Chef and Tell with James Mazzio
James Mazzio sneaks a look at his ticker. He's doing a dinner for a hundred people in less than three hours and his cooks need him on the line. It's the final hurrah in his three-month stint at Le Chateau, the French restaurant where he's been cooking since last October. "They let me go," he says flatly. "I don't know...I guess the owner thought that my name would bring people through the doors. I never thought that, so I don't know why he did." Mazzio pauses for a moment, then breaks into a wide smile. "But I'm really, really excited about my new project."
The 1999 Food & Wine magazine Best New Chef winner, an honor bestowed upon Mazzio while he was cooking at the long-departed 15 Degrees in Boulder, isn't the kind of guy who dwells on the past. "I'm just so looking forward to getting back into a working kitchen, cooking what I want to cook," he says of the new restaurant he's opening with Fried Zarie and Donna Levine, the owners of Tipsy's Liquor World in Littleton, which houses Pickles Deli and the next-door Olive Oil, both of which Mazzio will oversee. "Olive Oil is going to be rustic Italian with lots of modern twists and turns, and the deli will have everything from great sandwiches and an olive bar to ice cream and a fantastic cheese selection," says Mazzio. "We'll be doing Neapolitan pizzas in the restaurant, and we'll make our own gnocchi, a lot of the pastas and pizza doughs in-house. From there, the sky's the limit."
Which has always been the motto of Mazzio, who grew up on the Campbell Soup estate in Gladwyne, Pennsylvania, where his father was a caretaker and Mazzio spent his time harvesting fruits and vegetables and cooking in his Sicilian grandmother's kitchen. He moved to Aspen when he was nineteen to fulfill his lifelong ambition of becoming a ski bum, but soon found himself more enamored with cooking than with fresh powder, a revelation that landed him in the kitchen of Renaissance, a now-defunct Aspen restaurant owned by chef Charles Dale, himself a Food & Wine magazine Best New Chef. "I asked Charles for advice about pursuing a culinary career, and he thought I'd be, uh, ill-suited for culinary school, so he offered me an internship at his restaurant," explains Mazzio of the gig that lasted for more than four years. "Because of that job, I was really able to tap into the knowledge and experience of some of the finest chefs in the world."
And it was that job that gave Mazzio the confidence and foundation he needed to leave Aspen in search of a kitchen to call his own. He landed at 15 Degrees in Boulder, where he was hired as a sous and quickly promoted to head chef. Eight months later, Mazzio was a Food & Wine Best New Chef. Four months after the elation, 15 Degrees closed.
In this interview, Mazzio, who's cheffed at numerous restaurants throughout Denver, including the Ice House Tavern and the former Neighborhood Flix and Via, talks about the day Food & Wine editor Dana Cowin caught him off guard, his frustration with mediocrity, and why Denver will never be a great culinary city like New York unless diners step up to the plate.
Six words to describe your food: Rustic, simple, approachable, bold, seasoned and comfortable.
Ten words to describe you: Enthusiastic, adventurous, outgoing, persistent, loud, bold, fun, exciting, spontaneous and passionate.
Proudest moment as a chef: When Food & Wine magazine gave me the Best New Chef award in 1999, it was simultaneously the proudest and scariest moment of my life. I was working at 15 Degrees in Boulder and had only been there for eight months when Dana Cowin, the editor at Food & Wine, called to tell me that I was a Best New Chef. I picked up the phone right after I'd burned a whole tray of lamb shanks, and I was all, "Who the fuck is this?" I had totally forgotten that I'd even been nominated, and I had no idea who Dana Cowin was. She asked how my day was going -- I told her it sucked, and she said that it was about ready to get a whole lot better. When she told me the news, my stomach dropped and my hands started to shake. I never honestly believed it would happen. The fear started seeping in.... I was so young -- just 29 -- and I didn't go to culinary school, so I didn't have this backlog of knowledge or the technique a lot of the other chefs had. I've come full circle since that day.
Favorite ingredient: I love salt. The way a chef uses salt in cooking is incredibly important. I call it the layering effect: As you cook a dish, you use salt to bring out the flavors already there, and it just makes your tongue a lot happier.