The chef arrived in the Mile High last fall; he says he’s still adjusting, still learning the scene and still learning to cook for his audience — which is why the menu for Hearth & Dram, which opened last month, will continue to evolve. In the meantime, we sat down with Wall to chat about whittling potatoes, why it pays to put in time as a line cook, and why French chef Alain Passard’s life is the gold standard for a chef.
Westword: You recently moved to Denver from Atlanta, where you spent your formative years in cooking and eventually rose to the upper echelon. Talk to me a bit about your early days in this industry.
Jeffrey Wall: I grew up in Iowa. I knew I was going to be a cook from really early on, when I was probably twelve years old. My brother worked at a Mexican restaurant, and I started working there at sixteen. I got a job at the Cheesecake Factory and worked at a brewpub at the same time. My ex-wife was from Athens, Georgia. I knew I wanted to go to Atlanta; we both had family there, and I really wanted to work at this one particular restaurant called Joel — it was widely accepted as the best restaurant in town. So we moved there, and I went to work at an Italian restaurant called La Dolce Vita. I learned Italian food from scratch from a really old New York Italian guy, who worked in poverty; he was really good at utilizing his product and getting the most out of what he got. I was a day cook there, and I worked nights at a place called Rainwater.
When Rainwater closed, I was doing a stage at a restaurant called Shaun’s Inman Park Social Club under Shaun Doty, who was a really popular chef in the early 2000s. I staged for three days and worked every station. He threw me on grill on Saturday night; I got my ass kicked. He was consulting on this brewpub and was looking for a kitchen manager, and he offered me the job. I didn’t really want to work at the pub — I wanted to keep cooking. The chef de cuisine came up after brunch service; Joel [Antunes, Joel’s chef and namesake] was friends with those guys. He was like, “You want to work there, I’ll call the pastry chef.” I started there the next week. It was a really hard job — I went through the wringer. I thought I knew how to cook, but that place stripped you down and took you back to square one.
Any particularly memorable lessons from Joel?
We had this one dish — pommes fondant. Potatoes. You had to whittle all the potatoes into a fournet, which looks like a football. Most chefs will garnish with one — we served a whole dish of these things. So the whole team would powwow for an hour or two and make pommes fondant. Joel taught me ultimate discipline; that’s where I got a lot of my fastidious nature. I’m sort of a slob by nature. They were like, “That won’t work here.” It was a positive experience, and I was there two and a half years.
And then it was on to executive-chef roles?
One of my buddies from Joel, a server, was this Tunisian guy, and he had these friends opening a restaurant. His friends were also Tunisian, and when I interviewed with them, they said, “If he says you’re good enough to be the chef, then we know you’re good enough to be the chef.” I didn’t even cook for them until a month before we opened. The restaurant was called La Fourchette, and it was a little Mediterranean-influenced bistro. They were really nice guys, but I was 24 at the time. I decided to leave after almost three years. It was a really good experience; I got my feet on the ground and learned how to lead a kitchen better. But that job made it really clear what I knew how to do and what I didn’t know how to do. At 26 and 27, a lot of my friends were working for people like Ryan Smith and Josh Hopkins [kingpins of the Atlanta dining scene], learning all these tricks that I didn’t know how to do. I thought, shit, all my peers are getting better than me.
So I quit and called my buddy, who was the exec sous at Empire State South under Ryan Smith and Hugh Acheson. I said, I need a refresher. Everyone will tell you Ryan Smith is one of the hardest chefs to work for. He’s a cool guy, but he will unabashedly throw your product in the trash if it’s not executed correctly, with the expectation that you will get your work done before the restaurant opens. When I started, I said, “I know how to cook. I was just an executive chef. I want you to make the station that I work as hard as possible. I want you to feel like you can take it to a limit, and I will get the work done no matter what.” It was really obvious that he took to that. We had a very talented line. Working for Ryan was mind-blowing. At La Fourchette, we just bought everything from purveyors. In Ryan’s kitchen, it was immediately evident that I was doing everything wrong. We bought everything, and I mean everything, from farmers. I didn’t even know what some ingredients were: fennel flowers, nasturtium. He was meticulous as fuck. Nothing would ever slip through the cracks, and everyone knew that. After fifteen months of that, I left and opened Kimball House.
I took everything I learned from Ryan and made it my own. I’d taken down farmers’ names, introduced myself and made myself available to those connections, so I had a foot to stand on. We had a garden and a daily-changing menu. I wouldn’t write the menu and seek the ingredients; I let the ingredients show up and then wrote the menu. It took a while for us to get our groove; changing the menu so drastically meant that servers, cooks, guests — no one knew what was going on. So we made it a little more regular. We had fun. I took my French sensibilities, the insanity of working with Ryan Smith, and started thinking about what it means to really be a chef. We’re here to teach another generation how to cook, to be stewards to the guests and nourish them, and to make food that’s on another level.
What brought you out to Denver?
I was ready to be outside. Colorado is the mecca in our country for outdoor life. Whether it’s hiking or winter sports, an active lifestyle is the status quo, and that’s what I was looking for. It was serendipity. I was here in the fall with my girlfriend for her sister’s wedding. We got back and it was like, you ready to move? We got back on a Sunday, and on Monday morning I pulled up this website that I’d been scoping. Right at the top was a posting for executive chef, LoDo neighborhood of Denver, wood-fired cuisine. I thought, that sounds about right. When I talked to Garron [Gore], the food and beverage director of [Hospitality Ventures Management Group], the operator of this facility, he was like, you’re a perfect fit. He lives in Atlanta and knew the Kimball House. The one thing that I didn’t have at Kimball House that I have here is the wood-fired grill. Cooking with wood is really near and dear to me; I learned how to cook that way growing up. So I thought, well, this is going to be perfect. It’s been a dream since. It was a really quick turnaround — just six weeks.
You seem to have a fairly farm-centric philosophy. How has moving to a new city influenced how you apply that?
My number-one priority is to find out who the farmers are around here. I’ve been very open with everyone, and I’m getting into the groove of what it means to be a chef in Denver, where there isn’t a four-season growing year. So it’s a challenge, being true to the things that I’ve learned. It’s going to take a while, and I know that. If I was an outsider coming into Atlanta, it would take a while to make the connections. People who make the best products are really fussy about who they sell to. In the meantime, we’re still buying the best stuff we can. California organic produce is our main source for supplementing the lack of local stuff in February. I think that’s pretty normal around here.
It's kind of early to tell how I'm acclimating; we'll see after I've changed the menu a couple of times, when I have a feel for what people want to eat. There are a few dishes that I expected to sell better, like the grilled chicory salad with sauce noisette, which is a brown-butter Hollandaise. It's a symphony of flavors to me and people like it, but it's not getting ordered as much as what I'd expected. Chicory is bitter, so when it's prepared incorrectly, it's miserable. But when you grill it and dress it with butter, its bitterness is subdued. In my experience, I would serve grilled chicory in Atlanta and it would sell like crazy, so I'm getting used to the people here. But also, I understand that the diners who eat here need to be able to trust us first. I have a handful of dishes that I love to eat, but I don't just order them at a place I've never been. We're a new place, so people say, "Let's try the safe stuff and then come back and go to another level." There's this probationary period with being open that I need to expect.
You mentioned you had a garden at Kimball House. Is that something you’d eventually like to do here?
I used to watch [French chef and restaurateur] Alain Passard on Chef’s Table. Alain Passard is the dream: You have a gardener, you have a restaurant, you pick your stuff and cook it. I’m not going to do it tomorrow, but it’ll always be there as the gold standard. Alain Passard is the gold standard. It just takes time.
Hearth & Dram is located at 1801 Wewatta Street. Hours are 5 to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 5 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. For more information, call 303-623-0979 or go to hearthanddram.com.