This is part one of my interview with Patrick Hartnett, exec chef of Kachina Southwestern Grill; part two of our chat will run tomorrow.
The restaurants at a Holiday Inn will never make anyone's short list of favorites, but aspiring chefs have to start somewhere, and at fourteen, Patrick Hartnett found himself on the line of a Holiday Inn in Pittsburgh, which, he says, certainly superseded the paper route he'd had since he was seven.
"I'll admit that the food wasn't very good," says Hartnett, "but food intrigued me, and I did my best to make sure that what we put out was as good as I could make it." In fact, Hartnett would trot down to the local market, where he'd spend his own money to pick up the same ingredients he was using in the restaurant kitchen. "I can remember going out to the grocery store to get turkey, bacon, bread and other essentials, and I'd take everything home and make sandwiches, just so I could practice and create better sandwiches at the restaurant. It was important to me to perfect that sandwich," recalls Hartnett, now the executive chef of Kachina, a new Southwestern restaurant in Westminster that's part of Sage Hospitality Group, which also runs Second Home Kitchen + Bar in at the JW Marriott in Cherry Creek and the Corner Office in the Curtis.
And when he wasn't putting in time at the Holiday Inn, Hartnett was attending a two-year vocational school, where he concentrated on the culinary arts, entering -- and winning -- competitions and learning the crafts of butchery and baking. At eighteen, he was the head chef of a small restaurant, the youngest cook in the kitchen. "I did a horrible job, and I hired all of my friends, which is always a really bad idea," he admits, then adds, "I was looking for direction in my life, and cooking had always been a passion, so I needed to see if this was something that I could stick with."
And it was. For the next several years, Hartnett cooked in Dallas, and it was there that he developed an intense fascination for Southwestern food. "I'd already fallen in love with spicy food, but cooking in Dallas introduced me to Mexican, Tex-Mex and Southwestern cuisines," he recalls, "and when I eventually left Dallas, I had a much deeper appreciation for the kind of food I wanted to cook, not to mention a deeper respect for fresh ingredients."
After six years in Dallas, followed by a few years at Copper Mountain Resort here in Colorado, he went to the city where chiles thrive: Santa Fe. "I definitely moved to Santa Fe for the food, plus, you know, Mark Miller was there, and I did a good job of assimilating into the Santa Fe culinary culture," says Hartnett. What's more, he had the opportunity to cook alongside Miller, whom many call the father of modern Southwestern cuisine. "After cooking in several great restaurants, including Bishop's Lodge and the Eldorado in Santa Fe, and then Doc Martin's in Taos, I finally got my wish to open a restaurant with Mark, which was amazing."
But the partnership was short-lived. "The stock market crashed, and so did the restaurant," remembers Hartnett, who returned to Colorado, where he ghost-wrote a cookbook and produced videos until he got a phone call from the then-VP of food and beverage for Sage. The two had a mutual friend: Miller, who recommended Hartnett for a new Southwestern concept that Sage was erecting at the Westin Westminster. "This is like my dream job," reveals Hartnett. "I've always been chasing that fictitious Southwestern restaurant, and this one took a lot of planning, but it's everything I've ever wanted."
And to the cynics who insist that Southwestern cuisine is passé, think again, Hartnett says: "I know there are some who say this food has had its heyday, but I'd argue that it's coming on strong. There's a pronounced resurgence of Native American cooking, ingredients and techniques like smoking and brining, plus just look at all the Native American cookbooks that have recently been published. This is a cuisine that's definitely coming back."
In the following interview, Hartnett professes his love for chiles, calls food critics and culinary schools on the carpet, and explains why it's rude to make special requests out of the norm.
How would you describe your food? I like to think of it as Southwestern comfort food with twists of Native American, Mexican and cowboy influences. I like the ingredients indigenous to the Southwest, and I like smoking, dehydrating, curing and making things using local sources. We're getting our goat's milk locally, and I'm using it to make cheese, cajeta and yogurt. That's what I love to do.
Ten words to describe you: Tenacious, ambitious, loving, passionate, hardworking, forgiving, jerk, bastard, asshole and a nice guy. I can be a lot of things, but deep down, I'm a nice guy; I just have a job to do.
What are your ingredient obsessions? Chiles. It's not just the heat that I love, but also their earthy aspect and their diversity. We use them all over the place in the restaurant.
What are your kitchen-tool obsessions? Try forgetting the key to your toolbox, and your knife will easily become your favorite tool. That said, I also love my smoker, my bandsaw and my ice cream machine.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: I love to use local foods, because it reinvests in the community and cuts down on the human footprint, and I especially love the corn from Olathe farms. We have a bona fide corn food cart at the restaurant, and right now we're selling forty to fifty ears a night, grilling it tableside and adding different toppings. It's pretty awesome.
One food you detest: Tripe. It's a thing that goes back to my youth, when I was working in an Italian restaurant early in my career. The kitchen was always cooking tripe, and the smell was very unpleasant...especially to a kid.
One food you can't live without: Chiles in any form. I love their spiciness, and they add flavor to so many everyday items like hot sauce, pickles and even cheese.
Food trend you wish would go away: There are some fascinating things going on in the culinary world today, especially since diners have become more adventurous, which gives chefs more opportunities to be inventive and creative. But it irks me that the innovative chefs in small establishments who start some really great trends are then copied by the chains two years later -- and then the public goes after it like it's the best thing ever. People should go to the places that are breaking ground now and experience the real thing in the small, independent restaurants rather than embracing the chains that adopt the same trends years later.
Favorite dish on your menu: I don't play favorites, and each day is different, but if I were held over hot coals, I'd have to say the green chile. There's actually a group of us that eat it every day.
Biggest menu bomb: After so many years of cooking, it's hard to say. Things change over time and so do palates, so what's not to say that today's bomb might be tomorrow's big hit? That said, most of my menu bombs were early on in my career, when I was trying too hard to be avant-garde. I made some things that I've blocked from memory.
What's never in your kitchen? The taste of white pepper really bothers me, so you'll never see it, and you'll never hear music, because it's too distracting, and when you have 25 cooks in the kitchen, no one can agree on one station.
What's always in your kitchen? Me and my sous chef -- we haven't had a lot of time off lately. There's also collaboration, which is very important for professional growth.
Rules of conduct in your kitchen: I want my staff to have fun but not too much fun, and you have to be professional at all times. I want my kitchen staff to eventually become chefs, and in order to do that, they need to have self-discipline, so I give them an environment in which they have that if they want it, but it doesn't always work. Self-discipline in a hot, hectic, stressed environment is very important, and it's something that requires an ongoing commitment.
Describe the biggest challenges facing today's chefs: Culinary schools that charge people tons of money just so they can get the proper training for their careers. It's not a good value. Culinary schools need to teach students a lot more than just how to make vinaigrette. Of course, the onus is also on the student to get as much as they can out of the culinary curriculum, but we need the next generation of cooks to not think like students.
What do you enjoy most about your craft? Definitely the creative process. It's just too bad that, as chefs, the creative process is sometimes put on the back burner. I read about food as often as I can, so the process comes much easier and quicker.
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Biggest compliment you're ever received: When guests become repeat customers and continue to visit us year after year. I've also heard "This is the best food I've ever had" several times, which always makes me feel great.