This is part one of my interview with Shoni Jones, exec chef of Root Down at DIA; part two of our conversation will run tomorrow.
"Oops, I was way off," says Shoni Jones, the executive chef of Root Down at Denver International Airport, clearly surprised by the numbers in the text message she just got from her mom, who lives on a sprawling farm in Utah. In estimating the square footage of the garden on that farm, where her parents grow corn and tomatoes, chiles and herbs, root vegetables and berries, Jones had guessed it was around 2,000 square feet. "Whoa! It's a whopping 13,000 square feet," she exclaims after reading her mom's text. "Who knew?"
Jones spent the majority of her childhood in that goliath garden. "I remember doing most of our planting in May, around Memorial Day weekend, when all my friends were having fun at Lake Powell, and at first I thought it was punishment that I had to stay home and plant," she says. But then gardening began to grow on her. "I totally started to dig planting in the garden: Seeing that first green pea or tomato is so totally worth it, and once I turned sixteen, I was all about the garden." Because of that, both her brother, who raised Flemish rabbits, and her dad, an avid hunter, nudged her toward a career in the kitchen.
But it took her a few years to land in one. Jones originally enrolled in nursing school in Las Cruces, New Mexico, because, she says, "I liked helping people." But one day during class -- and halfway though her clinicals -- she just walked out. "I realized that the hospital is a pretty unhappy place; people go there because they're sick, doctors are unhappy because they're overworked, and so are the nurses -- and to be honest, I was working more on my waistline than on my degree," she jokes. The day she stepped out of the classroom, she stepped into the computer lab and began researching culinary schools, specifically in Denver. "I had my heart set on coming to Denver, which is so weird, because I'd never been here, but I wanted to be near the mountains, and Denver was just far enough away from Utah to be far enough away from home. Plus the food scene here was gaining recognition, and that appealed to me," she says.
A few weeks later, Johnson & Wales offered her a scholarship, so in 2006, she says, "I packed up my shit and moved to Denver." Jones did an internship at the Doubletree in Stapleton, originally as a line cook, and once her internship was over, she was quickly promoted to sous-chef. A friend of hers from culinary school, Nate Mencini, who's now at Masterpiece Deli, joined her on the line at the Doubletree. And when they spotted a kitchen-manager job at Vine Street Pub, "we sold ourselves as a team," remembers Jones. "We went to a cattle-call interview, and we were interviewing in the same room and kept looking at each other, and they ended up hiring us both," says Jones, who was tapped as the kitchen manager, while Mencini was given the role as her right-hand man.
Jones stayed at Vine Street for two years before "falling off my rocker," she quips. "After doing nothing but burgers, chicken wings and cooking buckets of French fries, you start going a little crazy." She didn't want to manage a line, either: "I wanted to own the three feet of real estate in front of me and behind me, and I just wanted to cook good food."
An available position at Linger caught her eye, and she interviewed with "the great Daniel Asher," now the culinary director of Linger and Root Down. "My interview with Daniel was so natural, energetic and positive, and I felt very comfortable in that particular kitchen," she says, noting that she "just sort of fell into a mother-duck role."
Not long after she started, she was elevated to exec sous-chef, and in March 2013, Justin Cucci, owner of Linger and Root Down, asked Jones if she wanted to command the kitchen at Root Down at DIA. "I took a week to think about it, and then went back to Justin and said I've got to be nuts -- that restaurant is a beast -- but that I'd do it. I knew it would be a challenging adventure with a lot of rewards, and I wanted to conquer something new and have a chance to create a strong and diverse team and show what Root Down is all about at a national level," says Jones, who in the following interview professes a deep, deep disdain for tahini, recalls the guest who made her sous-chef weep tears of melancholy, and admits that her biggest phobia is a fear of balloons.
Lori Midson: What's your first food memory? Shoni Jones: Two memories instantly come to mind: It's a coin toss between my dad's homemade mashed potatoes and picking the first warm sun-ripened tomato fresh from the garden. I remember begging my dad to make his homemade mashed potatoes for me as a kid: perfectly smooth, a tad on the rustic side, with extra melted butter and the perfect amount of salt. I grew up in Utah, where my parents tended to a beautiful, fresh home garden. When I was little, I would wander through the rows, and one of my favorite things was plucking a beautifully ripe red tomato in the middle of the afternoon.
Ten words to describe you: Nerdy, playful, charismatic, huggable, tenacious, energetic, stubborn, bubbly, kind and creative.
Five words to describe your food: Simple, fresh, balanced, centered and comforting.
What are your ingredient obsessions? Masa. Since doing a little pupusa creation, I've been slightly obsessed with the making the most perfect masa recipe. You need to have the perfect amount of water and fat and mix it for just the right amount of time. When you've done it just right, you'll know it -- and hopefully you can replicate it time and time again.
One ingredient you won't touch: Tahini. Argh! I hate everything about it. The way the oil separates from the solid, the texture, the mouthfeel and the way it smells -- just ugh. It's frightening. And it's just so messy. Gross, just get it away from me. I feel like it's on me right now just talking about it.
Food trend you'd like to see emerge in 2014: Our food community staying on a sustainable forward movement: supporting more local farmers; being cognizant of healthier ocean choices; and composting and utilizing food waste as a reusable tool for the future.
Food trend you'd like to see disappear in 2014: Using less tahini in all shapes and forms.
Favorite piece of kitchen equipment: My peeler. I honestly couldn't say why, but a simple standard peeler is one of my favorite tools.
Your favorite smell in the kitchen: Roasted green chiles equal heaven. The smell always reminds me of Las Cruces, New Mexico, and the fall season. When I lived in New Mexico, I had the chance to attend the Hatch chile festival, and let me tell you, it was a snacking dream come true. It was incredible to see endless bushels of chiles and watching people buy ten, twelve bushels at one time.
Most memorable meal you've ever had: Two Christmases ago, my mom made me a dinner that sticks in my memory as one of the most fantastic meals I've ever had. It included all my favorite snack foods: mini-turkey sandwiches on homemade rolls; tiny pigs-in-a-blanket; ants-on-a-log; veggie sticks with numerous dips, potato chips; a fresh garden salad; and accompanying all of these delicious snacks was an ice-cold beer. I'm a huge fan of small plates and finger foods.
Your three favorite Denver restaurants other than your own: A big thank-you to chef Daniel Asher, who turned me on to Los Carboncitos. They have amazing gorditas, tacos, huaraches and great salsas. And if you're in the mood to take it to the next level, order one of the tortas; they're crazy good. Just make sure you wear stretchy pants when you have a torta on your mind. It's open late, too, which is a huge plus for a chef with an appetite after a long dinner service. I also have had a long, strong love affair with the Italian sandwich at Masterpiece Deli. The ciabatta is solid, the meat is high-quality, and it has a perfect amount of dressing; it's just so good. It's the ultimate bread-meat-cheese combination. My mouth is watering just thinking about it. And I fantasize about Basta's oven-roasted chicken. Instead of frying the bird, they roast it in a wood-burning oven and serve it with sous-vide grits that are silky, sexy and so amazing. The chicken is super-juicy, tender and full of flavor. And let's be honest: The pizza is fantastic as well.
Most underrated restaurant in Denver: The Wooden Spoon Cafe. They serve up a mean egg sandwich on a beautiful brioche bun, and all their other pastries and goodies are hard to pass up. I have yet to be disappointed with any item I've tried. And I can't help but love the fact that they don't offer wi-fi. People are actually enjoying a pastry, drinking a cup of coffee and reading an old-fashioned book. I love the vibe.
Who is Denver's next rising-star chef? Maybe the next rising-star chef is someone who doesn't already have notoriety. Hopefully it'll be someone who has started from the ground up, without the need to flash around their culinary degree -- someone who has put their best foot forward in wanting to master this industry. I'm excited to see who emerges.
Which living chef do you most admire? At the moment, David Chang. His creativity, food knowledge and business sense are all things I admire. From a culinary standpoint, it's refreshing to see someone so talented yet humble and non-egotistical truly drive an amazing menu. His passion is visible and inspiring.
If you could make one request of Denver diners, what would it be? Stop supporting major food chains! Instead, give these passionate small-business owners a chance. We have a wonderful and talented community that could become so much more than we give it credit for. Try local and small. I'm pretty sure you'll be pleasantly surprised.
What do you expect from a restaurant critic? I expect to hear about the whole experience: the service; the ambience of the restaurant. Is the music too loud? The room temperature appropriate? Is your cocktail made to spec? Did your food come out in a timely manner? Was it seasoned appropriately? Is the portion size appropriate? All of these small details add up to being one great experience if all the stars align, and if not, then things fall short. The most important thing is getting the feedback to keep improving and perfecting.
What's your biggest pet peeve? Having unorganized lowboys and coolers. I love things organized and uniform and my ingredients mised out.
Your best traits: Remembering not to take things too seriously, working well under pressure and thinking quickly on my feet. We're not saving kittens from a burning building; we're just making some clean, amazing and fulfilling food.
Your worst traits: Procrastination. There's never a dull moment, which is what I've set myself up for.
Which talent do you most wish you had? Healing powers like Wolverine. Oh, wait! Better yet, being a shape-shifter, like Jake the dog from Adventure Time.
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Last meal before you die: I feel like it would be a meal I have yet to experience, or maybe a meal made by mermaids; that would be cool.