The world according to Ya Ya's Aaron Whitcomb: pork is overrated, Espelette pepper powder is amazing and pho is pho-king awesome
Lori Midson Aaron Whitcomb
YaYa's Euro Bistro
8310 East Belleview Avenue, Greenwood Village
Aaron Whitcomb wants to show off his new menu at YaYa's Euro Bistro, the Greenwood Village restaurant whose kitchen he's commanded since April of last year, and the dishes keep coming. "We're making almost all of our own pastas, baking most of our own breads, curing a lot of the meats, making our own ricotta and all of our desserts in-house," says Whitcomb, who's also the corporate chef of YaYa's Restaurant Group, a small chain of five restaurants, with additional locations in Missouri, Arkansas and Kansas.
Whitcomb, who was born in Pueblo and reared in Littleton, embarked on his culinary career while still a teenager, working first as a bee mascot at an all-you-can-eat buffet, and later at Boston Market, Old Chicago and NoNo's Café -- all while he was still in high school. "I always knew I wanted to cook," he says. "I helped my mom cook a lot at home, and instead of watching cartoons growing up, I watched Julia Child, Graham Kerr and The Frugal Gourmet, which my mom thought was weird, but along the way, I learned that I could really cook -- that I was good at it."
So good, in fact, that after culinary school, three years at the California Cafe and four years soaking up all he could sponge about wine (the result was a first-level certificate from the Court of Master Sommeliers), he was offered the sous chef stint at Adega Restaurant and Wine Bar, which, before it closed in 2005, was named one of Esquire magazine's best new restaurants in America. From there, he moved on to Table 6, where he was hired as the opening executive chef, a gig that led to what Whitcomb calls an "incredibly inspirational experience": the opportunity to work in Chicago at Alinea, Grant Achatz's mega-famous shrine to molecular gastronomy. "It was unbelievably regimented, and when you did something wrong you felt like you'd just upset your father, but I loved every minute of working there," he remembers. "I thrived on it, and even though I never worked fully in the kitchen, when I left a year later, I was an assistant sommelier and had learned more than I ever thought was possible."
Whitcomb eventually returned to Denver to be closer to his young daughter, a move that also landed him at Strings, where he was given the exec chef reins by owner Noel Cunningham. Whitcomb "looked at the job as a challenge to resurrect the Strings of the past," he says, but concedes that while he was thankful for the opportunity, Cunningham wasn't exactly loose with the constraints. "He was supposedly going to let me do what I wanted with the menu, but the freedom that I thought I'd have turned out to be limited." Still, he adds, "Noel and Strings was what I needed at the time."
Eventually, though, Whitcomb realized it was time to move on, so he joined forces with Scott Hornick, the general manager of YaYas and a longtime friend. "We always wanted to work together, there was an exec chef job available, and the timing was perfect," Whitcomb says. "We spent the first six months breaking down and rebuilding the service and the kitchen -- getting back to the fundamentals -- and the last six months creating a really great wine list, modernizing the menu and making it very seasonally inspired and fluid."
In the following interview, Whitcomb professes his love for olives and a pepper powder from France, questions a woman's assertion that she's allergic to salt, and advises Bobby Flay to go the way of the dodo bird.