Chef and Tell with Kate Horton from Black Pearl
1529 South Pearl Street
Kate Horton is a self-described late bloomer, Top Chef reject and has-been nanny. "Yeah, I tried out for Top Chef, but didn't make it past the first round, probably because I didn't do very well during the on-camera interview," muses the 35-year-old exec chef of Black Pearl, whose clogs had never touched the floor of a professional kitchen until five years ago. "The 22-page application wasn't very much fun to fill out either," she says, laughing.
Born and raised in Dubuque, Iowa, Horton, a former track-and-field athlete, briefly attended Simpson College - "I went there because I could run faster than anyone else on the track team," she remembers - before coming to the realization that "the academic setting of that particular college wasn't for me." She transferred to Iowa State, where she "partied way too much" before kicking college life to the asphalt and turning her focus to kids. "I was a nanny all over the place -- in New Jersey, Washington, D.C., Kansas City and Aspen, which is where I eventually became interested in cooking," she says. Horton, it turns out, was working for the owners of the Little Nell, Aspen's hoity-toity hotel that houses Montagna, one of the top restaurants in Colorado. "They introduced me to the chef, this guy who told me that the kitchen was no place for a woman, so I said 'fuck that,' picked up and moved back to Washington, got another job as a nanny and enrolled in culinary school," Horton says. "I remember thinking that if a restaurant kitchen was really that crazy, then I definitely wanted to check it out."
After graduating from the Art Institute of Washington, Horton, who had never worked in a restaurant in any capacity prior to culinary school, began staging at D.C. restaurants, and from the moment she stepped on the line, she was intoxicated by the adrenaline. "It was fantastic," she recalls. "I immediately knew that I wanted to be in the kitchen...the energy was so amazing."
In 2007, she relocated to Denver - a move precipitated by her brother, who had just landed a job at the Air Force Academy - and was hired as a pantry cook at Duo working under John Broening, who's also the exec at Olivea (Duo's sister restaurant). "John created a sous chef position for me to make it more challenging, but things changed when he left," she laments. "The kitchen became a lot more loosey-goosey, which isn't my style at all, plus there was nowhere for me to go."
A text message from a friend about an open exec chef position at Black Pearl turned out to be the next step for Horton. "I staged here for a couple of nights, and it was a great fit right off the bat," she says. "I feel at home in this kitchen, and I'm doing a lot of things differently from what was done here in the past - seasoning my food properly, tasting dishes before they go out to tables and doing dishes that are a lot more seasonal." In a nutshell, Horton concludes, "I walked into a great space with great service in a great neighborhood, but the kitchen needed someone to do amazing food, and I think what I'm doing here can complete the puzzle."