This is part one of my interview with Jordan Wallace, chef of Pizzeria Locale; part two of our chat will run tomorrow.
There are two breeds of chef: those who know from day one that cooking is in the cards, and those who have to shuffle the deck a few times before realizing that they could be an ace in the kitchen. Jordan Wallace, executive chef and head pizzaiolo at Pizzeria Locale, falls into the latter category.
Born in Chicago, Wallace, whose nickname is "Bruiser," grew up as an athlete; his family moved to Evergreen when he was five, and he started hitting the slopes soon after. "I was a big-time skier," recalls Wallace, but after blowing his knee out more than once, he wasn't so sure that bumps and powder were the secret to a sustainable career. And when the manager of the Chart House, where Wallace was cooking as a way to pay for his skiing habit, announced that he'd procured a degree in restaurant and resort management from Colorado State University, Wallace relinquished his love affair with black diamonds and followed in his manager's footsteps, graduating from CSU with the same degree.
While he was a student in Fort Collins, he cooked at an Olive Garden, and while there are plenty of food snobs who couldn't fathom even stepping a toe into an Olive Garden, Wallace, who spent three years with the company, valued the experience, even if he admits he wouldn't eat there now. "I loved the fast pace of working there; it was a lot of fun, and I took a lot of pride in doing things right and as fast as possible," recalls Wallace, who then went on to culinary school, sojourning to Italy for a seven-month program at the Italian Culinary Institute for Foreigners, in the heart of the Piedmont region. "By the time I'd left the Olive Garden, I knew I wanted to cook -- I was good at it, I was in my element, and everything just clicked for me -- and the program in Italy sounded like an amazing opportunity," says Wallace.
And he was right. "I still had very limited knowledge about food when I got to Italy, but by the time I came back to the States, I'd done a five-month stage at a great restaurant, I'd visited cheese makers and Italian plum-tomato manufacturers and coffee companies, and I just loved the food and exploring the different sceneries and cultures," he remembers. His experience paid off in spades. Soon after returning to Colorado, Wallace snapped up an a.m. prep-cook position at Frasca Food and Wine just a few months after the restaurant opened. And for the past nine years, he's remained with Bobby Stuckey and Lachlan MacKinnon-Patterson, the creators of Frasca and Pizzeria Locale, which also got its start in Boulder. "I never intended to stay with one restaurant group for nine years, but I worked my way through every station at Frasca. My goal was to be a sous-chef, and in three years, I was," says Wallace.
He contemplated leaving Frasca's kitchen once he'd mastered his mission, but when Stuckey and MacKinnon-Patterson offered him the opportunity to journey back to Italy to study pizza -- all expenses paid -- he jumped at the invitation, training at Pizzeria la Notizia, a Naples restaurant that offered pizza-making classes. "It was all a precursor to opening Pizzeria Locale in Boulder," says Wallace, who also did a few pizza stages in Phoenix and Tampa before opening the first Pizzeria Locale in 2011.
"A year or two into it, we all started talking about doing a different version of Pizzeria Locale -- making it more accessible and less expensive," he notes. "We wanted to do pizza for the people instead of pizza for the elite, so we designed a new concept -- the Denver concept -- and now we're opening a third in Highland, which will be very similar to the Denver store, except that we're going to take everything we've learned here and make that one even better," says Wallace, who in the following interview pleads for the dismissal of ingredient-heavy plates, recalls the guest who demanded an "atrocious" calzone, and recounts the day when a Naples native declared victory.
Lori Midson: What's your first food memory? Jordan Wallace: My first food memory isn't a meal, but an experience I had while living in Chicago. I was about four years old, and my older sister held half an orange against the wall so I could run across the room like a bull and smash it with my head. I remember preparing for the charge, but I'm not really sure what happened after I started running.
Ten words to describe you: Enthusiastic, honest, goofy, open-minded, trustworthy, nerdy, disciplined, thoughtful, easygoing and genuine.
Five words to describe your food: Simple, balanced, fresh, tasty and pretty.
What are your ingredient obsessions? Tomatoes, mozzarella, olive oil and balsamic vinegar.
One ingredient you won't touch: Truffle oil, because it's usually synthetic and doesn't compare to the real thing in any way, shape or form. I would much prefer to use a cheese with truffle ends in it, or honey with truffle.
Food trend you'd like to see emerge in 2014: I'd like to see the re-emergence of simpler food and have chefs move away from dishes that have 35 ingredients and six different sauces and purées on the plate. I've recently had several dining experiences where I ate beautiful dishes, but because there was so much going on, I couldn't understand what I was eating.
Food trend you'd like to see disappear in 2014: I'd like to see the disappearance of restaurants that feel the need to make everything in-house, such as charcuterie or burrata, when, in fact, they really they have no business making those things at all. There are some restaurants that do them well, but there are many others that don't. When someone dedicates their profession to a craft like charcuterie or cheese-making, they have a much better chance of creating something memorable and consistent. But as chefs, we already have so many other things going on that we can't possibly dedicate as much time and effort as the artisans.
Favorite piece of kitchen equipment: I love my sauce spoon. In pizza making, the right sauce spoon can greatly increase how quickly and neatly a pizza is topped with sauce. And in an industry where portion control and consistency are so important, a great sauce spoon can quickly turn even the most inexperienced pizza maker into a perfect pizza-saucing expert.
Your favorite smell in the kitchen: Citrus. Smelling citrus in the kitchen always gives me a boost of energy and takes me back to the Amalfi Coast.
Favorite dish on your menu: My favorite pizza on the Pizzeria Locale Denver menu is the Mais pizza. I also really miss the frutti di mare salad at Boulder's Pizzeria Locale.
What dish would you love to put on your menu, regardless of how well it would sell? A traditional Neapolitan pizza that you find in Naples, Italy: no cheese, red sauce, garlic, olive oil and about a hundred really small, fresh baby anchovies on it. I've never even seen these fish in the United States; it's truly a one-of-a-kind experience.
Weirdest customer request: We had a guest who demanded that we build a gluten-free calzone made from two crusts and cook it twice as long as we normally do in the oven. Even after explaining that the calzone would be completely black on the outside, raw in the middle and inedible, he insisted we do it. The result was atrocious.
Would you ever send a dish back if you were dining in a friend's restaurant? No, I eat at friends' restaurants to be supportive, and any issues with the food can be addressed outside of the restaurant at another time.
If you could make one request of Denver diners, what would it be? Please be respectful of the people working in restaurants. They're only human and definitely not any lower than you. When mistakes are made in restaurants, please do not beat up the staff, because chances are the person you're ripping apart actually really cares about their job and your experience. Too often, upset guests treat the people working in restaurants like their own personal servants.
What do you expect from a restaurant critic? I expect a food critic to be unbiased and well experienced in the restaurant business. If you haven't worked -- or lived -- the restaurant life, then you can't expect people to believe what you say. I've never figure-skated, so I'd be a terrible judge of a figure-skating competition. Anonymity is definitely important. Much like how you would never insult a friend's meal that they cooked for you at their house, if a restaurant critic reviews a friend's restaurant, the result is an unreliable review. And if a restaurant knows who a food critic is, you'd better believe that critic will get the best experience that restaurant has to offer, above and beyond the normal guest experience.
Last meal before you die: Baby-back ribs and king crab legs.
If you hadn't become a chef, what would you be doing right now? I'd be on ski patrol.
What, if anything, would you have done differently before opening Pizzeria Locale? I wish we would've put an "Order here" sign above the pizza-maker station in the Denver location.
What's in the pipeline? Opening Pizzeria Locale in Highland in the fall.
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What's next for the Denver dining scene? Lighter fare instead of meat, meat and more meat.