This is part one of my interview with Taylor Drew, exec chef of Russell's Smokehouse; part two of our chat will run tomorrow.
No salt, no butter: That's a far cry from the kind of cooking associated with Frank Bonanno, a chef known for his affinity for both. But growing up, Taylor Drew, the executive chef of Russell's Smokehouse, Bonanno's barbecue joint in Larimer Square, was shielded from those cooking basics. "My mom makes a great pie crust, but we ate super-healthy at home, with lots of steamed vegetables and steamed fish, and salt and butter were not part of our diet," recalls Drew.
See also: - Foodography from Russell's Smoke House - Best Chef: A nostalgic look back at our Best of Denver chef winners - Frank Bonanno heatsup Larimer Square with the addition of Russell's Smokehouse
And that might even have been a good thing, because his first job was working the drive-thru at McDonald's, the epitome of everything unhealthy. "I needed a job, and McDonald's was the only place that would hire me, but one summer was enough to know that I never, never wanted to work there again," admits Drew, who's not terribly keen to return to West Woods Golf Club in Arvada, either, where he did a stint as a dishwasher and witnessed the cooks hurling food at the servers. "That was my first introduction to the line -- washing dishes among crazy cooks who just loved to huck food at the front-of-the-house staff." A catering gig at Sodexo, a local company that supplies food to universities, hospitals and schools, wasn't quite as volatile, but two weeks out of high school, the Denver native changed course, leaving the Mile High City -- and the kitchen -- for the U.S. Navy.
"I really had no idea what I wanted to do with my life," confesses Drew, "but I'd always wanted to be in the military, so that's the path I took, working as an aviation electronics technician for four years" and eating his way around the world in the process. "I spent a lot of time in Europe," he remembers, "and I started to eat really good food and realized that I wanted to eat like that all the time, so I started experimenting on people and cooking anything I could -- lots of fresh pastas and pan sauces -- and while a lot of it wasn't great, I enjoyed cooking, and my roommates were really good-humored about my mishaps."
When he left the Navy, he dabbled in construction before taking a server position at Buffalo Wild Wings in Arvada. He "wasn't very productive or good," Drew admits, and his real passion was entrenched in the kitchen, so he enrolled at Johnson & Wales and began interning at several local restaurants, including the long-gone Mario N Wong's, an Italian joint that was later shuttered amid allegations that it was housing an illegal gambling ring. "One day the feds showed up and took our computers, our POS system, everything, and I decided that I probably wasn't going to be working there anymore," quips Drew, who then sealed an internship at Vita, where he cooked alongside Max MacKissock and was eventually promoted to sous chef. "They promoted me about a month after my internship ended, but I was in way over my head; I didn't know what the hell I was doing, and I just wanted to go back to being a line cook and have the chance to really learn and grow," he says.
He did a stage at Luca D'Italia, which he fumbled, but was then hired at Root Down as a morning line cook; he also rattled pots and pans at the Lobby, where he cooked at night. By then, he'd dropped out of culinary school. "I ran out of money, and in the end, it was a total waste of money," says Drew, who also left the Lobby to cook at Osteria Marco. "By the time I got to Osteria, I was a much, much better cook, and they gave me a shot," he explains.
He stayed at Osteria for six months, until a spot opened at Mizuna. Drew started in pantry, moved his way up to the meat station, followed that with fish and pasta, and then, after two years, was promoted to the sous-chef position at Russell's Smokehouse, where he was initially guided by Sean Kelly, the corporate chef of Larimer Associates. Within six months, Drew had climbed the ladder to the exec-chef job. "I know what Frank expects of me, and appreciate that he's up-front -- there's no bullshit -- and if I had to do it all over again, I probably wouldn't change anything," he says, adding that he "loves the combination of camaraderie, high intensity and stress level" that cooking in a Bonanno Concepts kitchen entails.
"The kitchen is the closest thing in the civilian world to a flight deck. There's so much adrenaline and constant pressure, and that's what makes it so fun," says Drew, who in the following interview weighs in on burritos, Beast + Bottle, Bonanno and Bourdain.
How do you describe your food? Simple, technique-driven, home-style food that's both delicious and fun to eat.
Ten words to describe you: Patient, complex, hardworking, respectful, strong-willed, leader, motivated, passionate, thoughtful and caring.
What are your ingredient obsessions? Sumac, anything pig and flour. I have a ridiculous number of different types of flour, although my favorite at the moment is Blue Bird, an all-purpose flour from Cortez, Colorado.
What are your kitchen-gadget obsessions? Microplanes, ring molds and individual baking dishes.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: Beeyond the Hive honey from Salida. It's liquid gold, the color and taste are amazing, and the ladies who run the operation are really great.
One ingredient that you won't touch: High-fructose corn syrup is unnecessary, over-processed and way overused in food production. You can replace it with a 2:1 sugar-to-water simple syrup in almost every application.
Food trend you'd like to see in 2013: I'd like to see the chef-driven craft food that's done at so many upscale casual restaurants take over the quick-service market; this way, we can eat well all the time.
Food trend you'd like to see disappear in 2013: The burger market in Denver has been maxed out; I love hamburgers, but it seems like there's a new burger place in Denver every week.
One food you detest: I really can't stand the smell of truffle oil. I like fresh truffles, but most truffle oil makes me nauseous.
One food you can't live without: Cheese. There are so many different styles and flavors out there that you can put cheese in almost anything.
Favorite dish on your menu: At the moment, it's the potato pierogi with housemade kielbasa, braised purple cabbage and crispy potatoes. It's a play on the classic French dish chou croute garni, which is traditionally potatoes, pig and cabbage all slow-cooked together.
Biggest menu bomb: I've tried on a couple of occasions to put smoked lamb neck on the menu at the Smokehouse, but no matter how I plate it, it never sells, and I don't understand why, because it's one of the most flavorful parts of a lamb, if prepared correctly. After eight hours of slow-smoking it over hickory wood, the meat and fat fall off the bone.
Favorite cooking show: I don't really watch cooking shows, per se. I like Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations, but that might be more of a travel/dining show. As far as reality "cooking" shows and the Food Network go, they're generally more style than substance.
What was the last cookbook you bought, and what recipes are you cooking from it?Forgotten Skills of Cooking, by Darina Allen. It's a really great book that takes traditional farm-style cooking skills and looks at them in a modern light. She has some really beautiful dishes that are simple and timeless; my favorite is her description of how to make butter.
What's your fantasy splurge? I really want a mobile pit smoker that I could take to events and farmers' markets. Being mobile would be a fun way to share our food with people who may not get into the restaurant.
What's your biggest pet peeve? Side towels. Do you really need ten of them strung around your apron? I'm inclined to engage in a game of flag football if I notice any of my cooks getting out of control with their towels.
Describe the biggest challenges facing today's chefs: I think that finding a balance between using great products that have been raised and procured sustainably and humanely and how much people are willing to pay for those products is a constant battle for chefs these days. Consumers have to realize that these practices cost more money, and if you wish to eat that way, you have to pay a little more.
We Believe Local Journalism is Critical to the Life of a City
Engaging with our readers is essential to Westword's mission. Make a financial contribution or sign up for a newsletter, and help us keep telling Denver's stories with no paywalls.
Support Our Journalism
If you hadn't become a chef, what would you be doing right now? I most likely would have made a career out of the Navy. The military was a very valuable step in my life, teaching me about discipline and attention to detail. It also gave me the opportunity to travel to places all around the world and enjoy food that I never would have been able to try if I hadn't traveled so much.