Jeff Grimm just landed the job as executive chef at Punch Bowl Social -- restaurateur Robert Thompson's dining and entertainment warehouse on Broadway -- a month ago, but he's already thrilled about what he calls a "community stable" environment, where teamwork and pitching in are part of the kitchen's culture. He learned the mentality at his first job as a teenager, working in a family-owned Italian eatery 45 minutes outside of New York City in Connecticut, where the owners treated employees like customers and the head chef could be found chipping in at the dish sink, on the prep line or wherever else help was needed. Grimm and his family moved around the country a lot when he was a kid, but he managed to stick around that Connecticut spot long enough -- eventually working his way up to the line -- to soak up the work ethic and passion for cooking that would shape the rest of his career.
He continued cooking to make money while in college at Western Connecticut State University, where he earned a bachelor's degree in art and art history. And he continued supplementing his love of food with trips into New York City, frequenting Little Italy and other places he could afford. But he knew all along that his career was in the kitchen; even his college education added to his appreciation of the artistry of food and cooking rather than steering him in another direction. "I couldn't imagine doing anything else," he recalls. "You get bit by the bug -- it's a love of everyone you meet: cooks, customers, managers."
Hunting was another influence in his love of good food. "I grew up doing that with my dad," he says; elk and duck were the main targets. "It's one of the things that drew me to the culinary world. Breaking elk down on your own -- it gave me a healthy respect for food." After processing the animals themselves, he and his dad would make sausage and come up with creative uses for the prime cuts.
After college, Grimm moved around more and was working in Seattle when his family moved to Durango. "I wanted to be closer to them," he explains, "so I moved to Colorado." He found a job in Pagosa Springs at the Alley House, an upscale destination restaurant, where he again found an environment that appealed to his sense of community. But eventually, Grimm wanted a little more than small Pagosa Springs could offer, so he moved to Denver, starting out as a hotel chef at the Marriott before finding work in the restaurant scene. Most recently he was at P17, starting just before owner Mary Nguyen switched the concept from Asian-inspired to neighborhood bistro.
Grimm describes his cooking style as eclectic, even though he had extensive experience with classic French and Italian cuisine. He's interested in incorporating international and regional flavors and styles into modern menus, which is one of the reasons Punch Bowl appealed to him. He uses the menu's Big Windy Dog as a good example; it's a simple and humble hot dog elevated -- with a quality bun from the Grateful Bread bakery and house-pickled vegetables -- and made a little lighter and fresher with an apple-cabbage slaw and mustard cream sauce. He's also a fan of Southwestern flavor: "It's something different from my roots back East."
Punch Bowl culinary director Sergio Romero recently completed a menu update, so Grimm's focus for now is on maintaining quality and consistency. "I do that by working day to day with the cooks," he states. "I consider myself a working chef. It's about being part of the team -- getting yourself in the mix and seeing what works and what doesn't." He estimates that about fifteen percent of his time as an executive chef is spent on administrative duties, and the rest is spent working with Romero, coaching his crew -- and actually cooking. "The hierarchy is important," he explains, "but so is taking on whatever needs to be done."
Being a chef is about more than just cooking, but Grimm sums up what could be good advice for just about any line of work: "It's loving what you do and every aspect of it." Those aspects include the people who have taught him, like the Amatuzzis, the family who owned the little Italian place where he got his start, the community of fellow chefs and the respect they show each other, the people who spend their money in restaurants. And, of course, the food.
"I like getting my hands dirty and working for people," he adds. "I'm so passionate about it, I can barely put it in words." To help him with that task, we gave Grimm a few questions to answer.
Keep reading to find out the connection between Jeff Grimm and Keith Richards
Westword: What's your favorite childhood food memory? Jeff Grimm: Visiting my grandparents in York, Pennsylvania. My grandmother's small row-house kitchen always resonated with a wonderful savory aroma that emanated from stock pots and sauces, which in memory seemed to be in an endless perpetual daily production -- her kitchen was a comfortable place to be. The most wonderfully soulful foods from the neighborhood and surrounding Pennsylvania Dutch areas were always on hand: sweet bologna and scrapple from the butcher down the block, softshell crab sandwiches from the Philly Cafe always seemed available, and everything was consumed with reverence.
Did you have a moment in your life that made you realize you wanted to be a chef? I don't know if there was one particular moment, more like a realization over time that this was what I was passionate about, and this was what I was good at. I always loved food and being in professional kitchens from my very first experience. My first job was washing dishes for Roma in Ridgefield, Connecticut. It was great -- I was able to watch all levels of production from that station. I was interested in everything that was going on: the prep, the production, the line, the orchestration and teamwork needed for a smooth service. I was fascinated, and I asked a lot of questions.
What's the strangest thing that's happened to you in the kitchen? Strangest thing would have to be running food out to a table, for the owner of the little French bistro I worked at, to find him sitting with Keith Richards. In the moment, my thoughts were "I know this guy," and after heading back to the kitchen, it all came together. That was actually Keith Richards, of the Rolling Stones, my father's favorite band growing up as a kid. It was a unique experience to take care of someone legendary in the privately owned, small-town bistro. Keith was a regular fixture in that place, and after many years of interaction, I had a new appreciation for the idea that regardless of fame, they are still people, and this one was one of the good guys.
Do you cook much at home, and do you have a favorite dish to cook when you're off duty? People always smile when they ask if I like to cook at home -- I do. It's that old saying "Do what you love and you'll never work a day in your life." Favorite dish to cook? It changes seasonally; fall and winter are heavy, heartier dishes: veal osso bucco with morel risotto, white truffle demi-glace and classic gremolata is a favorite, or a deep and rich French onion soup -- can't go wrong with that one either.
Is there anything in your fridge (at home) that people would be surprised to find? I don't know how surprising it is, but my freezer is always packed with a lot of game meat: elk, duck, pheasant, venison, antelope. I grew up hunting with my father, grandfather and brother -- trips to Maryland and Nebraska to hunt geese, duck, and pheasant, elk hunting in Colorado. It's part of my appreciation for food. Being involved in the natural process from harvest to plate is a great experience.
Is there a dish you would love to put on the menu even if you knew it wouldn't sell? Tex Migas is one of my favorite dishes: tortilla strips tossed with a marinated and rubbed beef tenderloin, mole sauce, cotija cheese and fried sunny egg on top. It's a coveted weekend favorite.
What are your favorite ingredients to work with in the Punch Bowl kitchen? That's one of the great things about the Punch Bowl kitchen -- our menu covers a broad culinary spectrum, so there's always something to create and work with. Fresh ahi tuna loin is a favorite: There's nothing better than a perfectly seared rare tuna loin with all the flavor and color shining through. Ours is done with a sesame-crusted tuna seared and sliced thin, served with mixed greens, zucchini, squash, tomatoes, roasted garlic, capers, Niçoise olives tossed with a little bit of extra-virgin olive oil, fresh-squeezed lemon, finished with Maldon sea salt and served on grilled ciabatta bread. It's fresh and vibrant. For me, it's not just favorite ingredients, it's how the ingredients work together to create a dynamic, fresh and balanced flavor. I still get excited breaking down great proteins.
What do you do for fun when you aren't working? I'm an avid outdoors personality when I have the time. Hunting and snowboarding are two of my favorite pastimes. Fresh snow and the outdoors are a nice balance to the kitchen life.
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Is there one tip you can give to home cooks? Always brine your chicken before cooking. Brines are a great tool -- they are easy to make and can be infused with whatever blows your hair back. It will keep your chicken moist and tender through the cooking process and eliminate the ever-dreaded dry chicken dish. One of my Sunday favorites is a watermelon brined chicken with a blood orange, fennel and citrus salad. Have some fun with it and infuse until your hearts' content.