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.