This is part one of my interview with Theo Adley, executive chef/owner of the Pinyon in Boulder. Part two of my chat with Adley will run in this space tomorrow.
Theo Adley failed algebra three times in high school. As further proof that the traditional classroom curriculum wasn't his thing, the Dallas native dropped out of the University of Colorado during his junior year in Boulder to pursue a career at the Culinary School of the Rockies. "I had this crazy attraction to doing things with my hands as opposed to cracking books, dealing with homework, grades and teachers, and I wanted to develop a craft," explains Adley, now executive chef/owner of the Pinyon.
With an eye to cooking professionally, the 28-year-old wunderkind trained in some of the most illustrious kitchens in Colorado, including the Flagstaff House, Frasca Food and Wine, Radda Trattoria and the Little Nell in Aspen, before becoming the master of his own domain. Last December he opened the Pinyon, a "uniquely Colorado" restaurant that he says juxtaposes simple, straightforward American cuisine with esoteric deviations. "Our logo is a guy who's riding backwards on a horse, the idea being that the horse is charging forward and the guy is looking backwards, which, for us, symbolizes that we're constantly trying to be at the top of our game with modern takes and innovations -- but always paying respect to our culinary pasts and traditions," Adley explains.
The idea behind the Pinyon is "to bring more of a foraging- and wilderness-focused restaurant to the forefront of Boulder," he adds, one that utilizes a full bounty of ingredients that aren't just local, but responsibly sourced and produced. "We can call ourselves farm-to-table, but the reality is that that term gets sprayed around it a lot -- so do 'local' and 'sustainable' -- but they're all just buzzwords and marketing terms. Our job is to rise above the buzzwords and stay true to our craft by purchasing our products from purveyors, farmers and producers who we know personally -- we don't want any guesswork involved -- and preparing and executing our food responsibly."
In the following interview, Adley opens the coop on fried chicken, takes major exception to Boulder's title of "America's foodiest town," calls Thomas Keller a blabbermouth, and muses about his desire to open a new cocktail and craft-beer bar.
Six words to describe your food: Innovative, artisanal Rocky Mountain-inspired bistro.
Ten words to describe you: Slightly psychotic, food-obsessed family man with love in his heart.
Best recent food find: We put a really strong focus on wild and foragable ingredients at the Pinyon. Queen Anne's lace, which is the grandmother of the domesticated carrot, is pretty neat to work with. We just made a batch of Queen Anne's lace vinegar, which is wonderfully aromatic. We made a jelly, too, that smells like my youth -- like running around in a field.
Favorite ingredient: Whiskey barrel-aged maple syrup. You can get it from BLiS or the Noble Tonic line of vinegars. We're in the process of making our own with a used Hudson Distillery four-grain barrel and some Vermont syrup. We're letting it age for a year, and after we're done with the syrup, we'll reuse the barrel to age something else, like a cocktail or vinegar. The syrup is a great product with a beautiful flavor that's distinctly American.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: I gather wild onions from a ditch in Boulder. It's the same ditch where I get incredible wild asparagus, and at one end, there's even a wild plum tree.
Favorite spice: Sumac has an incredibly citric quality that will rock the pants off a rich protein item. It's a beautiful purple color and tastes like sunshine; it's a terrific liaison between a fish and red wine; it's a great lamb rub; and it's awesome on tartare. In other words, its applications are limitless.
Most overrated ingredient: It's strange how ubiquitous black pepper is. It definitely has applications, but in Western cooking, it's in everything. At the end of almost every recipe in a chef's notebook, it says, "S+P TT" -- salt and pepper to taste. I'm not sure what people expect out of black pepper -- except the flavor of black pepper. Why not white pepper? Why not any other random spice that you can think of? It's like putting cinnamon on everything.
Most underrated ingredient: Sambal oelek is a great secret weapon. I put it hand in hand with sriracha. They have this perfectly floral heat. We sneak the hell out of them both into our dishes, and inevitably people will say, "Damn, this is broke da mouf...but why?" And we will never tell them. White people have a really hard time putting it into context in Western foods, so I take advantage of that.
One food you detest: I really don't like tofu. I wouldn't say I detest it for fear of alienating a large part of Boulder, but I will say that it adds a certain degree of suckiness to most things. It's got an offensive texture, and that's about all it is to me.
One food you can't live without: I love coffee. I don't drink a ton of it -- just like one cup a day and always before noon -- but that cup means a lot to me. I like to drink it without much conversation and always outside. At the Pinyon, we use Boxcar Coffee from Boulder, and they are very, very good at what they do, plus they're a sweet family. We also use coffee in the kitchen quite often in cures and rubs, and we use it sometimes to deglaze and add bitter notes to dressings. It's another great secret weapon.
Favorite music to cook by: We listen to everything around here; generally, the more obscure it is, the better. Sallie Ford and the Sound Outside has been playing for a couple of days, and we also listen to Queens of the Stone Age, MF Doom, Mozart and Hank III. Hot Butter is probably my all-time favorite cooking music, but we're so ADD around here that the list goes on and on.
Rules of conduct in your kitchen: I have a seriously talented crew of chefs -- and I'm not just saying that. I really do. They constantly challenge themselves personally and professionally with any given task. That said, we're also young, loud and smart-assed, because we can really put up. We don't take stages or culinary school grads or reborn day traders, because we're a very small and tight crew of chefs, and we really have to rely on each other to get through a long day of service. Each of us is very specialized in a certain craft, too, like cheese, butchery, salumi, breads, pickles and jams, and we each have to manage our own production schedules on top of service pars. My staff will rock your face.
Biggest kitchen disaster: I volunteered to run the bar station for three months while I was working at the Little Nell in Aspen, except that it was a station that just made people quit, like over and over again. Nonetheless, I told the chefs that I thought I could take it over and make it better -- more efficient. The station itself was six burners, one fryer and a 26-inch square flat-top, and it was where we did all the soups for Montagna, the formal restaurant, plus four hot appetizer menu items. The station was also responsible for room service and the entire après-ski menu for all Little Nell dining spaces. My biggest kitchen disaster lasted for three months. I cooked a ton of beef a week in the smallest kitchen setup ever, and I single-handedly did 400 covers a night. My chefs didn't dare say a word to me, because I took it...hard...to the face. I lived in a little mountain town called "Le Weeds" for three months, and it didn't break me.
What's always in your kitchen? Amazing dairy products from Diamond D in Longmont. I haven't seen cream like that since 1938. You can eat it with a spoon. And we pay dearly for it, because Lord knows it's not cheap, but we pay for it happily because we know the source is clean and responsible and the cows are treated very well, and it shines through in their product. The delivery guy kicks down chocolate milk, too, with every delivery; it's like a bonus. If you try that chocolate milk and don't like it, then you wear the mark of the beast.
What's never in your kitchen? Chef coats. I find chef coats a little too bouge for what we do here. We wear dish shirts; we're comfy and clean.
Favorite dish to cook at home: It used to be fried chicken, but then I started making fried chicken at the Pinyon, and now it's a blessing and a curse. It's the best damn fried chicken out there, and everybody knows it, but now it's all I'm reputed for on the street. Chicken and I have a love-hate thing, kind of like Sid and Nancy. It's my favorite protein, apparently to my own detriment. Now I'm too busy to cook much at home, but when I do, it's usually a roast chicken with a salad.
Favorite dish on your menu: Milk-braised rabbit with roasted sour cherries, breakfast radishes, pickled watermelon rind, wheat berries, alfalfa and dill. It's a great little dish that has a bunch of fun, early-summer stuff going on, and it makes me think of what a real farm tastes like.
If you could put any dish on your menu, even though it might not sell, what would it be? Escargot sautéed with oyster crabs with roasted corn must, fiddleheads and butter whey.
Weirdest customer request: Every once in a while, someone tries to barter a weird substitution for a positive Yelp review. I find that kind of "foodie" despicable.
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Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: McDonald's takes that one.
Last meal before you die: I'd eat fried chicken and any pie that my wife makes.