This is part two of my interview with Jonathan Power, executive chef of the Populist. Part one of our chat ran yesterday.
Favorite Denver/Boulder restaurant(s) other than your own: I don't make it up there often enough, but I love Pizzeria Basta in Boulder. The service has always been spot-on, and they bring some beautiful flavors out of that oven.
Favorite cheap eat in Denver: Hands down, the banh mi from Baker's Palace. It's cheap and delicious and just far enough from my house that I haven't burned myself out on them...yet.
If you could change one thing about the Denver dining scene, what would it be? Fewer cynics and more champions of our city. I think the restaurant scene here is growing in tremendous ways. We have a passionate pool of cooks and chefs in this town doing some pretty incredible things, and I firmly believe that as we build a solid community of food lovers and restaurant supporters, we'll continue to become an outstanding food city.
What do you enjoy most about your craft? There's limitless variety in the kitchen. We may cook the same dishes countless times while they're on the menu, but each night, each table and each plate is an opportunity to do it better than before. I love that while I may know loosely what every day holds for me, this craft forces me to constantly be on my toes.
What recent innovation has most influenced the restaurant industry in a significant way? The Internet is this incredible double-edged sword. Having a globally accessible public forum is so good for increasing exposure to wonderful restaurants and inventive chefs, but at the same time, the fact that anyone can use it to say essentially whatever they would like can affect restaurants in ways that just didn't exist before.
What's the best food- or kitchen-related gift you've been given? A very good friend and business partner gave me a copy of Modernist Cuisine. It was a great gift, because it's something I never would have bought for myself because of the price tag, but I find it immensely fascinating and useful. It's an excellent resource, and it's been a real education for me on the science of what we do in the kitchen.
Fantasy splurge: A Pacojet. There are workarounds for most of the other gadgets I'd like to have, but the Pacojet makes a product pretty damn difficult to replicate.
Favorite cooking show: I don't own a TV, so I don't have a lot of access to cooking shows, but on YouTube, I love pulling up the old Marco Cooks For... series that was on the BBC. Marco Pierre White is such a personality, and his food was so specific and intentional. It's a great way to spend half an hour, plus the outtakes are amazing.
What was the last cookbook you bought, and what recipes are you cooking from it? It's not exactly a cookbook, but I'm having a tough time putting down the "Apocalypse" issue of Lucky Peach. I love Magnus Nilsson's "Frankenchicken" recipe. He breaks down a whole chicken, removes the meat, replaces it with pork cut to shape, wraps the skin back around it, and roasts it off. I also just picked up the SPQR cookbook; it's got some great recipes and a lot of wine knowledge tucked away in it.
What piece of advice would you give to a young chef? Have a sense of urgency. There's nothing that will help you succeed more in this industry than working hard, fast and accurately.
Biggest pet peeve: Food stored in the cooler with no label and no date. Fresh product is super-important, and it drives me up the wall to find mystery products buried in the walk-in.
Craziest night in the kitchen: This past New Year's Eve was the first night we'd done a prix fixe-only menu aside from the soft opening. We offered both a seven- and ten-course tasting menu, and we were slamming-busy the entire night, putting out an ungodly number of plates, and we nearly ran out of 75 percent of the dishes on the menu. We had no idea what we were in for, and we got worked, but it was a great way to spend the holiday.
Biggest mistake a chef can make on the line: Under-seasoning food. There are a lot of hours in between sourcing ingredients, storing them properly, prepping them and cooking them to order. If you don't season your food appropriately, what arrives at the table is garbage. Taste your food.
Which chef has most inspired you? I learned a huge amount working for Justin Cucci at Root Down. He showed me a lot of things that I wanted to do the same way -- and things I wanted to do differently. That's the great thing about inspiration: It doesn't mean emulation. I can cite those years as hugely instrumental, but I'm doing something quite different now.
If you could have dinner with three chefs or food nerds, dead or alive, whom would you choose? Harold McGee, Magnus Nilsson and Jiro Ono. All three of these guys have a huge amount of passion for the food world, but that passion manifests itself so differently in each of them, and in such a way that I have a hard time really getting it. I think it'd be a fascinating meal.
If you could cook in another chef's kitchen, whose would it be? I'd have to say René Redzepi, the chef-owner of Noma, in Copenhagen. His styles of sourcing and preparation are so different from what I've known; I'd love to be exposed more deeply to that approach.
What skills and attributes do you look for when hiring kitchen staff? Passion, a willingness to learn, and a solid work ethic. A willing person can be taught to cook, but if the passion and work ethic aren't there, that person will never make it in our restaurant. We all love what we do, and we get off on the pace and the pressure.
If you had the opportunity to open your own restaurant with no budget constraints, what kind of restaurant would you open? A temple to modernist cooking, done in the style of a late-1800s curiosity shop, because...why not?
Describe the biggest challenges facing today's chefs: I think the current state of the fishing industry is pretty rough, and that translates to chefs today. Using sustainable and well-raised fish is very important, but it's becoming increasingly difficult, thanks to fishing practices and climate change.
Most humbling moment as a chef: The day my wife gave birth to our daughter. Having a child puts a lot of things in perspective, and it showed me quite clearly that no matter what I'm doing, what I'm cooking or how many people enjoy my food, nothing is as important as my family, and their encouragement and support mean more than any notoriety my career as a chef might bring. I may not have been in my kitchen when it happened, but it certainly humbled my view of my career and myself.
Biggest moment of euphoria in the kitchen: After we finished the soft opening at the Populist, we had a full house the next few nights, and I looked around and realized that I don't know these people. But they've heard about our little project here, and they've come down to spend their hard-earned money with us. It was surreal to see a room full of strangers making themselves at home and having a great time.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef: The fact that table after table of diners come in here, enjoy themselves and leave happy -- that's an accomplishment I'm pretty damn proud of and thankful for.
What's one thing that people would be surprised to know about you? I was a vegetarian for six years, and as different as it is from my current meat-loving perspective, I'm very glad to have had that experience. It really helped me think about what we eat and why. I ended up eating meat again when I took a hard look at the fact that I had no issues eating avocados from South America in the dead of winter, but eating a well-raised chicken from just a few exits down the interstate was, for some reason, not okay. I decided that, for me, being a conscious omnivore was easier to wrap my ethics around than having a hard and fast "no meat" rule. Not that I always eat in a perfectly ethical way, but I find the discussion more attractive than black-and-white.
If you hadn't become a chef, what would you be doing right now? The summer my wife and I moved back to Denver from Chicago, my plan was to attend law school in Boulder. If the draw of the kitchen hadn't pulled me back and my wife hadn't encouraged me to pursue this path, I'm guessing I'd be practicing law. But I'm constantly glad I made the choices I did and ended up in this wonderful industry.
Last meal before you die: Fugu liver.
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