Oak Tavern's Jeremy Roosa plays with sharp knives, ballyhoos the virtues of acidity, boohoos iceberg lettuce and sings the praises of the spatula
Lori Midson Jeremy Roosa, exec chef of the Oak Tavern
1414 Market Street
"I dress like a clown, I play with food, fire and sharp knives, and they pay me. Does it get any more fun than that?" asks Jeremy Roosa. The executive chef of Oak Tavern, a LoDo watering hole that serves sandwiches, salads and gourmet baked potatoes the size of Boise, is tricked out in a black chef's coat, darker than a cold heart, with blue piping, warning me to watch my head as we descend the stairs into his squat kitchen. "It's completely nuts in here when we're really busy," says Roosa.
The 36-year-old chef, who hails from Troy, New York -- it's the "armpit of America," insists Roosa -- was on his way to California back in 1997 when he skidded into Boulder to visit his best friend. "It's like a lot of people who stop in Colorado on their way to California: They never leave, and neither did I," says Roosa, who spent more than ten years bopping around various kitchens in Boulder, including the Bookend Cafe, where he learned to make pastry, Jax Fish House, Q's, the now-defunct Oasis Brewery, Jose Muldoon's, L'Atelier and Chautauqua Dining Hall, where he got the opportunity to work with Bradford Heap, now the chef/owner of Salt Bistro in Boulder and Colterra in Niwot. "Man, I learned a lot from Bradford, like how to break down a leg of lamb and take my art to the next level," he recalls.
Roosa moved to Denver in 2006, working off and on as a line cook at Rioja for three years before moving to the Oak Tavern when it opened in July of last year. "You have to take risks to make your money," says Roosa, who, up until last week, also worked in the kitchen at TAG with Troy Guard, a chef whose cooking style Roosa says mirrors his own. "I've worked for or interviewed with nearly every notable restaurant in town, and I think Troy just does an amazing job, especially with ingredients," he says. Roosa also sings the praises of Alex Seidel, Wayne Conwell and Jennifer Jasinki in the following interview. But don't even get him started on Anthony Bourdain, Emeril Lagasse or Gordon Ramsay, and whatever you do, don't even think about ordering a cheese plate at his restaurant.
Six words to describe your food: Not bar food, inspiring, comforting and satisfying.
Ten words to describe you: Intelligent, charming, extravagant, meticulous, outgoing, animated, driven, passionate, sassy and feisty.
Culinary inspirations: I think every chef has some famous chef that they look up to, that they want to emulate. Then you have the local chefs that you worked for who taught you a few things along the way. Of course, every season brings new and fresh ingredients that inspire me, and then there's always that one thing that happened to you as a child that got you into cooking. But for me, the main inspiration comes from doing research for a new menu. I was sought after, and hired, to open a new local restaurant a few years ago, at a place that will remain nameless, but the concept I was given was Colorado just over 100 years ago, and to be honest, I didn't have a clue, so the research began, starting with finding out which nationalities settled in Colorado and then what did they eat. The things I learned are still in my repertoire, but unfortunately for that restaurant, after tasting over forty dishes that I cooked, they told me my food was so good that it would overshadow the wine. Really? Let's just say they're not really known for their food. Here at the Tavern, I cook all things American, and it's really fun when I stop by a table and can tell the customer a little bit about the history of the dish from the research I've done. The day you stop learning is the day you die.