Chef and Tell: Jamey Fader of Lola and Big Red F
I've kept company at the bar with Jamey Fader more times than I can count, laughing as he tells me stories about the hippies camped out in their caravans just outside Lola during the DNC, simultaneously shaking and nodding my head while he divulges his latest - and usually crazy - chef shenanigans, listening intently as he explains his stance on celebrity chefs, namely that he couldn't care less.
Fader once auditioned for Top Chef, the Bravo TV reality show that produced a Boulder victor - Hosea Rosenberg - last season, but instead of being forced to make food for a hundred from a Twix bar and a Twinkie, Fader went back to his kitchen, free of regrets. "They asked me something about what celebrity chef I looked up to, and I told them, I don't." And that, says Fader, was that.
And that's how Fader rolls. He grew up in the Washington, D.C., area, walked away with a bachelor's degree in journalism from West Virginia University, moved to Colorado in 1996 and got a gig as a prep cook at Jax Fish House in Denver, one of Dave Query's restaurants. In 2002, Fader partnered with Query to create Lola, which is where Fader had been cooking until last fall, when he assumed a much larger role as the corporate chef for Big Red F, Query's restaurant group (and, yes, Rosenberg's employer, too).
It's been a great ride for Fader, but his success hasn't come without frustrations and hard lessons. He addresses all of that in the interview that follows -- the same interview in which he also admits that moose meat is the most disgusting thing he's ever put in his mouth.
Six words to describe your food: Simple, while ingredient- and craft-driven.
Ten words (or more, if you're Fader) to describe you: Obsessive, committed, vigilant, open-minded, loyal and unflappable in the line of fire.
Culinary inspirations: Working with my talented friends and fellow chefs in Denver, namely Matt Selby, Tyler Wiard, Troy Guard, Goose Sorensen, Sheila Lucero, Brian Laird and Keegan Gerhard. I'm also inspired by classic Mexican dishes and the foods that I grew up with -- pot pies, tacos, hunter stews, boils, sandwiches, grilled cheese and tomato soup. I dig the stuff that doesn't just fill the belly, but also evokes memories laden with emotions. I'm also really inspired by something called 50 Top, which are these super-cool chef dinners for Denverites put on by local chefs who want to support and bring recognition to the Denver dining scene. Each dinner is held at an iconic Denver location that pays homage to the town we call home.
Favorite ingredient: In general, fish, specifically scallops. They go with just about anything and are delicious grilled, baked, fried, raw, seared, crusted - whatever. I'm an East Coast kid, so for me, there's also something comforting about scallops. Things like lobster, blue crabs and scallops may be the stuff decadent meals are made of in most parts of the world, but with my family, these were simple local folk food. I totally dig that dichotomy.
Proudest moment as a chef: Opening Lola was a big step for me. I was going from chef to chef/partner, which is just as big of a leap as when you're going from prep to line cook, line cook to sous chef and so on. The level of awareness is exponentially greater at this point, and when a guy like Dave Query gives you the green light, you're stoked and excited but humbled and nervous. When Query trusted me enough to pull the trigger at Lola, it became the proudest moment in my career, because it was the culmination of years of hard work, and I was finally being rewarded with the ultimate kudos by one of the most respected restaurateurs in the business.
Best food city in America: Denver. No, I'm not bullshitting you. There's no other city where you can find the talent, entrepreneurship, humility, creativity and tight community within the restaurant industry, while simultaneously being supported by food-savvy guests and enthusiasts dying to make it all work.
Favorite music to cook by: Lucero, a great rock band from Tennessee.
Most overrated ingredient: Truffles. Yes, they're delicious, but using them doesn't make a dish great or a chef a genius. It's not that they don't have their place, but they tend to be overused, and white-truffle-infused oil is especially overused.
Most undervalued ingredient and why: This is tough, because I get the idea of overrated, but undervalued has got me a bit stumped. I'll have to say habanero peppers, in that they're shied away from because of their heat, yet when they're used properly, they have this sweet and fruity flavor that's undeniably delicious.
Rules of conduct in your kitchen: Take what you do very seriously, but don't take yourself too seriously. Be professional and let your work do the talking, never blame others, and do your best to solve problems.
Favorite New York restaurant: Toloache. It's a taco joint in New York that's simple, delicious and perfect every time. I always order tequila when I'm there, because nothing goes better with kick-ass tacos than tequila.
One food you detest: Beef liver. It was always a once-a-month thing growing up, and I have a keen olfactory memory. There's just something about that smell that unnerves me. Calf's liver is fine, but beef liver? No, thanks. Actually, there are two foods I really detest. Is that okay? Moose. I hate moose. A buddy of mine who's also a hunter in Alaska sends me some moose meat every season, and it's seriously the foulest thing I have ever eaten. Ever. Period.
One food you can't live without and why: Sriracha sauce. It goes well with literally everything. I may even try it in my coffee tomorrow morning.
Most embarrassing moment in the kitchen: I once cooked the mascot of a fish house where I worked. I was asked to get the biggest lobster from a live tank for a VIP, but I didn't know that the lobster I chose, and subsequently poached, was part of the, uh, "family." Yeah...it was the last decision I ever made there.
What you'd like to see more of in Denver from a culinary standpoint: Farm-to kitchen connections. When there's less shipping and fewer emissions involved, more local dollars staying in the local economy and fresher ingredients being used, it's a win-win situation for everyone.
What you'd like to see less of in Denver from a culinary standpoint: Molecular gastronomy. Very few chefs can do it well, and more often than not, it's done poorly. I love to experiment, and this side of cooking is yet another weapon in the arsenal, but when you play with guns, bad things can happen. And in this case, the result is often really bad food. I don't know, maybe I'm too old-school, but craft and technique always work better for me than flash and gimmicks.
Denver has the best: Group of hardworking chefs looking out for the local industry.
Denver has the worst: Late-night dining scene. Having a few late-night gastro-roach coaches would be great. I'd love to see trucks serving up yummy stuff to pad the stomach for more reverie, or to send me off to a blissful full-belly slumber. If it were my gig, I'd serve things like pho, ramen, tacos, tostadas and meat on a stick.
Favorite cookbook: Fannie Farmer. It's a great cookbook that has everything you need for a basic recipe that you can always build upon and make your own.
What show would you pitch to the Food Network? Rogue Dinner. I'd take some chefs and plan a great dinner at some crazy spot somewhere. Without asking for permission, obviously.
Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: The reproductive organs of a chicken. Texturally, they were like liver, but much sweeter and not as strong-tasting as liver.
Current Denver culinary genius: Sheila Lucero, the executive chef at Jax in Denver. Her food is so spot on and so simple, and yet she continues to go so unnoticed. I don't get why that is, because her food is inspired and always makes sense.
You're making a pizza. What's on it? Meatballs, mushrooms and peppers.
You're making an omelet. What's in it? Avocado, crab and jalapeños.
After-work hangout: My couch. It used to be the PS Lounge back in the day, though.
Favorite Denver restaurant other than your own: Right now it's got to be TAG, Troy Guard's new restaurant in Larimer Square. I love the concept, and that little guy named Troy is just really talented. His food embraces all types of great culinary adventures, and there's never a dull moment when you're eating it.
Favorite celebrity chef: I don't have one on a national level. Honestly, I couldn't care less about celebrity chefs. It's not that I'm hating on anyone, but I believe in, and look up to, those chefs within my community, especially Matt Selby at Vesta. He's humble, talented, creative, always pushing the envelope and constantly looking to help out the industry as a whole. To me, that defines a real celebrity chef. I'm not sure that you want to tell people this, but I also really like the chef on The Muppets.
Celebrity chef that should shut up: I guess he's not really a chef, but that guy, Ted Allen, from Queer Eye for the Straight Guy who was a judge on Top Chef knows absolute shit about what it takes to be in this industry, let alone consider himself any kind of expert that would qualify him to comment on anyone's food.
Hardest lesson you've learned: Perception is everything. You can have all the good intentions in the world, but they mean nothing when they're pitted against people's own perceptions of what they think you're trying to accomplish. Over the lifespan of a restaurant, things change...a lot, and those changes are embraced by some and loathed by others. As an operator, I'm trying to keep things fresh and create a draw that builds upon my existing clientele and concept, but what I've learned is that, in the end, how we're perceived is determined not by our intentions, but by what the momentum of the buzz is -- and sometimes that's a bitter pill to swallow. You know, some people may think we're too expensive, or the food is too challenging, or we cater to this type or that type, when the truth is that we're just folks trying to make this restaurant thing work, and we're doing it with all the heart and soul we can muster. There are times that all I want to do is scream at the top of my voice, "We love what we do. Please give us a chance to show you that." I don't think that's too much to ask for.
What's next for you? Figuring out how to find that thing in life called balance, while enjoying the amazing family, job and life that I'm living. And for as long as I'm a chef, I'm going to continue to foster the idea of a chef-driven community with a common goal of nurturing the dining scene in Denver.