The Spain Course

James Mazzio is racing toward chef stardom with dizzying speed. He had presided for less than a year over his first kitchen -- Boulder's Fifteen Degrees -- when Food and Wine magazine named him one of the ten best young chefs of 1999. His subsequent appearance on the Food Network was marred only slightly by the fact that host Sarah Moulton barely allowed him to get a word in edgewise. Even the demise of Fifteen Degrees last year didn't slow his rise; three months ago, Mazzio opened his own place on Boulder's Pearl Street: Triana.

Mazzio is a man of the times. He combines the chef's traditional lifelong passion for food with an up-to-the-moment trendiness and a businesslike willingness to work with focus groups. Of course, his love of food dates to his childhood. Mazzio's father was the caretaker of the Campbell's Soup estate in Gladwyne, Pennsylvania. "We had every vegetable we could possibly grow in that climate," remembers Mazzio. "Every fruit tree -- quince, apple, peach, plum, you name it. Strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, golden raspberries. We had red cherry and yellow cherry trees that met in the middle, and I used to sit there as a kid and eat red and yellow cherries."

Naturally, there was also the Italian grandmother. As a boy, Mazzio stayed with his paternal grandmother for a month every summer, watching as she concocted recipes out of her head and fed appreciative family members. "She would be hand-making the pasta and making raviolis and meatballs," he says. "Veal pounded out, with parsley and garlic rubbed on it and then rolled and seared and cooked in sauce for hours. Pork chops and sausages. It was an amazing feast. She used to let me touch the ingredients. She would make this incredible chicken broth with pasta like little stars and some carrot and celery. I mean, I would die for that as a kid."

Mazzio loves telling the story of his grandmother's encounter with the meter reader. The man was tense, he says, anxious to get on with his day: "He needed to read those meters, you know?" But Mazzio's grandmother wouldn't let him leave. She pleaded with him to have some coffee and a piece of pie. Finally, "She grabbed him by the arm and put him in a chair and said, 'You just sit down,'" Mazzio says. "He left the house not thinking about anything stressful any more. You could see the change in his face."

The transformative power of food influences Mazzio's style as a restaurateur, too. "You can always tell when people first sit down to a meal, they're kind of disconnected, even sometimes a little disgruntled from their day," he says. "But after a drink and the first course, they're changed. You can even be a little late with the food on the second course."

Mazzio started cooking at the age of eight or nine, after his parent's divorce. He made Frito pie with his father. "Something you would put ground beef in, and refried beans and sour cream and those little black cut olives, and you would eat it with tortilla chips," he remembers. "I made boxed stuff. Junk food -- I loved it. As I got older, I started adding vegetables and seasonings, and just playing around."

However, Mazzio's first ambition was to be a stand-up comedian. "I thought I was pretty funny," he says. He tried a couple of gigs, got a few laughs and decided he didn't feel comfortable in front of groups of people --although he does now, he hastens to add. Anyway, he says, "Chefs are pretty funny. Actually the whole experience of working in a kitchen needs to be humorous because the odds are so against you that if you can't laugh, you're really getting pissed off!"

Mazzio spent one semester in college and then, drawn by the beauty of the mountains, decided to leave home and head to Aspen. He worked for three years at Mezzaluna, doing everything from busing tables to tending bar to working as sous chef. "The kitchen just fascinated me," he says. "It kept pulling me back." Eventually, he went to work with Charles Dale, chef/owner of Renaissance.

Mazzio was evolving his own way of cooking, learning from other chefs, most of them classically trained. And Dale eventually allowed Mazzio creative freedom in the kitchen. "We had a very symbiotic relationship," says Mazzio. "We used to say that he would start a sentence and I could finish it for him."

It was Dale who nominated Mazzio for the Best Young Chef award.

Mazzio defines his culinary style as "pretty raw -- not unskilled, but rustic. I like keeping things simple. I like to express one or two ingredients and have them be the show-stopper. For me, personally, when you get too many flavors going on together, you're dealing with confusion instead of fusion."

Mazzio is clear on why he wanted to open Triana: He'd never worked with Spanish cuisine, and, drawn to its basic simplicity, he felt challenged to try it. It also represented a niche going unfilled locally. "I think we're really going to bring the flavors, the passion, the real Spanish cuisine to Boulder," Mazzio says. "We have an incredible team." (That team includes Doug Clayton, longtime Mazzio associate and Triana's general manager.) The restaurant is named for an area in Andalusia that's reputed to be the birthplace of tapas and Flamenco dancing. Its menu was developed over months of experimentation. Mazzio held dinner parties for his friends, as well as several tastings; diners were asked to fill out a sheet on every dish.

While, traditionally, a talented chef might labor to create a single venue in which to express his artistry, and then insist on supervising his own kitchen, many contemporary chefs have learned from the chain stores. Mazzio hopes to open another Triana in Denver, and then still others. Despite his own dazzling reputation, he says he wants to create food that anybody can make. "If we do another Triana, everyone will be trained through here," he explains. "Everyone who goes to the next restaurant will be infused with a piece of my ideals."

Still, he'll allow for individual creativity. "Any chef I'd want to work with," Mazzio says, "I'd want him to stand on his own and feel it was his restaurant."

Meanwhile, Triana throbs with life and energy, and feels like nowhere else in town. Mazzio always intended it to be a warm and affordable place, he says, where customers can sample tapas, drink wine and skip the main course if they're so inclined. "Our goal isn't to be some culinary amazement where you're paying $20 to $30 dollars a plate for your entrees," he explains. "We really want to bring people together to drink champagne and wine and hang out with their friends and, you know, just live. There's no air of stuffiness there, or arrogance to the staff. We want people to feel they've just walked into a party at a friend's house."

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman