Chef and Tell with James Rugile of Venue
Head down 32nd Avenue in Highland, and you're likely to find 25-year-old James Rugile in the kitchen at Venue, turning out some of the most incredibly delicious food in Denver (if you haven't tried Rugile's shrimp and grits, go now). The studious young chef, who grew up in Basalt and attended Johnson & Wales University, where he graduated cum laude with an associate's degree in culinary arts, has already had an impressive career as a cook and chef, beginning with Vesta Dipping Grill, where he worked the line with Matt Selby and Wade Kirwan, and later at Black Pearl, where he was chef de cuisine.
Lori Midson James Rugile, executive chef of Venue
Rugile traveled to Chicago for a two-day stage at Alinea -- an experience that encouraged him to reconsider why he was cooking in the first place. "It was a very intense environment using incredibly progressive techniques," Rugile remembers. "I felt that a lot of the cooking placed an emphasis on altering and manipulating ingredients rather than highlighting and complementing them, and I realized that it's not about manipulation, but showing appreciation for fresh, seasonal ingredients and using proper technique and precision to highlight them.
"What I'm really passionate about -- what really excites me about food -- are old-school techniques like braising and confit, things like taking inexpensive cuts of meat and transforming them into delicacies," confesses Rugile, who opened Venue with owner Holly Hartnett exactly one year ago. "Having the patience to trim and sear a cut of meat, putting it in the oven for four to five hours and letting it rest and cool in its own juices...that's the kind of food I love."
Rugile, who was born in Queens, says his fascination with cooking started young. "I found a passion for cooking through my mother's influence," he explains. "She always had a great appreciation for the dinner table and the importance of family." And Rugile admits that he likes to cook to the music of -- gasp -- Michael McDonald, a choice his mother would probably appreciate. In the following interview, he also laments the dearth of delis in Denver, talks about the new Highland Chefs' Collaborative project that he's spearheading, and sings the praises of Portland's food scene.
Seven words to describe your food: Simple, refined, technique-driven, seasonal, rich and comforting.
Ten words to describe you: Passionate, humble, determined, focused, funny, attentive, meticulous and rock & roll.
Favorite ingredient: It's hard for me to identify a single ingredient, but I love pork cuts, especially pork shoulder, which is like $1.10 a pound and so, so good. I dig using something cheap and transforming it into something extravagant and delicious.
Most overrated ingredient: Truffle oil. I can appreciate it in small quantities from time to time, on appropriate dishes, but it's overly used on a lot of menus. Plus, it's not even a true ingredient; it's factory-manufactured perfume.
Most undervalued ingredient: Fat. Duck fat, pork fat -- whatever. Typically the fat is trimmed and thrown away by home cooks rather than rendered down and utilized for other applications, which is such a shame, because it adds so much depth of flavor and richness to dishes. We'll use the duck fat for duck confit, but we save bacon fat to use in vinaigrettes and pork belly fat for pork rillettes on the charcuterie plate.
Favorite local ingredient: Our coffee from Copper Door is some of the best I've ever tasted. I get it from a local Highland resident who roasts it all from his home. You can buy it from St. Kilian's, right around the corner from us, but we're the only restaurant he sources, and we're very grateful for that. It's delicious. I also really appreciate the beautiful greens that Josh [Halder] grows at Verde Farms.