This is part one of my interview with Jonah Munson, exec chef of the Walnut Room. Part two of our conversation will run tomorrow.
"I started cooking when I was really young, and we had family dinners nearly every night -- that's what you do when there are six kids in the family," says Jonah Munson, who adds that being the youngest of six siblings didn't get him any preferential treatment, either. "We all ate, we all cooked, and we definitely all cleaned. It was understood that everyone did their part."
But despite hanging out in the family kitchen while growing up in Georgia, Munson had no desire to be a professional chef. "I messed around in the kitchen, but I was never a foodie," he admits, noting that he went to college with aspirations of becoming an airline mechanic.
A cake changed the career path for Munson, today the executive chef at the Walnut Room. "I was going to school in Florida and was completely broke, but I remember wanting a cake and deciding that it was probably more cost-effective to buy the ingredients and make it from scratch than to buy the box and everything else that you had to buy along with it," he says, pointing out that he made the frosting from scratch, too. "From what I remember, it was way better than a box cake, and good enough that I figured I'd make baking my hobby."
After nearly a decade in the construction business, Munson turned that pastime into a gig, taking a job at a bake shop and "learning how to make and stretch taffy, bake fudge and make pralines and bear claws," he says.
He did some traveling, too, including a six-week camping trip across America that included a stop in Colorado, a state he "absolutely loved" -- and would eventually call home. But first he'd open his own restaurant in Forsyth, Georgia, a small hamlet that was a restaurant wasteland, Munson recalls. "My wife and I had been talking about opening a restaurant, and I was still doing a lot of baking on the side, and there was nowhere to eat in this town, so we opened a brick-oven bistro and bakery," says Munson, who still owns that restaurant in partnership with other family members.
And opening the bistro solidified his zeal for restaurant life. "I knew this was the course that I wanted to take," says Munson. "I loved cooking and the instant gratification of making something with my hands and seeing how it made people happy. I knew that I'd be in this business for a long time to come."
He and his wife moved to Denver in 2012, where Munson landed at Marczyk Fine Foods as a baker. Soon after, he became the bakery manager, and it was there, while breaking bread with owners Pete Marczyk and Barbara Macfarlane, that Munson says he had an epiphany. "I'd always used what I considered to be great products in my restaurant, but in Georgia, there's not a big local, organic push, and at Marcyzk, they're all about local and organic, and if there was a hard way to do something, Pete and Barb would do it the hard way -- they'd never take the easy way out. And that resonated with me," he acknowledges.
With a wife and a handful of kids at home, Munson eventually needed to earn more bread as well as make it, so he began looking for a second job, which he found at the Walnut Room, as the head chef. It was a full-time gig -- and one that he couldn't pass up. "When I went inside, it was like walking into my restaurant in Georgia; it just felt good, and while there's always something going on -- I call it As the Walnut Turns -- there's so much gratification," says Munson, who in the following interview reveals which restaurants he thinks are underrated and why yard sales are the best place to pick up cookbooks and mixers that stand the test of time.
Describe your approach to cooking: It's traditional comfort food cooked in a healthier way, with a focus on local products.
What are your ingredient obsessions? I love baking with cream cheese, and I always use high-quality cheeses for pizza -- goat cheese, fresh, whole-milk mozzarella, feta cheese and blue cheese. They all make wonderful additions to any pizza. What are your kitchen-gadget obsessions? I've been baking since college, and the thing that I'm still most obsessed with -- even now -- are great mixers. I've purchased them from all over the place, but I've found some of the greatest mixers at yard sales. Some of the older mixers, like Oster, Sunbeam and KitchenAid, were built to mix...and last.
Favorite local ingredients and purveyors: Before coming to the Walnut Room, I was the bakery manager at Marczyk Fine Foods, and I was so impressed with their dedication to supporting local farmers and local products that I've continued that same tradition here at the Walnut Room. We recently added housemade guacamole, fire-roasted salsa and tortilla wraps to our menu, and we bring tortilla chips, our spinach-basil pesto and flour tortillas in from Raquelitas, a local Denver company that's only a block from our downtown restaurant. We're also using sausage from Polidori, another great local company.
One ingredient you won't touch: I love just about everything, but I've disliked pickles ever since I was a kid, and I still won't touch them.
One ingredient you can't live without: Great flour. It boggles my mind that you can make so many wonderful creations with flour and just a few simple ingredients.
Food trend you'd like to see in 2013: I'd like to see everyone focus less on specific food restrictions that are created by trendy diets. I know that some people are legitimately allergic -- or sensitive -- to certain ingredients, but I've found that all things in moderation is a more nutritionally viable approach to healthy living and a healthy mind.
Food trend you'd like to see disappear in 2013: Chain-driven mediocrity and trendy diet fads.
Favorite pizza on your menu right now: My favorite pizza is our traditional red sauce with fresh spinach, fresh garlic, roasted red peppers and ricotta cheese. It's a twist on a pizza Florentine that we make at my restaurant back in Georgia.
What dish would you love to put on your menu, regardless of how well it would sell? My mother's chicken and dumplings. I'm kind of missing some good Southern soul cooking.
Is there a special request you really dislike or refuse to accommodate: Not really. If a customer makes a special request and we can do it, then we'll make sure it happens. Our job is to give them a great experience, no matter what they want.
Weirdest customer request: When I worked in Georgia, there was a woman who'd come in every week and order two square pizzas, except we only did hand-tossed round pizzas -- and then ask us to cut the slices into squares. And recently, a guy asked for a chicken Parmesan pizza.
Weirdest thing you've ever put in your mouth: My sister-in-law is from Korea, so I've eaten a lot of meals at her house, and I have no idea what some of the things were, or even how to pronounce them. Some were absolutely divine and some were absolutely weird.
What's your idea of an unparalleled dining experience? Sitting down with my wife and four daughters with good food and a lot of laughter.
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Most underrated Denver restaurant: My family and I love eating out together, and we always search for independent restaurants near where we live in the suburbs, so we don't make it to a lot of downtown Denver restaurants. But one of our favorites in Denver is Highland Tap & Burger. We've also found a couple of great places close to where we live, including Jack's, an out-of-the-way, fun little place in Arvada with amazing sliders and a fun atmosphere. Another noteworthy place that opened up earlier this year, literally right outside our back yard, is the Aspen Lodge Bar & Grill. It's pretty much run by the owner himself, Mesut, who serves your drinks, takes your order and cooks your food -- it's fabulous and always fresh -- and yet he still finds time to touch tables and have a great conversation with you.
Who's the most underrated chef in Denver? That's hard to answer, but I'd say that any chef who works his trade with quality and customer satisfaction in mind is probably underrated.
What's one thing that people would be surprised to know about you? That even at six feet, five inches tall, I don't watch basketball and I don't know what the weather is like up here. I'd rather bake and paint my daughter's fingernails than go to a sports arena. I am a family man first; everything else is second.
What's next for Denver's culinary scene? I'm still fairly new to the area, but I think the direction that we're heading is positive, especially since we're getting more and more independent, local and healthier restaurants. That makes me happy.