany real food.

What specific requests would you ask of Denver diners? I appreciate when diners are honest with the restaurant. Yeah, we love compliments, but we become a better restaurant when you give us constructive criticism, face-to-face. If a guest has a bad experience but instead of letting us know, tells the server everything was great, then leaves a 10 percent tip, we don't know what happened or how to improve things. We hope that every experience for guests is a great one, but if it's not, we want to know why so we can try to make it right in that moment.

What should every home cook have in the pantry? A good selection of spices, which should include cumin, fennel, paprika and garlic powder. I always have dried beans and lentils on hand; I love cannellini beans and red lentils for their flavor and how quickly they cook. And grains like farro, quinoa and kamut can always be combined in simple ways to create a great meal.

Best recipe tip for a home cook: Unless you're baking, in which case you should precisely follow the recipe, you should make the recipe your own. If you like cumin, add cumin; if you don't like parsley, take it out. The difference between a good recipe and a great one is usually just a little bit of salt.

What's always lurking in your refrigerator? Marinated olives. I love them, especially castelvetranos. We house-cure our olives at P17 because of my obsession.

Favorite culinary-related gift you've been given: I was given a chef's knife when I was first getting into cooking by Bryce Finn, my chef and mentor while in high school in Seeley Lake, Montana. Bryce was my chef at Seasons Restaurant at the Double Arrow Resort, and he gave me the knife as a thank-you after six years of working with him. I've since passed the knife down to an intern of mine, but I'd like to see it back in my kitchen one day. There's nothing better than a gift that you're going to put to good use.

Favorite culinary-related item to give as a gift: In a pinch, which is most of the time, a bottle of Templeton rye has always worked for me. No bow necessary.

What's your fantasy splurge? I love spending money eating out, and my ultimate fantasy splurge would be to backpack through Europe for months, eating at the small family spots as well as the Michelin-rated restaurants of the world.

What's one thing that people would be surprised to know about you? I love the Colorado outdoors. In my spare time, when I'm not with my wife, I love to fly-fish and check out the local rivers and lakes.

If you hadn't become a chef, what would you be doing right now? I grew up playing golf, and working in kitchens was just a way for me to play for free. It wasn't until late in my senior year of high school that I realized that working in kitchens is what I wanted to do for my career. But if I weren't cooking, I'd be out hacking it on the golf course.

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Lori Midson
Contact: Lori Midson