This is part one of my interview with TJ Hobbs, chef of Ghost Plate & Tap; part two of our interview will run tomorrow.
TJ Hobbs remembers rushing through dinner to watch The Simpsons. It's not that his parents couldn't cook -- though his dad did a mighty fine job of charring burgers to the point of being inedible, he says -- but food just wasn't the center of his universe. "We had tons of food on holidays, and on Sunday, we'd do a family brunch or dinner, but we weren't obsessed by it," recalls Hobbs, today the chef at Ghost Plate & Tap.
When he was growing up in a small country town in Minnesota, though, his grandmother had a garden, and Hobbs recounts lugging home more than he could carry. "We'd come back with twenty pounds of tomatoes and cucumbers, and while it didn't really resonate at the time, I have my own vegetable garden now, and I still call my grandmother whenever I have gardening questions," he says. Unfortunately, he failed to call her last summer when he planted eight tomatillo plants, which "took over absolutely everything." Remember that, he advises, if you ever plant a tomatillo plant.
And burgers, he insists, should not be black, the way his father made them. Still, it was those burgers that piqued Hobbs's interest in learning how to cook. "I wanted my burger medium -- not charred -- so I complained one day, and my dad said that if I didn't like his burgers, I should start grilling them myself, so I did. And that's kind of what propelled the fascination with cooking," he says.
He started putting in hours at a local organic farm, then got his first real job at an upscale meat market, where he washed dishes and exchanged pleasantries with customers at the counter. He'd spent three years there, moving up to assistant manager and meat cutter, by the time he trotted off to Colorado for a vacation. He liked what he found here so much that he decided to leave Minnesota behind for 300-some days of sunshine. "I remember snowboarding in my sweatshirt and wearing shorts to the zoo the next day, and I knew that I'd love the climate in Colorado," he says. Plus, "I started discovering how big the restaurant scene was getting in Denver."
In 2007 he landed a job at the California Cafe at Park Meadows (it closed last year). He started in pantry, moved on to the pizza station, and eventually took over the pastry, dessert and bread program. "The guy who was doing it before me got mad for some reason and decided not to come in one day, so I spent most of my time doing desserts and baking bread and creating new recipes," says Hobbs. He still needed more hours, so he picked up a second gig at the long-gone Twig's Wine Bar, where he was hired as a line cook by Chris Cina, now the executive chef for Wynkoop/Breckenridge, which owns Ghost. Cina kept a close eye on Hobbs, liked what he saw, and eventually offered him a full-time stint -- and more money. When Twig's abruptly closed in 2008, Hobbs hit the pavement and rolled into Ya Ya's, where he started in pastry and climbed the ladder to sous chef before getting laid off two years later.
As luck -- bad, it turned out -- would have it, Cina was then the exec chef at Hideaway Steakhouse in Westminster, and he called Hobbs and asked if he was interested in becoming Cina's sous there. "That was a really rough ride," admits Hobbs, who was disposed of just a few months after Cina was given his walking papers. Hobbs wound up at Sushi Den as a kitchen manager -- a title that didn't exactly fit his responsibilities. "They kept telling me that they were going to let me do all sorts of things," he recalls, "but in reality, I was a salaried lead line cook, so after hanging out for a while, I started to look elsewhere."
He took a position as a server at Wasabi Sushi Bar in Centennial. "I really wanted to learn about the front-of-the-house responsibilities," explains Hobbs, who got a four-month dose of those responsibilities before getting laid off. But lo and behold, Cina, who was now at Ghost, called just a week later. He hired Hobbs as sous at Ghost, and when Cina moved over to the Wynkoop last April, Hobbs was handed the kitchen at Ghost a few months later. It's a job that suits him. "I love coming up with new recipes, and I love the creative freedom," he says. "Plus, this is just a great company to work for. I couldn't be happier." In the following interview, Hobbs (jokingly) threatens Cina's authority, challenges diners to expand their restaurant repertoire, and reveals what was once his substitute for bacon.
How do you describe your food? Seasonal, comforting and American. I like to make my food a little different and a little high-end, but not frou-frou -- and definitely approachable.
Ten words to describe you: Adventurous, confident, passionate, outgoing, creative, sarcastic, persistent, hardworking, compassionate and curious. What are your ingredient obsessions? The obsessions rotate regularly, but at the moment, I'm really into cured meats and smoked sausage because of the kick they add to my dishes. I'm cooking a lot of New Orleans-inspired food right now, and the addition of cured or smoked meats is imperative in order to impart the flavors of that region.
What are your kitchen-gadget obsessions? I don't have one here at Ghost yet, but I do love a great pasta roller. You can't beat fresh pasta or ravioli.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: Richardo's decaf coffee liqueur, which I get from Spirit Hound Distillers in Lyons. I'm using it in a panna cotta. It's not too sweet and has a natural creaminess to it.
Food trend you'd like to see in 2013: I'd like to see a major adjustment to portion sizes being served in restaurants. Who really needs a 22-ounce steak for a single meal? More is not always better.
Food trend you'd like to see disappear in 2013: The whole "farm to table" moniker -- not the use of local farmed products, but just the saying. We should all be trying to buy and support local and seasonal products as much as possible, but that phrase is being totally overused.
What's never in your kitchen? Pre-made salad dressings. Making dressing is so incredibly simple and provides such a clean flavor. I don't get why kitchens use the bottled stuff, which is not only more expensive, but it all tastes awful.
What's always in your kitchen? Different types of salt. I've currently got smoked sea salt, black lava salt and pink Himalayan salt in my kitchen. Most people think salt is salt, but the various styles can change the flavor and/or texture of a dish quite a bit.
One food you detest: Eggplant. It's nearly inedible in most forms except breaded and fried, and you could bread and fry my shoe and it would probably taste pretty good. I don't care for the consistency, the taste or the appearance of eggplant -- it's all gray and slimy.
One food you can't live without: Beef jerky. My first job was at a meat market, and it felt like they had me making it every day. I liked eating it even more than making it, and ever since then, it's been an addiction of mine. My favorite kind to buy is Jack Link's sweet-and-hot beef jerky.
Favorite dish on your menu: Braised beef short ribs with brown-butter spaetzle, caramelized pearl onions, wilted greens and braising jus. It's hearty and flavorful, but the simplicity of the ingredients allows every ingredient to shine through. It's a very popular dish on the Ghost Plate & Tap menu, but we'll be rotating it off in April to make room for our spring items.
Biggest menu bomb: When I first moved here, I was working pastry, and the chef asked me to make a special for Valentine's Day. I was young and pretty inexperienced, so I said I'd make a three-layer mousse. Yeah, well, try making more than 450 of those in one day. I still feel bad for the diners who ate late. Dessert may not have been recognizable as a mousse at that point.
Weirdest customer request: I was working at a restaurant -- Ya Ya's -- that served Pepsi instead of Coke, and we had a diner who asked if we would go down the street to the gas station and buy a twelve-pack for him. He said that if we did, he'd keep coming back to eat at the restaurant until it closed. I assume he's still eating there, since it's still open.
Weirdest thing you've ever put in your mouth: When I was in high school, I spent two weeks in Tanana, Alaska, staying with a friend whose dad was a salmon fisherman. Every morning after we'd get done cleaning the fish he caught, we'd eat the fish hearts with our eggs. It was our substitute for bacon.
What's always lurking in your refrigerator? Dill pickles or some type of olives. It's pretty lonely in there.
If you hadn't become a chef, what would you be doing right now? If I didn't end up as a chef, I'd be back in Minnesota freezing my ass off as an auto mechanic and eventually taking over Baldwin Auto, my father's business.
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What's in the pipeline? Aside from a new spring menu coming out at Ghost in April, thanks to my inspiration from chef Cina, I now have aspirations to take his job. Watch out, Cina, I'm comin' for ya.