I've kept company at the bar with Jamey Fader more times than I can count, laughing as he tells me stories about the hippies camped out in their caravans just outside Lola during the DNC, simultaneously shaking and nodding my head while he divulges his latest — and usually crazy — chef shenanigans and listening intently as he explains his stance on celebrity chefs, namely that he couldn't care less. Fader once auditioned for Top Chef, the Bravo TV reality show that produced a Boulder victor — Hosea Rosenberg — last season, but instead of being forced to make food for a hundred from a Twix bar and a Twinkie, Fader went back to his kitchen, free of regrets. "They asked me something about what celebrity chef I looked up to, and I told them, I don't." And that, says Fader, was that.
And that's how Fader rolls. He grew up in the Washington, D.C., area, walked away with a bachelor's degree in journalism from West Virginia University, moved to Colorado in 1996 and got a gig as a prep cook at Jax Fish House in Denver, one of five restaurants from Dave Query, who operates the West End Tavern, Centro and Jax in Boulder and Jax and Lola in Denver. In 2002, Fader partnered with Query to create Lola, which is where Fader had been cooking until last fall, when he assumed a much larger role as the corporate chef for Big Red F, Query's restaurant group (and, yes, Rosenberg's employer, too).
It's been a great ride for Fader, but his success hasn't come without frustrations and hard lessons. He addresses all of that in the interview below — the same interview in which he also admits that moose meat is the most disgusting thing he's ever put in his mouth.
Six words to describe your food: Simple, while ingredient- and craft-driven.
Best food city in America: Denver. No, I'm not bullshitting you. There's no other city where you can find the talent, entrepreneurship, humility, creativity and tight community within the restaurant industry, while simultaneously being supported by food-savvy guests and enthusiasts dying to make it all work.
Most embarrassing moment in the kitchen: I once cooked the mascot of a fish house where I worked. I was asked to get the biggest lobster from a live tank for a VIP, but I didn't know that the lobster I chose, and subsequently poached, was part of the, uh, "family." Yeah...it was the last decision I ever made there.
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What you'd like to see less of in Denver from a culinary standpoint: Molecular gastronomy. Very few chefs can do it well, and more often than not, it's done poorly. I love to experiment, and this side of cooking is yet another weapon in the arsenal, but when you play with guns, bad things can happen. And in this case, the result is often really bad food. I don't know, maybe I'm too old-school, but craft and technique always work better for me than flash and gimmicks.
Denver has the worst: Late-night dining scene. Having a few late-night gastro-roach coaches would be great. I'd love to see trucks serving up yummy stuff to pad the stomach for more reverie, or to send me off to a blissful full-belly slumber. If it were my gig, I'd serve things like pho, ramen, tacos, tostadas and meat on a stick.
Favorite celebrity chef: I don't have one on a national level. Honestly, I couldn't care less about celebrity chefs. It's not that I'm hating on anyone, but I believe in, and look up to, those chefs within my community, especially Matt Selby at Vesta. He's humble, talented, creative, always pushing the envelope and constantly looking to help out the industry as a whole. To me, that defines a real celebrity chef. I'm not sure that you want to tell people this, but I also really like the chef on The Muppets.
Hardest lesson you've learned: Perception is everything. You can have all the good intentions in the world, but they mean nothing when they're pitted against people's own perceptions of what they think you're trying to accomplish. Over the lifespan of a restaurant, things change...a lot, and those changes are embraced by some and loathed by others. As an operator, I'm trying to keep things fresh and create a draw that builds upon my existing clientele and concept, but what I've learned is that, in the end, how we're perceived is determined not by our intentions, but by what the momentum of the buzz is — and sometimes that's a bitter pill to swallow. You know, some people may think we're too expensive, or the food is too challenging, or we cater to this type or that type, when the truth is that we're just folks trying to make this restaurant thing work, and we're doing it with all the heart and soul we can muster. There are times that all I want to do is scream at the top of my voice, "We love what we do. Please give us a chance to show you that." I don't think that's too much to ask for.