This is part one of my interview with Jose Guerrero, exec chef of ViewHouse Eatery, Bar & Rooftop; part two of our chat will run on Cafe Society tomorrow.
In hindsight, things could have gone very differently for Jose Guerrero. "I grew up in Chicago, in Little Village, the city's epicenter for drug lords," recalls Guerrero, today the executive chef at ViewHouse. Going outside to play wasn't an option, he says: "My mom told me I had to stay inside or find a job -- that I needed to do something where I'd keep my head down and stay focused, and she wanted to know where I was at all times."
Being sequestered indoors isn't an ideal life for a teenager, so Guerrero chose the alternative: a job. He was hired as a prep cook at a Mexican restaurant, a gig that mirrored his time in the kitchen at home. "There were six kids in our family, and despite the fact that my mom raised us as a single mother, she always -- always -- made time to cook," he recalls. "There was always something on the stove, and we all had our different responsibilities, whether it was roasting the guajillo chiles, making the rice or cleaning the beans, setting the table or helping with the roasting or braising." Cooking, he adds, kept him away from the unsavory diversions on the street. "We all cooked together as a family, and there was a great sense of responsibility not to fail and to stay close."
He stayed at the Mexican restaurant until his mom decided it was time to move her children out of an urban area inundated with drugs to the pastoral setting of Greeley, where she had extended family. "My mom figured that Greeley was akin to the country and we couldn't get into trouble there," he says. Unfortunately, Greeley wasn't -- and still isn't -- the kind of place that boasts a formidable restaurant climate. But it does have a meat-processing plant, JBS Swift, and Guerrero's uncle was a foreman back when it was Monfort of Colorado. "He started me on the kill floor, zapping the cattle, and then from there, I learned all about the grading process, and by the time I was done, I could totally break a cow down from its head to its rear shank," says Guerrero, adding that the experience gave him a "sincere appreciation for everything I eat."
After several years in Greeley, Guerrero relocated to Las Cruces, New Mexico, which happened to boast a little American/French bistro accented by Southwestern twists that was owned by a protégée of Rick Bayless, whose name is synonymous with high-end Mexican cuisine. "That's where I really learned the craft of making stocks and bases, vinaigrettes, pâtés and terrines, and understanding the nuances of plate composition," says Guerrero. "I worked at a great restaurant, but there's not a whole lot going on in Las Cruces."
He eventually moved to Denver, where he snapped up a line-cook job at the long-gone Coos Bay Bistro; a week later, he was promoted to lead line cook. And not long after that, he was recruited by the sous chef at the also-long-gone Roy's in Cherry Creek. "The sous chef at Roy's came in one night, loved my cooking and asked the server to send out the guy who cooked his dinner," remembers Guerrero. "And when I walked out, he was all, 'No way. How old are you? Ten?'" He was actually nineteen, and well on his way to becoming a bona fide chef.
Roy's hired Guerrero, and he started out in the pantry, quickly moving to the vegetable station; within a year, he'd become a kitchen manager and then a saucier, after immersing himself in a three-month saucier training session at Roy's in San Francisco. Back in Denver, he was promoted to sous chef, a position he held until Roy's shuttered in 2005. From there, Guerrero would spend time behind the burners at Panzano, the defunct Mao, Pizzeria Republica and as a corporate chef for a swanky restaurant group with a slew of five-star, five-diamond restaurants in Puerto Vallarta.
Guerrero says he'd still be cooking in Puerto Vallarta if a family of twenty hadn't been gunned down three blocks from where he lived. He sent his son and wife back to Denver and joined them six months later, signing on as a consultant at Sushi Den and Izakaya Den.
In 2011, local entrepreneur and Lotus Concepts founder Francois Safieddine approached Guerrero about a new nightclub and lounge that he was opening downtown called Chloe; Guerrero signed on, realizing that he'd have endless opportunities to grow with the company. And earlier this year, as Safieddine was planning ViewHouse, which opened last month, he enlisted Guerrero to headline the kitchen. "We know this location has the opportunity to serve great food, and we're building a brand that everyone can relate to, whether it's hanging out at happy hour, watching a baseball game with your son or having late-night bites after a party night. We want to offer exceptional food and service and build a brand on that," says Guerrero, who in the following interview explains why he'll never serve foie gras, provides his own answer to why the chicken crossed the road, and proffers a laundry list of pet peeves that has everything to do with plates.
How do you describe your food? Local when available, organic when possible and always a fresh eating experience. To sum it up, I would say that it's simple bar fare that evokes childhood memories.
Ten words to describe you: Father, teacher, patient, honest, loyal, considerate, driven, passionate, disciplined, and a student.
What are your ingredient obsessions? I really geek out when it comes to spice combinations, like harissa, garam masala, chimichurri and gremolata. There's just something cool about a small dose of a spice blend with a kick. I always find myself experimenting with my own combinations, almost as if I were a research-and-development nerd who sells flavor bases to Lay's.
What are your kitchen-gadget obsessions? At one point, I was all about my anti-griddle and immersion circulator, and then one day it dawned on me that I could achieve great flavor in pots, pans and mixing bowls. I feel like everything has a time and place, but let's be honest: Simplicity is bliss in the kitchen. Why mask great ingredients?
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: It's got to be Haystack Mountain chèvre. I've loved it ever since the first time I tried it at Roy's in Cherry Creek. Stay delicious.
One ingredient that you won't touch: Ever since I can remember, I've stared at lobes of foie gras with lust, and I still reminisce about its succulent flavor. But then the record is pulled back abruptly and I can only play back that dreadful YouTube video that displays the true cruelty -- rodents eating the geese alive while they're in tiny cages. Don't get me wrong: I'm a glutton for punishment, which is why I'm a chef, but I just can't shake those images. They're some of the most horrific scenes I've ever seen in my life.
Food trend you'd like to see in 2013: The art of rotisserie.
Food trend you'd like to see disappear in 2013: There are several, so I'll rattle off a few: sriracha, because most people don't know how to spell it, and gluten haters -- though if you have a true allergy like a few of my closest friends do, please come down to ViewHouse and let me cook you a fine gluten-free meal that's delicious and memorable. But to those of you who are on a low-carb-intake diet, come on down and indulge in it anyway. You're truly missing out on one of the best vehicles to sop up sauce. And then there's the "swoosh." Let me get this right -- you dollop sauce on a plate and then you drag a spoon through it. Really? Just don't do it. I'd also like to see poorly executed molecular gastronomy disappear.
One food you detest: Lichen. Let the snails and bark lice eat it. Foraging is at its peak, but come on, man.
One food you can't live without: Tortillas have to be one of those foods that bring me the fondest memories. I could have a Forrest Gump moment and list an infinite number of great combinations, but I'll keep it simple and say tortillas, butter and pickled onion jam.
Favorite dish on your menu: There are too many to choose from. My right-hand guy, Vincente Sosa, and I try everything over and over until it's right, and then we try it secretly on the floor without the knowledge of the line cooks...so I guess we secret-shop ourselves to perfection.
Biggest menu bomb: Although it saddens me to say this, the "gobbler" -- a turkey dog that's topped with a cranberry jam and a green-bean-and-wild-mushroom casserole and Haystack onions. Its opportunity to grace the mouths of the public has been axed by the Product Mix report, which tells me the top sellers and the worst sellers, and the result is, it's gotta go.
Weirdest customer request: A burger without the burger.
Weirdest thing you've ever put in your mouth: Taro leaves. I've never felt such a weird sensation. Imagine licking a cactus, then taking its needles, putting them in a spice grinder and down the hatch. That was bullshit. I drank a gallon of milk and didn't die.
What's always lurking in your refrigerator? Whole milk and Gansito snack cakes.
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Last meal before you die: Roasted butternut-squash soup with thyme and toasted pumpkin seeds.