This is part one of Lori Midson's interview with Robert Bogart, executive chef of Elway's Downtown. Part two of that interview will run in this space tomorrow.
Robert Bogart, a former Marine who became the executive chef of Elway's Downtown in late 2008 after being hired as the sous there earlier that year, started cooking as a kid, hanging out with his grandfather in Dallas, where he honed his barbecue skills and dabbled in ethnic cuisines. "I was always cooking with my grandfather, and one night he had a dinner party where I made pasta, and that led to making myself some pretty elaborate breakfasts and cooking a lot of Indian food when I was just twelve, maybe thirteen," remembers Bogart, whose grandparents would also take him to the Mansion on Turtle Creek, an iconic Dallas restaurant created by star chef Dean Fearing.
Eventually, Bogart landed a prep job working at the Mansion alongside Fearing -- and he was there when he decided that the restaurant life was worth pursuing. "I was hired during the holidays -- it was crazy -- but the food was incredible, and I just got the bug," Bogart recalls. "I really felt it, and knew that this is what I wanted to do with my life." So he went to culinary school in Scottsdale, then came to Denver. "I knew nothing about Denver when I moved here seven years ago, but I needed a job and was looking for anything I could find, so I ended up getting hired as the executive chef at Opal -- except there was nothing 'executive' about it," stresses Bogart, who recalls disgruntled vendors refusing to deliver a damn thing to Opal unless they were paid in cash. "It was awful. I just did my job and came home."
Seven long months later, he bolted after landing a sous-chef gig at the now-defunct Ruth's Chris Steakhouse. He stayed there for two years, ultimately moving up to exec chef, before leaving for a more lucrative deal at a former smokehouse in Westminster. It wasn't the brightest move of his career, Bogart admits: "It was poorly managed and completely crazy, so I quit abruptly after a month, moved to Canada for a while and then came back to Denver, where a whole new weird world opened up for me." Specifically, a sports bar in Parker that, Bogart laments, was "run by people with no experience who had an absurd, Cheesecake Factory-like menu, only it was Atlanta home cooking." He then went to work at the Chinook Tavern in Cherry Creek (which closed a few years ago but is set to reopen soon in the Landmark), where he finally got back to cooking. "It was the most enlightening job I've ever had," he remembers, "and even though I was always in the trenches, it felt awesome."
Bogart feels the same way about Elway's Downtown: "I have an incredible job here, and I love all the challenges -- the crazy volume, the crazy parties, unexpected rushes at 3 a.m., taking care of high-profile guests," he says. "And while career-wise, all the weird stuff started when I moved to Denver, I ended up at a restaurant that I'm really proud to be a part of."
In the following interview, Bogart raps on strange guest requests, the merits of miso and how he wishes that cooks would get the respect they deserve.
Six words to describe your food: Familiar, high-quality, delicious, prime, comfortable and memorable.
Ten words to describe you: Understanding, dedicated, cook, Marine, Texan, Canadian, dad, thoughtful, caring and passionate.
Culinary inspirations: The guy who most inspired me to become a chef is Dean Fearing, who runs Fearing's at the Ritz-Carlton in Dallas. Having grown up in Dallas, I adored his food and his amazing personality. He'd touch every table in the restaurant, making it seem like he created it personally just for you, and I was lucky enough to briefly work with him in Dallas at the Mansion on Turtle Creek. Anthony Bourdain gave me the insight into the cook's life, when he wrote Kitchen Confidential, and, ultimately, when it comes to technique inspiration, the accolades have to go to Thomas Keller. I've also got to mention my grandfather, who taught me how to cook anything in a Dutch oven over a wood fire in Texas.
Best recent food find: Quinoa is a fun grain that I've been working with a lot lately. It can be used as a hot grain in place of rice; it can be served as a chilled salad; it makes for a healthy starch; and I love that it grows locally and in the wild. Another cook recently showed me how to sprout the quinoa by placing it in a moist paper towel for a day or so, which adds a newer "live" flavor to the grain. It's pretty cool.
Favorite ingredient: Cilantro. It's no wonder it's the number-one herb in the world -- it goes with almost everything I cook. I put it in salads and serve it with eggs, and it adds such a great element of freshness, plus it cuts through cheeses and balances spicy food.
Most overrated ingredient: Caviar is something that, for the price, I have trouble understanding. We offer it at Elway's Downtown, and it's very good, but if we're talking about my personal preferences, I'd much rather spend the money on a steak paired with a few great side items and wine instead of an ounce of fish eggs.
Most underrated ingredient: Miso can do so much to bring flavor to a dish, and believe it or not, you can make both savory and sweet dishes using miso; there are so many varieties and the possibilities are endless.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: Peaches from any farmers' market, although I usually get mine from Nick's Garden Center and Farm Market, which is actually by my house. I also love the time of year when corn and chiles are available. I stock my freezer at home with roasted chiles, also from Nick's, and then we have fun at the restaurant doing daily features and soups with chiles and corn.
Favorite spice: Chile powders. You can add them to just about anything, and there are so many flavors of chile powders beyond just hot.
What you'd like to see more of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: I'd love to see more inexpensive, quality sushi restaurants and more late-night dining options -- at least after 10 p.m., when I get off work.
What you'd like to see less of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: Fewer under-appreciated cooks. I've worked at so many independent restaurants where the cooks aren't appreciated; these guys cook passionately and get no glory. They sweat in the back and put everything they have into service, while the servers and owners reap the benefits. I just believe that giving them a good wage, benefits and some sort of security would actually benefit the industry.
Current Denver culinary genius: Jeff Cleary, from Grateful Bread. The man is definitely a genius. Every time we talk, he's like a mad scientist, telling me the scientific reasons behind why and how certain breads work. He has certain formulas for making bread that can compensate for temperature and weather, which is great. I've had huge problems with the bread's consistency from other Denver bread companies because of the unpredictable way Colorado's temperature and weather changes -- but Jeff's on it. All of his bread is delicious, and he'll do anything we want.
Favorite restaurant in America: The French Laundry. I have yet to go, but I have the cookbook and have always loved Thomas Keller's work; he's just amazing. I hope one day I'll be able to travel out to Napa Valley and experience his cuisine firsthand. I grew up in Canada, though, and my favorite restaurant there is North 44, in Toronto. It serves really great food, there's great people-watching, and I've got a lot of really good childhood memories from eating there.
Best food city in America: Denver. And, yes, I know that some people may think that's a ridiculous assertion compared to the food scenes of New York, Las Vegas, Chicago and San Francisco, but it's just incredible how far this city has come. In the past seven years since I moved here, the dining scene has been completely transformed. We have everything.
Favorite Denver/Boulder restaurant(s) other than your own: I had a great meal at Frasca Food & Wine in Boulder; they're top-notch cooks. I also know a few chefs who worked there, and I love their discipline.
Favorite celebrity chef: Mario Batali, by far, teaches the best real food. I've been watching him forever. He has a way of bringing real Italian cooking into your living room without fluff -- just real cooking. I also heard him once say that the reason restaurants fail is because of a division between the front and back of the house. He's right: I've seen it, and I believe very strongly that in a restaurant you're one house, under one roof.
Celebrity chef who should shut up: I wouldn't want any celebrity chef to shut up. No matter how good or bad a celebrity chef is, they're educating the public on food -- and hopefully you make up your own mind. Either way, it's good for business. Bobby Flay and Rachael Ray are probably the most popular "shut ups," but even they still show people that there's amazing food out there. Okay, maybe Guy Fieri should shut up -- at least sometimes.
Are chefs artists, craftsmen or both? Chefs are both craftsmen and artists; they're both the conductor of the kitchen and the composer of the piece. I'm very technical when it comes to running the kitchen, and I also use my taste and creativity when coming up with dishes. The most important thing is that it tastes good, right?
What's your favorite knife? I have a Shun chef's knife that I love and that was given to me as a gift. It's very sharp and has a lifetime guarantee. How many things can you say that about?
Greatest accomplishment as a chef: I've had the honor of opening two restaurants and one hotel in my career, and to see Elway's Downtown and the Ritz-Carlton here in Denver become so successful is a great feeling. I also pride myself on having a dedicated and talented team in my kitchen; we do great things every night, and I couldn't do it without them.
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Hardest lesson you've learned: First and foremost, restaurants are a business. I think back to when I opened a sports-themed restaurant with an extensive menu in Parker, and I learned nothing culinary. In fact, quite the opposite: I learned what not to do. It was a national chain that made an unsuccessful run at a store here, and I learned the difference between being a chef and a kitchen manager, both of which are very valid careers. I also learned a lot about the business side of restaurants. I did everything, from cooking lunch by myself to doing all the books, which taught me how to run the kitchen and the staff as a business.
What's next for you? I've always thought of myself as the chef of a stand-alone restaurant, and my dream has always been to have my own place. I work in a restaurant that's part of an amazing hotel and hotel brand, and I'm always looking for opportunities within the company, but I love this concept and can't wait to see what comes next from Elway's. Most important, however, is to raise my three-month-old son and my three-year-old daughter, who I want to get on the ski slopes.