This is part two of Lori Midson's interview with Oak Tavern exec chef Jeremy Roosa. To read part one of that interview, click here.
Proudest moment as a chef: I'm always growing and learning, so I would like to think my proudest moment has yet to really happen. Looking back, it might be my first head-chef position, a special that sold out in record time, a new job at a great local restaurant or an amazing compliment a customer gave me. But now I'd have to say it was a simple request for a recipe that my grandmother asked me for years ago. Maybe that's a normal occurrence for a regular family, but not in my family. My Italian grandmother, who's over eighty, lost her husband and raised five daughters on her own. She's lived through breast cancer and a hurricane, is legally blind and doesn't take any crap from anyone, and I don't think I've ever seen her ask for help -- ever. So when she asked me for a recipe, it was a really big deal. Honestly, I've never ever been so flattered in all my life.
Best food city in America: New York and San Francisco. They have all the famous restaurants, and then there's that added benefit of having a friend who lives there who knows this hole-in-the-wall that's serving some dish you've never heard of. I recently took a vacation to San Francisco for seven days and went out for every lunch and dinner -- Chez Panisse, Gary Danko, the Slanted Door, Ame, and every hole-in-the-wall that my aunt said was amazing. It was the best vacation I ever had, period. Every city in America has a restaurant that will blow your mind, and if you get to know one of the locals, they'll always be up front and honest about recommendations.
Favorite music to cook by: Most kitchens don't allow music during service, especially if there's an open kitchen, because then you might be forced to listen to the tacky background music that the owner thinks provides great ambience. For me, music provides rhythm and flow -- the louder the better. Fortunately, my current kitchen is downstairs, and we rock it, although what's rocking really depends on my mood. I'm all over the place: Tool, Rage Against the Machine, Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Paul Oakenfold, Daft Punk, Weezer, Jane's Addiction, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Coldplay, Radiohead, the Flaming Lips. I also let my crew bring in their own iPods, but I do hold the veto power. The other night the GM comes down the stairs, and it's crazy loud in the middle of the rush, and we're rocking it, playing some techno, and he jokingly says, "Where's the rave at? I just took ten pills!" He's a funny guy, and for me, it's all about having a good time in the kitchen.
Rules of conduct in your kitchen: Be on time. If you're scheduled to be at work at three, don't show up at three and then get changed into your uniform. Be ready to work with your mise en place at five minutes before three: It's called respect for your job. Always have a pen and Sharpie and a pad of paper to take notes; always have passion for what you're doing; listen, rather than interpret; always have fun; and always make your food with love. If it's not made with love, the customer can tell.
Favorite restaurant in America: Frasca. They orchestrate dinner service like a perfect symphony. I've never had a bad dish there and couldn't find one thing wrong with any part of their service. It's an absolute privilege to dine there.
Most embarrassing moment in the kitchen: At my first fine-dining job, I knew nothing about technique because I never went to culinary school. My first shift was in the back kitchen, prepping and giving the line support, and I was asked to make one of the sauces. I read the recipe, which was just a list of ingredients with no method or instructions. So I threw everything in the pot and that was that. Two minutes later, the sous chef comes over and asks what the heck I'm doing, and when I tell him that I'm making the sauce, he tells me that I didn't sweat the veggies, that I didn't deglaze -- that I didn't do one thing right. I thought I was going to lose my job on the spot, but when I didn't, I realized that I had no idea what I was doing, so every day from there on out, I showed up three hours early and helped the chef/owner do whatever he needed before my shift -- asking as many questions as I could: Why this way? Why not this way? Within six months, he gave me a salary that was higher than most of the sous chefs in town, and at a certain point, when the chef wasn't there, I had the sous chefs asking me how the chef wanted dishes prepared and recipes finished. Sometimes it's good to realize you know nothing. Now I would like to say I know something.
Favorite dish to cook at home: I don't really cook at home. I cook for a living, so on my days off I like to go out and taste what everyone else in town is doing. I occasionally invite people over for a really great dinner party, but I would much rather dine at one of the fabulous establishments in our great city.
Favorite dish on your menu: Straight bourbon pulled-chicken sandwich. It's mesquite-smoked pulled chicken, smothered in our housemade bourbon barbecue sauce, topped with housemade coleslaw and some cut-to-order orange segments served on a locally made brioche bun with a side salad of torn (no knife damage) baby greens in our housemade honey-citrus-pesto vinaigrette. The chicken sandwich is a bit of legend around Oak Tavern.
Favorite cookbooks: There are way too many to list. I mean, I have a virtual library of cookbooks at my house. To limit myself to one favorite cookbook would be like putting myself in handcuffs. If I buy one more cookbook, I'll need to buy a new bookcase. In fact, I'll be honest: I think I need a new bookcase already.
What show would you pitch to the Food Network? I don't think any of the Food Network reality shows are actually based in or on reality, so how about doing a show that's really real: writing the business plan for a new restaurant, getting the financing, going through all the red tape and permits, hiring, training, opening day, all the day-to-day problems that most people have no idea about? One of our managers who works at another one of our venues says it's all smoke and mirrors -- that the average customer has no idea of the problems that happen inside a restaurant on a daily basis. When I was in college, I had two friends from Israel, and apparently to keep their citizenship, they had to serve in the armed forces. I think every American should have to work in a restaurant, no matter who you are or where you came from. I don't know one person who doesn't go out to eat, and yet they take it totally for granted. How can I tell? Look at the tips people leave. Sometimes it's just flat-out rude. Don't get me wrong: If you get bad service, by all means leave a shitty tip, but most shitty tips are left by cheap people who have no idea about the sweat and tears that go into the daily operation of their favorite establishment. That's the reality, and there should be a show about that.
Weirdest customer request: Can you make something off the menu? Of course I can, until you ask me to make something that we don't have ingredients for. That's just rude. The guy wanted an artisan cheese plate, and I don't have any artisan cheeses, and I can't make blood from a stone.
Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: It's a toss-up between pig's head torchon or monkfish liver. I'm waiting for the local guys to break out and be a bit more daring, because I'll try anything once.
Best culinary tip for a home cook: Stop using all that pre-made crap: Pick up a cookbook and make it all from scratch. Trust me, it's way better in the end. We live in this fast-food culture that's so ridiculous. If you have a microwave, throw it away. It kills all the good energy of your food.
If you could cook for one person, dead or alive, who would it be? My grandfather on my mother's side of the family. He died before my parents even met, but from all the stories I've heard, I think I'm a lot like he was. He apparently just had a zest for life that most people don't have.
Favorite Denver restaurant(s) other than your own: Sushi Sasa. Everyone thinks that Sushi Den has the best sushi in town. No way! Chef Wayne Conwell's place is so simply designed that the food is always the main focus. I've never had fresher seafood anywhere, except for right on the coast. It blows my mind every time I go. Chef Jen from Rioja is also fabulous. She taught me that there is one last secret ingredient to every dish: love! I love TAG, too, and out of all the great chefs in town, I'd have to say that my style of cooking is most like Troy Guard, who's the chef there. There are so many great Asian ingredients that get overlooked, and he has a fantastic way of mixing them with traditional techniques. He also put a lot of thought into designing the space, which I love. Bones is simple and fun, and it seems like a tremendous amount of care goes into every dish that they make. I just sit at the counter with my buddies and order away. And over at Fruition, chef Alex [Seidel] is doing it the right way with his farm-to-table menu.
Favorite celebrity chef: Chef Morimoto. I love Asian ingredients, and his style is so unique. He melds Eastern and Western cuisines better than anyone I've ever seen, and he's very humble and lets the food speak for itself. I got his book the moment it came out.
Celebrity chef who should shut up: Gordon Ramsay. Come on, get over yourself. I looked up his restaurants in England once -- he has quite a few -- and every menu is almost exactly the same, with white truffle oil this or black truffle that. You can put white truffle oil on dog shit and make it taste good. I like to be wowed, and his menus were a complete letdown. Emeril-bam!-Lagasse. Really? I once had a sous chef who also said "Bam!" in the kitchen, and I think the whole staff made fun of him for over a month. Emeril is a total sellout. Are you telling me he uses all the products that have his name on it? Because I'd really like to see what pots and pans he uses in his own kitchen. Anthony Bourdain ruined our whole profession. In one of his books, which I will not promote, he talks about a bride at her own reception having sex with the chef out back by a dumpster. First, what kind of bride goes missing at her own wedding? Second, the dumpster? I've been out by the dumpster, and the smell isn't really a turn-on. There's just no way it happened. He just glamorized every aspect of cooking, so that now, every Tom, Dick and Jane wants to be a chef. You need so much passion and devotion to work in this field, and because of people like Bourdain, we have 21-year-old kids thinking they can be head chefs, getting out of culinary school, when they never should have even received a degree in the first place.
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