This is part one of Lori Midson's interview with Jeff Bolton, executive chef of Second Home Kitchen + Bar. To read the second part of Midson's Q&A with Bolton, check back here tomorrow.
Jeff Bolton plops himself down on a bar stool, cocks his ear and starts to sing. "They all think I'm crazy," he says, cranking it up a notch. But the executive chef of Second Home in the JW Marriott insists that singing (and dancing) is part of what makes his kitchen tick. "The best part of working in my kitchen is the environment," says Bolton, a Denver native who has no qualms about admitting his addiction to Journey and just about every other band that rocked the '80s. "We work hard, but we have a great time in my kitchen, and there's not a morning where I wake up and say, 'Oh, shit, I've got to work today.' We sing, we dance, we keep it light, and we don't stress ourselves out."
Bolton, a 2000 graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, honed his cooking prowess in kitchens all over the country, including ones in Las Vegas, Martha's Vineyard and Louisville, Kentucky, where he was instrumental in opening Proof on Main, a restaurant named by Esquire magazine as one of the Top 20 Best New Restaurants in the country in 2006. Before taking over the kitchen at Second Home last year, Bolton was executive chef of the Corner Office in the Curtis.
He revamped the Second Home menu, strongly gearing it toward seasonally inspired comfort foods that benefit from whimsy and playful spins. "The biggest challenge of this restaurant is that it's been perceived as pretentious because of the Cherry Creek location," he says. "That it's too expensive and the kind of restaurant where rich people hang." But that's bunk, he insists: "It's certainly true that we want people to think our food is amazing -- and I think it is -- but we also want to keep it unpretentious and free of fluff, which means that the menu is full of really fun, approachable dishes that are as fun to make as they are to eat."
Bolton shifts in his stool and belts out a few bars of another '80s hit before scanning the bar scene. "The minute you step through the doors, you can tell that this isn't a typical hotel restaurant," he says. "We're relaxed restaurant people, not stuffy hotel people, and this bar -- this restaurant -- is exactly what a second home should be."
In the following interview, Bolton talks about the camaraderie in his kitchen, the oversaturation of microgreens, his obsession with labels, and why it's perfectly acceptable to trot to Burger King on a Sunday afternoon to pick up 25 Whopper JRs for his kitchen staff.
Six words to describe your food: Approachable, balanced, fresh, seasonal, refined and comforting.
Ten words to describe you: Obnoxious, loud, hyper, funny, approachable, passionate, creative and inspiring. Since I have two cats, my friends call me "an old cat lady." My assistant general manager calls me "an annoying little fat kid with a beard." And, yes, I know that's way more than ten words...
Culinary inspirations: My grandfather was a Cuban and Spanish immigrant who taught me to love food from all over the world. I remember the first time he taught me to flip a hamburger: I burned the crap out of my arm and my mother was pissed. My grandfather cooked every day, and I would just sit and watch him cook, but I wasn't allowed to help because my mother threatened his life if I got hurt again. Speaking of my mother, I'd try and help her cook as many dinners as possible for the family, which included my dad and three boys. She loved the help, mostly because I'd usually get stuck doing the damn dishes -- and I always made the salad. Even now, I still have a fondness of salad because of my mother. She's amazing in the kitchen. My father is a grill master, not to mention my best friend. Bobby Flay should look out, because "Chillin and Grillin" with Bob Bolton is where it's at. There's not a cut of meat that he hasn't grilled, smoked or roasted over his enormous charcoal grill. If there's one thing that sticks in my mind when it comes to my father's cooking, it's the thirty-minute-long discussion about why charcoal is so much better than anything else. Whenever my day makes brats, I come running. Then there's the one inspirational jackass who sat next to me at the Culinary Institute of America in Product ID class. When I asked him what fresh oregano was, he said, "Why the hell are you here?" Guess what? He can kiss my ass.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef: Cooking at the James Beard House in New York. It was just cool being in the home of a man who did so much for the culinary world before there was any Food Network.
Favorite ingredient: It changes from season to season, but right now I'm loving corn, because it's so versatile. I love to make sauces out of it, or just eat it lightly grilled.
Favorite spice: Cumin, because it reminds me of my grandfather's house. Everything the man cooked had cumin in it, and to this day, every time I open up a cumin container, I still think of him.
Best recent food find: Col. Bill Newsom's prosciutto-style ham. The company has a select list of restaurants that they sell to, and they only harvest their hams once a year, which means that if you're not on the list, you don't get a ham. I had to charm the Southern Belle ham lady who you've got to go through to get any of their products, but it's worth it. We've had it on our menu for about four months now, and I love it.
Most overrated ingredient: Microgreens. Yes, they look beautiful, and they even have the ability to make subpar food look delicious. But dishes are great because of the food you put on the plate -- not because of the random salad that you place on top of the dish.
Most underrated ingredient: Housemade mozzarella. I don't know if it's underrated or if just too many people are too lazy to make it, but it's so much different and better from the crap that people buy, and it's really not very difficult to make.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: I'm a huge fan of mushrooms -- except buttons. The oyster mushrooms from Hazel Dell in Fort Collins are absolutely awesome.
One food you detest: Tripe. I can't stand the texture, flavor or the look of it.
One food you can't live without: Everything I love to eat has tomatoes in it. It doesn't matter if it's ketchup, marinara sauce, pizza or pasta: I could go on and on forever about how much I love tomatoes.
Guiltiest food pleasure? Every Sunday, I bring my staff Whopper Jrs from the Burger King in Cherry Creek. They love it, and the fact that I have a standing order for 25 Whopper Jrs is hilarious. My favorite part of the process is walking into Burger King with my chef coat on and seeing the amazement in the eyes of the employees when I say I'm here to pick up the usual 25 Whoppers. And the glances I get while walking down the streets of Cherry Creek while holding bags full of Whopper Jrs is priceless. Carly, my pastry chef, eats all the boys under the table. Sunday is the happiest day in the kitchen because of those burgers.
What's the best food- or kitchen-related gift you've been given? I received four Bragard chef coats while I was working on opening a restaurant in Louisville, Kentucky. They were the most comfortable chef coats I've ever worn. Unfortunately, they no longer fit.
Favorite dish to cook at home: Sausage and peppers with rigatoni and tomato cream. I love the sweetness of the peppers, the heat from the sausage, and I love pasta.
Favorite dish on your menu: The menu changes seasonally, so it's tough to pick favorites, but at the moment, I really love our seared scallop dish with sweet corn mousse, fava beans, housemade bacon, fresh corn and crispy shallots. When we had the winter menu, my favorite dish was the veal chop saltimbocca with Hazel Dell mushrooms, sherry and crispy polenta.
If you could put any dish on your menu, even though it might not sell, what would it be? We've been doing suckling pig roasts every Sunday for the last few weeks, so every Sunday I make headcheese. We serve it on our charcuterie board as a little free bonus. It's like rich pork Jell-O and it's delicious, but every time I tell customers what it is -- and what's in it -- they think it's disgusting and refuse to try it. I try to convince them to give it a shot, and, not surprisingly, they either love it or hate it.
Best culinary tip for a home cook: Invest in a set of nice knives that will hold an edge so you don't chop your fingers off; you may need them.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
What show would you pitch to the Food Network, and what would it be about? I'd love to put cameras up all over my kitchen and just film all shift long. Most of the shows on the Food Network that try to portray "real" kitchens seem to be way off. In my kitchen, we try to have as much fun as possible by listening to music, singing, dancing and playing general grab-ass. Chefs who don't truly love the profession eventually die and become corporate sales reps who show up with no appointment just to piss you off -- and, no, I don't want to try your candied nuts. I think it's important for the public to know how truly hard we work and the passion that goes into the food that we produce, but also that a lot of kitchens are just like family: You have little brothers and sisters that you spend the majority of your day with, so why would I want my kitchen to run like Hell's Kitchen? I should warn the Food Network that if they want to censor my show, I'm taking my idea to HBO.
Current Denver culinary genius: I'm not really sure what constitutes a "genius," but what I do know is that we have some amazing and very talented chefs here in Denver. I just wish that more people would come to the city and check them all out. I really love Daniel Asher from Root Down. He just does killer food that's creative but real, and you can really see the love and passion in his food. Plus, he does a great job educating his employees by taking them to local farms and showing them where their food comes from. And he's just a really nice dude. You can't not like the guy. I've got to say, too, that the food that Michael Long has been doing at Opus is just incredible.
What's next for you? Another cup of coffee.