This is part two of my interview with David Payne, executive chef of Jelly; part two of our interview ran yesterday.
Favorite dish on your menu: I love our French toast with freshly grated nutmeg, orange zest and a secret liquor: The combination makes it divine to eat. We strive to make it more of a custard than just a piece of bread quickly dipped in eggs and milk and browned on the outside. The texture, when it's prepared right, is so, so, so good.
See also: - David Payne, exec chef of Jelly, on losing your authority, Rick Bayless and gross sticky goo - Exclusive first look: Jelly Cafe is now open in the DU neighborhood - Jelly's breakfast is worth waiting for among hungover hipsters
Biggest menu bomb: I did a traditional ahi tuna salad, but I did it in the wrong restaurant and ended up 86'ing it from the menu permanently.
What's never in your kitchen? Red Tabasco sauce. My dad use to cover all of his food with that nasty, odorous, toxic juice at the dinner table, and despite how hard I'd plug my nose, it seemed to work its way in and make my eyes water. I always use sriracha instead.
What's always in your kitchen? Smoky spices -- paprika, pepper or anything else I can get my hands on. I love being able to impart that flavor indoors during these extended cold days when I can't -- or I'm just too much of a wuss to -- get outside and grill. The flavor makes me close my eyes, tilt my head up slightly and grin as I let the flavor marinate my tongue.
Favorite cheap eat in Denver: China Star, on Colfax near Fillmore. Get the curry lime chicken -- it's spicy and delicious. Even better, delivery takes less than ten minutes. Amazing.
Favorite Denver/Boulder restaurant(s) other than your own: Pinche Tacos, people. That pork-belly taco with pickled garlic cloves and braising juices is just dangerous.
If you could change one thing about the Denver dining scene, what would it be? I just want Denver to continue to evolve into a talented food city. I've seen so many restaurants pop up over the past two years since I've been here, and this city is definitely growing. After having worked in many world-class cities, I can even feel it in the quality of people who cook for me. The culture is changing for the better, and it's fantastic to see. And I just want to do my part in making it even better.
What's the best food- or kitchen-related gift you've been given? I got a chef's knife from the owners of Jelly when we opened our Capitol Hill location. It's a nice knife -- an eight-inch Wüsthof with a beautiful wooden handle. But it wasn't the knife so much as it was the sentiment behind the knife. You're welcome, Josh and Christina. And thank you, too.
What was the last cookbook you bought, and what recipes are you cooking from it? I have a great library of cookbooks that I've collected in my wanderings around the country, but I've gotten to the point where, unless I'm doing some baking and need to know complex ratios that I just don't keep in my head, I use recipes mostly as inspiration. When I was making the chorizo that we use at Jelly, I must have read at least 100 or more recipes, online, in my own cookbooks, and at the Tattered Cover -- which, by the way, has a nice selection of cookbooks -- and I also looked at family recipes from Texas. And by doing all of those things, I was able to choose the makeup of my spice mix to my own liking, making it completely, 100 percent unique.
Best recipe tip for a home cook: Get your pan hot. Home stoves just don't put out the heat needed to get a nice piece of meat nicely browned on the outside before it starts to release juices, so use an iron skillet, and make sure it's hot.
Best nugget of advice for a culinary-school graduate: Don't be that arrogant guy who thinks that you're automatically a chef just because you have a culinary degree. You're a chef in the making, to be molded by the experienced chefs you work for. They'll teach you what you need: speed, specific knowledge, a sharp tongue and your own limitations. Listen, be respectful and learn.
Favorite childhood food memory: My mom used to make steak fingers with country gravy -- something that I probably wouldn't cook for my kids today. Sorry, Mom. Sometimes it came with rice, sometimes potatoes, sometimes macaroni and cheese, but the star was those steak fingers. The crispy pieces of flour, left in the lard to make the gravy, were so tasty. I don't think I could repeat it in a busy restaurant, because you'd have to make the gravy to order, in the same pan that you cooked the steak fingers in.
Favorite junk food: Ben and Jerry's Cherry Garcia ice cream -- chunks of chocolate, chunks of cherries, all in an ice cream. Shut the front door.
Weirdest customer request: I worked at a brewery in Berkeley, and we used Fiestaware for our plateware -- and we had all the colors. There was this one middle-aged, very hippie-looking lady who would come in and eat with us and drink some beers. And then she totally freaked out on us one day because we plated her food on a red plate. We had no idea why until she described to us how the government dictated that the red coloring in the plates was radioactive. I couldn't even begin to repeat the very long-winded, passionate, anti-government speech she gave us. The point was, however, to never serve food on red plates. Who knew?
Weirdest thing you've ever put in your mouth: Rocky Mountain oysters. They're chewy, but not so bad, really.
Craziest night in the kitchen: That's the night that the lights went out in -- nope, not in Georgia, but in Chico, California. It's Saturday night -- it's always on a Saturday night -- and the house is full to the max. The reservation book is full, there are still people walking in, sitting at the bar -- even standing with drinks and appetizers, because this was the place to be in Chico. People are having a great time, the music is playing, servers are flirting and running around, the bartender, Evan, is effortless in his style and ability to make everything look easy. This was many years back, when California was having an energy crisis and experiencing rolling blackouts throughout the state, and apparently, on that Saturday night, it was our turn for the power to go out. No more vent hoods, no more lights and no more refrigeration, but the gas was still on and the burners and grill still worked -- and so did we. We couldn't let anyone down -- we were that good. We had to open the back windows in the dish room because the smoke was billowing off the grill and starting to infiltrate the dining room. Some people left, but this staff -- good Lord, they were good -- just made it happen. We obviously stopped seating people, but the people who had already ordered still got their food, glowing slightly near the tea lights that were on every table. We couldn't believe it. Suffice it to say we drank well that night.
What's your biggest pet peeve? When you're trying to teach a newbie something important and they interrupt you in the middle of a sentence to interject whatever they have on their mind. So, Mr. Cook, did you ask me your question for me to answer, or for you to answer?
Which chef has most inspired you? I've always been one to watch and learn from everyone I can. I've learned cooking techniques, purchasing strategies, number crunching and all manner of other things over the years by learning from others. But two people who made the most difference in the kind of chef I am today are Patrick Cole and Bruce Bowers, both from the San Francisco Bay Area. They made everything come together for me; they were the voices of reason through all the messes I made. Everything became clear to me because of these two people. Thank you.
If you could cook in another chef's kitchen, whose would it be? The French Laundry. I've always said that I would never cook perfect classical French food, nor would I ever want to work somewhere with such a strict, high level of perfection, with ingredients out of a garden on premise, with access to the best ingredients the world can provide, be it salt, vinegar, vegetable or meat. I've said that I wouldn't want the biggest thrill of my day to be the grapevine-filled drive to and from work on a daily basis within easy access of the fermented juices they provide. What a moron I was.
Describe the biggest challenges facing today's chefs: The competition in this career is staggering, and to make money in this business, you have to be obsessive, never blink with the eyes in the back of your head, never sleep, hate holidays to yourself, and have the most understanding family in the world. We all have a very hard job at great personal sacrifice. But we love it.
Most humbling moment as a chef: Chefs are miracle workers -- blood, sweat and tears literally go into everything that we do. The love and the rage that go into what we do, how we do it, in the environment in which we do it, often takes place deep in our medulla oblongata, the deepest and oldest part of our emotional brain. We've trained ourselves to be the warriors of the line, better than the guy next to us, and stronger than the guy behind us. All of that mental struggle, all of that stress and frustration boiling up after a long, five-day stretch of effort really becomes a very sad series of emotions when a customer walks out because we couldn't do something as simple as get them something to eat.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef: My happiness comes from a customer shouting through the pass-through window, "Hey! Great job, chef, see you soon," or when one of your own cooks -- someone you've been working with for months, or even years -- looks at you one day and you can just tell they finally understand. There's nothing better than that, friends.
What's one thing that people would be surprised to know about you? I wanted to be a doctor. Too bad I sucked as a normal student.
Last meal before you die: There are so many things I love to eat: cioppino; a perfectly medium rare, bone-in, twenty-ounce ribeye; macaroni and cheese; crispy pizza out of a wood-fired oven; crème brûlée; soft -shell crab with a smattering of rémoulade; a spit-roasted pig roasted over mesquite logs; and my mom's steak fingers. Clearly, I want a big meal before I die.
What's in the pipeline? We just opened our second Jelly Cafe near DU, and with the success of this new venture could come more interesting things -- cooking food for beer, not just with beer, sounds great, or something more relaxing, like a wine bar with appetizers, could be just the right thing. Or perhaps a 24-hour upscale diner is just what Denver needs. I don't know -- you tell me. What does Denver need? I'm sure I could make it happen.
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.