Eric Chiappetta's first job in the kitchen had nothing whatsoever to do with a palpitating passion to actually cook. "I was sixteen, horny and I wanted to make enough money to take girls to the movies," confesses Chiappetta, the executive chef of Pizza Republica, a contemporary Italian restaurant in the Landmark project that specializes in pizza.
He saw quite a few movies (among other things) when he was sixteen, and he also began to take a liking to life in the kitchen. "I was throwing pies at this Italian restaurant in Littleton, and it didn't seem like a real job, because I didn't have to sit in an office all day long -- and I was still getting paid," recalls Chiappetta. Cooking was like playing sports, something he'd always been heavily involved in: "I'd been playing sports my whole life, and cooking was sort of the equivalent to that, because it's all about teamwork -- and at the end of the night, it's like, cool, we did it."
He was cooking at the long-gone Pasta's when, after four years of playing with dough, the chef told him to get out. But not because Chiappetta got his ass fired. "The chef said that I was really good at cooking and that I should go get a job where I could really learn the ropes," he remembers. Chiappetta took his advice, bumping around a few other kitchens before he ended up where most cooks -- those who sling dough, at least -- don't: at the Palace Arms, where "I was doing this, that and everything else," he says.
His girlfriend lived a block away from a new place that chef/restaurateur Sean Kelly was opening, Aubergine Cafe, and that news compelled Chiappetta to bang on Kelly's door. Incessantly. "Every day for what must have been a month, I went and rapped on the door," he remembers. And his determination paid off. "Kelly finally called and asked me to come down, and when I got there, he gave me a case of onions, potatoes and a whole bag of carrots to brunoise," says Chiappetta, who spent the next several days nursing his calluses. "I couldn't feel my hands for three days."
Kelly hired him as a grill cook at Aubergine, where he stayed for a year while attending culinary school at the Colorado Institute of Art, until Kelly encouraged him to push himself further. "This job was a huge part of my cooking life, and Sean's cooking was so clean and honest and in tune with the seasons, but he told me that he'd taught me all he could and suggested that I go work for Kevin Taylor, who was just opening Brasserie Z downtown," remembers Chiappetta, who adds that he kept every single one of Kelly's menus from his tenure at Aubergine. He did time on the line at Brasserie Z, where he worked alongside Sean Yontz, until Taylor, who was opening Palettes at the Denver Art Museum, asked if he wanted to run the kitchen there. "I wasn't ready to be an executive chef, so I went over as a sous chef," he says. And then Chiappetta walked out: "Kevin asked me to take a pay cut, and that was it -- I left."
From there, he went on to open 3rd Avenue Eclectic Burgers and Cuisine in Cherry Creek, and then Larimer Square Hot House, which didn't quite go the way he'd hoped. "The location wasn't great, and we ran out of cash -- fast -- so we had to close it after six months," he says.
After that, Chiappetta, a self-described cheese nerd, took a specialty-foods sales position at the Cheese Importers in Longmont, where Pizza Republica was one of his largest clients. "George Eder, the owner of Pizza Republica, was looking for a chef, and I recommended several, but then he was like, 'Dude, you can cook, why don't you be my chef?' and now here I am," says Chiappetta. "They wanted culinary credibility, and while at first glance a lot of people think this is just a pizza joint, it's not. Once you get in here, you realize that we're a lot more than that -- that we have a sick Italian wine list, specials every night, and authentic Italian food."
In the following interview, Chiappetta offers more insight about what it was like to work with Sean Kelly, his chance meeting with Julia Child, why he believes the cook at Griff's Hamburgers is a culinary god, and how he wishes the city would get a clue.
Six words to describe your food: Clean, smart, authentic, driven, real and scrumptrulescent.
Ten words to describe you: Focused, imaginative, grounded, empathetic, outgoing, loud, intelligent, witty, cookarific and super-awesome.
Culinary inspirations: Sean Kelly, the chef of LoHi SteakBar and Ernie's. He totally kicked my ass every day while I worked for him at Aubergine Cafe, and while he was the hardest guy I've ever worked for, he taught me what a working chef-restaurant owner actually looked like -- and he worked just as hard as the rest of us did. We changed the menu daily when I was at Aubergine, and Sean never compromised on anything; he taught me more about food than anyone, and when I opened my first place, I thought about what Sean would do at every step of the way. And then there's the inspiration that comes from Julia Child. She was the first celebrity chef I ever met. I have a picture of her and me standing outside of Aubergine -- she was on her way to the Aspen Food & Wine Classic and stopped in for lunch with five people, and they drank six bottles of champagne before they even ordered their lunch. It was completely fucking electric. She's got a giant head, and in the photograph, it looks like I'm standing next to a Julia Child cardboard cutout. It doesn't hurt that I probably weighed 140 pounds at the time. She arguably did more for American cuisine than anyone, and meeting her was like meeting a historical figure that you've only read about.
Favorite ingredient: Fresh chiles, because they make everything better. They're hot, fresh, sweet and smoky, and while they can be manipulated and work every angle, they can also bite back. I have a barbecue-sauce company, and my "spicy" sauce is called Hella-Peño. It's made with dried jalapeños and roasted poblano peppers, and those two chiles, paired with sweet, smoky and sticky, is heaven. I'm a sucker for hot and spicy food -- but only if the heat isn't completely overwhelming.
Best recent food find: The Odd Duck in Austin, Texas. It's a food truck with a farm-to-table theme that sells amazing entrees like duck eggs, roasted quail and pork belly sliders.
Most overrated ingredient: Spice levels. There's no reason to win the "spiciest chili" contest when you can't taste the ingredients. Focus on the flavors, not how much it's going to hurt. If you do otherwise, you're completely defeating the purpose. Concentrate on impressing people with your ability to marry ingredients and create something with different layers of flavor -- not shocking their tastebuds into hellish submission.
Most underrated ingredient: Spanish sherry wine vinegar. It's my secret go-to ingredient. The levels of dark, sweet and bitter do so much for me, and the amazing perfume qualities it possesses when warmed create such a complex, complete palate. It touches everything that needs to be touched.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: I'm a cheese nerd, so I still have an affinity for Haystack Mountain goat cheese and, most recently, Alex Seidel's sheep's-milk ricotta -- when I can get my hands on it. I get both of them from the Cheese Importers in Longmont. We also make our own fresh mozzarella cheese every day for our pizzas, and it's the best I've ever had. It's so good that we made 40,000 pounds of it last year.
Favorite spice: Red-chile flakes. I add them to almost everything. My holy trinity is garlic, olive oil and red-chile flakes. They're more of a slow burn rather than a quick shot; I love me some crushed red pepper.
One food you detest: Green peppers are crap. They taste like tin.
One food you can't live without: Ice cream. It's the most luxurious thing ever. When I was a kid, I used to sit in front of the TV and watch baseball games and eat ice cream. I used to stir it until it had the consistency of cake batter, then run the spoon along the edge of the bowl and eat just a little bit at a time. It's funny that I don't have a sweet tooth, considering my favorite food is ice cream.
Biggest kitchen disaster: During my first exec-chef job, at the Normandy, we did close to 900 people for Easter. We spent the whole time prepping; we were so unprepared for any of it. We were 45 minutes late on practically everything, and people were incredibly unhappy. I've never cooked for that many people before, and it was pure hell -- so bad, in fact, that I nearly got out of the business.
What's never in your kitchen? Molecular gastronomy anything. I don't get it -- and I don't care about it. It's too scientific and goes against nature. I'm not interested in creating Cirque du Soleil on the plate. I'm interested in braising, grilling and roasting. I'm a cook. No slam on those who do it, but it's just not my thing.
What's always in your kitchen? Music, a lot of laughter and lots of grab-ass cooks acting like crazy pirates.
Rules of conduct in your kitchen: Show up, be in it 100 percent and give a damn -- or get out of the business. I care way too much about what I do to deal with your half-assed bullshit. Go mow lawns or work at a bank. My theory is this: What we do for a living is feed people. It's the second most intimate thing you can do to another human being -- we all know what the first is -- and people pay us for it.
Favorite music to cook by: Duran Duran and Slayer.
What you'd like to see more of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: More risk-takers. The whole molecular yada, yada, yada thing isn't for me, but whatever we can do to gain some more culinary credibility in Denver, the better.
What you'd like to see less of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: A loosening of the red tape and all the other crap that the city enforces on small restaurants. Ease the fuck up! We're trying to add more tax revenue to your busted government. I could open a medical marijuana store in a day if I wanted to -- really?
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Current Denver culinary genius: The guy who decided to put shaved ice in the soda pop at Griff's Hamburgers. It's so perfect.
What's next for you? World domination. I need me one of them thar food shows -- I'd kill it.