This is part one of my chef interview with Josh Barhaug, who mans the line -- and pizza oven -- at Fired Up. Part two of our chat will run tomorrow.
The first recipe that Josh Barhaug ever attempted came out of a Bisquick box. He was ten or eleven and hungry for a hot dog. "My mom worked full-time, so I did a lot of my own cooking, and for some reason, I wanted a hot dog, but we didn't have any buns," he remembers, "so I grabbed the Bisquick box, and there on the back was a recipe for a hot-dog-bun-biscuit-like thing." He says he followed the recipe precisely and the results weren't bad -- at least not for a first-time effort.
Pancakes soon became another constant in his cooking repertoire, and since he lived in Wyoming, where hunting is a prized pastime, he practiced -- and perfected -- his aim and went out into the wild, shooting deer, elk and antelope, then lugging the meat home. "We did everything ourselves, from the hunting to the butchering to cutting our own steaks, and while I only hunt birds now, it taught me a lot about living off the land and cooking without a lot of extra money in your pocket," says Barhaug, now the chef/owner of Fired Up, a new artisan, wood-fired pizza emporium in the Golden Triangle.
But his first job wasn't quite so lofty. "I was fourteen and got a job as a line cook at a Perkins Family Restaurant in Sheridan, Wyoming," he recalls, noting that the pickings were slim for a teenager searching for employment. But the gig turned out better than he'd expected. "First, there's no such thing as a bad experience, and second, working at Perkins taught me a ton about speed, volume and, most important, flat-top cooking," he quips.
And he liked cooking enough that he continued to seek out food-related stints, working at a pizza buffet restaurant and at a family-owned grocer, which happened to devote its parking lot to a pit master. "I worked in the produce department at the market, but the best part of the job was learning a ton about smoking meats," says Barhaug. "There was the guy -- Kenny -- who had a smokehouse in the parking lot, and every day that I worked, I'd hang out with him so he could teach me the ropes. It was the first time I'd eaten ribs, and I was freakin' blown away."
Those ribs fed an overall urge to continue cooking, and Barhaug considered enrolling in culinary school. But the tuition was out of reach -- at least at the time -- so he enlisted in the Army, where he was a chemical-operations specialist. While that had absolutely nothing to do with cooking, he was stationed in Korea, and during his time there, he got the opportunity to sample the local cuisine...including dog. "While I was there, I fell in love with Korean food and Korean barbecue -- I could smell kimchi everywhere -- and then, there I was, this dude from Wyoming, suddenly sitting at table at a restaurant with a Korean-style dish with herbs and spices and chopped-up dog in front of me," he recalls with a slight grimace. "It was an interesting experience at a place that specifically raised dogs for human consumption, but the whole time, I was trying not to picture the dog, and now that I have one of my own, I definitely don't think I could eat it again," he admits, adding that it was "tough and chewy."
Still have an appetite? Barhaug did, because after departing Korea and fighting in the war in Iraq, he'd finally done his time, and he used the money he'd earned to move to Denver and attend culinary school at the Art Institute of Colorado. When he graduated, he landed a job at Elway's in the Ritz-Carlton, but when the hotel's opening was delayed, he was sent up to the Beaver Creek Ritz, where he cooked alongside Wolfgang Puck at Spago. "That was my first real experience with food," he says. "We were making pastas from scratch and wood-fired pizzas, and the ingredients were impeccable."
When Elway's opened downtown, he did a stint as a line cook before departing to attend Metro, where he earned a degree in hospitality management. He graduated, took a job on the line at the now-defunct Ototo, then left to travel. By then, he'd met his future wife, Jessica, a certified sommelier (and his partner at Fired Up), and the two of them headed off to Europe for three months. "We had decided to open our own restaurant by then, and we went to Europe to eat, drink and do research," he says. He also staged in Italy.
When they returned to Denver, they started looking at spaces where they could open a restaurant, and their jaunt to Europe -- especially Italy -- inspired them to create an Italian restaurant featuring wood-fired pizzas, along with other global dishes, including a few made with kimchi, to which Barhaug confesses an addiction. "I love the stuff," he says. But the crux of Fired Up, he stresses, "is simplistic creativity and reasonable prices for our guests."
In the following interview, Barhaug explains why foie gras has had its day in the culinary universe, hints at the possibility of a free dinner at the Squeaky Bean, and recounts the tale of a geologist who clearly doesn't know his ass from glass.
Six words to describe your food: Simple, creative, clean, inspired, scratch-made and wood-fired.
Ten words to describe you: Hardworking, passionate, creative, funny, persistent, humble, loving, ballsy, inspired and a merrymaker.
What are your ingredient obsessions? Right now, it's kimchi. We make a beautiful kimchi at Fired Up, but trying to figure out how it works on a pizza has been a little tricky.
What are your kitchen tool obsessions? My Shun chef's knife. It's lightweight, it's shiny, it's sharp -- all the things that it should be.
Most underrated ingredient: Napa cabbage -- it's really versatile. It can be served hot or cold, by itself, pickled or stuffed. It's a workhorse.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: Zucchini. I usually pick some up at the South Pearl Street Farmers' Market, although Growers Organic is a great place to source it from when I can't get it at the farmers' market. We grill and stuff it with a housemade goat-cheese mixture and serve it with a roasted red pepper sauce.
Favorite spice: Korean red pepper flakes, because the texture is different from any other red crushed pepper. It's light and flaky without being overly granulated, and it has a unique flavor to it -- kind of like an Asian cayenne pepper.
One food you detest: A common answer, I know, but truffle oil is awful. It's been so overused and overrated for so long, and I'm super-tired of hearing about it. I would much rather finish a dish with olive oil or sesame oil -- anything but truffle oil.
One food you can't live without: Surf and turf. I'm a simpleton at heart, so give me crab legs, a dry-aged ribeye and Bulleit rye. It's a simple meal that always satisfies and never lets you down.
Food trend you wish would disappear: Seeing foie gras on every menu done the same exact way, or every different way, or the same but different way -- you know what I mean. I don't want foie gras itself to disappear, but it's just so played out. I love it and think it's amazing, and I'm by no means calling for a ban, like some cities have done, but, damn, it's just time for a break. It's become like when Bubba is explaining to Forrest Gump about all the different ways to prepare shrimp. That's the path we've seen with foie gras -- doing it every which way. Put it back in your pants, and bring it back out to play in a couple of years.
Rules of conduct in your kitchen: Do your job, work hard, play hard, and come to work and do it all over again. Oh, and consistency is key.
What's never in your kitchen? Microwaves. That's not to say I don't like them. I think they're amazing for certain things, and I couldn't live without one at my house. It's just not for my restaurant. Lazy-ass cooks and cooks demanding $15 an hour that aren't worth their weight in pennies -- they're not in my kitchen either.
What's always in your kitchen? A big, expensive wood-burning pizza oven, butt cracks and talented, passionate, broke cooks with a sense of humor.
Favorite restaurant in America: Ready for a corny answer? While I've eaten at a ton of great restaurants across America, I keep coming back to home and the Wagon Box Inn. It is one of my favorite restaurants of all time. And guess what? It's a steakhouse. But it just reminds me so much of home, I don't worry about a thing when I'm there.
Favorite cheap eat in Denver/Boulder: I don't like the word "cheap," but one of my favorite inexpensive places to eat is Pinche Tacos -- that place is phenomenal. The tacos are amazing, and since everything is a la carte -- and you order tacos like you order sushi -- if you order three and decide you want four more, that's totally cool. I like the whole mix-and-match philosophy.
If you only had 24 hours in Denver/Boulder, where would you eat? The Squeaky Bean. I've never had a bad meal there -- ever. The amount of work and care that goes into that food is beyond amazing, and they're so consistent in everything they do -- and that's what it takes to make a great restaurant. And did I mention how fantastic and clever the food is? Holy shit...I hope I get a free meal for that.
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Last meal before you die: I want a big hearty man's meal. In fact, I want I want it to be the thing that kills me before I die. It's got to be meat and other stuff that's full of butter -- all the things that will kill you.