This is part one of my interview with Jimmy Bernat, exec chef of Jimmy's Urban Bar & Grill; part two of our chat will run tomorrow.
Jimmy Bernat began working -- and cooking -- in a professional kitchen long before the rest of us could make a proper peanut butter and jelly sandwich. He was all of six when he first started wielding knives, using them to devein shrimp at the long-gone Chowder House in Lakewood, a seafood restaurant that his family owned. "I grew up in a family of restaurateurs and have pretty much spent most of my life in the kitchen," says Bernat, now the executive chef of Jimmy's Urban Bar & Grill, which recently opened in LoDo.
Born in Chicago and raised in Littleton, Bernat murdered his first lobster at nine, and while he admits that he was a "little freaked out by the screams and shrieks," it was also the "norm" at a joint that ballyhooed fresh-water lobster tanks, long before seafood shacks began the gimmick of shoving those pay-a-dollar-to-catch-a-lobster-with-a-fake-claw pseudo-aquariums into their dining rooms. The Chowder House never played that game.
Bernat continued to work in the family businesses, including Urban Bliss Cafe, a defunct restaurant in Broomfield, and Chi-Town Grill, a restaurant in Arvada that's also closed, until he took a sabbatical to go to college and play around with computer technology. But after he graduated with a degree in business management from Arapahoe Community College, he went straight back into the kitchen, line-cooking at Angie's, an Italian restaurant in Littleton. After just under a year, he exited for a management opportunity at another Littleton joint, which served shaved ice and New Orleans-style grub. And then he bought it...at just twenty years old. "One of my projects for college was to create a business plan detailing a business that I wanted to open -- and my plan was to purchase this place and turn it into Chicago Jim's, a Chicago-style Italian place, and the idea became a reality when I actually bought it," he explains.
It survived for four years, but Bernat confesses that it should have been shuttered long before that: "I made just about every single mistake that a business owner can make: not keeping books, hiring bad employees, and working too many hours and not delegating -- and while I got some good reviews, suffice it to say I didn't know what the hell I was doing." To add insult to injury, he continues, "How completely stupid is it that I come from a family of restaurateurs and refused to ask for their help?"
He learned the hard way, and nowadmits that he asks for their help all the time, including now that he's at Jimmy's Urban Bar & Grill, which he owns with his parents. Together, they also operate Urban Chefs, a catering company in Stapleton. But it's the restaurant that fuels his passion -- and he pushed hard to open it. "My mom is a commercial real-estate agent who specializes in buying and selling restaurants, so I went to her and asked if I could see the space, and she told me it was a complete waste of time because I didn't have the money," he recalls. In response, "I sold a bunch of things that I owned, worked my ass off putting together a business plan, found an investor, and opened a contemporary American restaurant with my own spins that serves great food -- and I have the belly to prove it."
In the following interview, Bernat recalls his encounter with spit and chew in a can, issues a plea to Linger to please bring back the damn duck wings, and contends that anything ordered well-done, especially bison, is blasphemy.
How do you describe your food? Simple, delicious and familiar, but with my own little twist on things. I love traditional American dishes, but at the same time, I'm an Indian and Asian spice junkie; adding more exotic spices to simple American dishes is delicious on so many different levels.
Ten words to describe you: Energetic, confident, funny (at least in my own mind), loud, strange, laid-back, calm, cool and collected.
What are your ingredient obsessions? Nothing particularly exotic, but I'm obsessed with sriracha and bacon. I use both in just about everything I make at home, as well as in many of my dishes at the restaurant. Sriracha isn't just for spice, either -- adding a small amount to certain cream sauces really adds a nice flavor. I don't keep much food at home, as I'm never there, but you'll always find some sriracha, bacon and bacon fat.
What are your kitchen-gadget obsessions? I keep it pretty simple, but I love my Vitamix and experimenting with different drinks, soups and sauces.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: I get some great hot sauces from the Captain Spongefoot Trading Company. Paul DiBello, the owner, has a great wing sauce, and while it's not locally produced, it's a Colorado company. I'm also a huge fan of heirloom tomatoes. I get some pretty great heirlooms from a family-owned business in Park Hill called Colo-Pac Produce.
One ingredient that you won't touch: Iodized salt. I can't stand it and don't use it in any of my cooking.
Food trend you'd like to see in 2013: I ate at a dim sum restaurant just the other day for the first time and would really love to see some other ethnic cuisines served that way, especially Indian cuisine.
Food trend you'd like to see disappear in 2013: While I enjoy pho, I don't quite get the obsession with it. Also, what's the deal with all the "deconstructed sandwiches" popping up all over menus? Maybe it's because sandwiches are my life, but why would you want to pay extra in a restaurant to have a sandwich that isn't constructed? But, hey, who am I to judge? And you know, come to think of it, every one of those sandwiches I had was great...but I could have skipped the assembly.
One food you detest: Pickles and yellow mustard. I don't know what it is, but I can't stand either and don't understand the obsession with both. When I started seeing pickle-infused vodka, it made me cringe.
One food you can't live without: I can't imagine a life without bacon -- especially the house-cured bacon we serve at Jimmy's Urban Bar & Grill. Was that a shameless plug? Why, yes, yes, it was. I love using bacon and bacon fat. My grandma in Chicago used to make the best damn fried chicken, using bacon grease to pan-fry it. You've gotta love Grandma Joan's healthy cooking styles.
Most memorable meal in Denver that you've ever had: When Linger first opened, I went on a dinner date with my girlfriend and sat at one of the great window seats overlooking downtown; I got the duck wings, which were absolutely phenomenal, only to be very disappointed a few weeks later when I went back and realized that they'd been taken off the menu. Unfortunately, my own re-creational attempts have all come up short.
Your five favorite Denver/Boulder restaurants other than your own: I'm a huge fan of Panzano, especially the gnocchi, which is the best in town, plus the bar makes a terrific pear martini. I also like Tandoori Grill in Boulder; Paul, the owner, is not only a great guy, but he also makes some amazing Indian food. I'm a fan, too, of Wu's Garden in Littleton, because Long Wu, the chef-owner, not only has an awesome name, but his sesame chicken, spicy pork fried rice and crab wontons are simply delicious. I also really love the duck-cilantro sausage after a few libations at Biker Jim's, and Belemonti's Pizza has, hands-down, the best Chicago-style pizza in Denver. Whenever I need a little taste of home, this is my spot. I just wish it opened up earlier on Sunday for the football season. There's nothing like deep-dish pizza and Bears football.
If you could change one thing about the Denver dining scene, what would it be? The love of chain restaurants is still pretty strong, especially in the suburbs. It amazes me that people will go to a restaurant like Chili's, Applebee's and the Olive Garden when there are a hundred local restaurants that blow chains away in every single aspect.
If you had the opportunity to open your own restaurant with no budget constraints, what kind of restaurant would you open? Honestly, the same type of restaurant I have right now... but with better equipment and an amazing beer garden.
What's your idea of a great dining experience? Anything simple, delicious and with a nice ambience. I like balanced acoustics. I ate at a local restaurant a few weeks ago and sat in the dining room with no music. There was just music at the bar area, so it made the whole dining experience very awkward and uncomfortable. In fact, it made us want to eat and run. I love going to restaurants in groups of four and ordering lots of appetizers and entrees and just sharing everything. There's nothing more enjoyable than sharing food and laughs with good friends.
What's the best compliment someone could give to you? Anytime I hear "This is the best [insert dish here] I've ever had," it really just puts a smile on my face.
What do you enjoy most about your craft? Just being able to be as creative as I want, with no restraints -- that and the great feeling I get when I see someone really enjoying my food. Really, nothing is better; it gives me an almost natural high.
What's the best food- or kitchen-related gift you've been given? I love my Vitamix, which I got from my parents and use almost every day.
What's your fantasy splurge? I'd love to deck my kitchen out with fire-and-ice equipment; it confines your whole line -- hot equipment and cold equipment -- to one small space. And I'd really just love to one day decide to leave on an exotic vacation, get away from everything for a week and do it last-minute. You know, after one of those days that just didn't go my way? Just grabbing my lady, going to the airport and buying a first-class ticket to the first exotic location I see on the board.
Weirdest customer request: Well-done bison. Why? Why? Why? It drives me crazy when I see a ticket come up for well-done anything, but bison especially irks me. The meat is so lean that you're left with a dry, flavorless meal that you paid extra for.
Weirdest thing you've ever put in your mouth: On a road trip to Las Vegas, I reached for my trusty can of Go Fast to get me through the last leg of my night-driving shift, and when I put the can to my mouth and chugged a good half of it, I realized that my passenger had been spitting in the can, emptying two of his tobacco pouches. Nothing weirder -- or more disgusting -- than used tobacco chew packs and my best friend's spit mixed with Go Fast.
What's always lurking in your refrigerator? My apartment is basically a glorified bedroom at this point because I only sleep there, but I usually always have milk, some cheese, bacon, eggs and noodles. I can always throw something together with that as a base.