1515 Restaurant exec chef Chuck James on Miracle Fruit, James Beard and cheeseburgers
It's just after eight on a Tuesday night when Chuck James slides into a booth after a long day on the line at 1515 Restaurant. He lets a heavy sigh escape before he springs into conversation. "This is the highlight of my career," he says. "I mean, seriously, I'm going to cook at the James Beard House. I'm not sure I've been this excited about anything, maybe ever."
Lori Midson Chuck James, executive chef of 1515 Restaurant
Three hours later, James is carefully pulling out a vat of veal stock from inside his walk-in; it will soon become a hazelnut demi-glace for his sous-vide buffalo. He offers a taste and anxiously waits for feedback. "It rocks, don't you think?," he asks, bobbing his head up and down. He already knows it's a killer stock, and he's right.
In anticipation of July 22, the day James will cook for an elitist crowd of heavyweight gastronauts in Manhattan, he's been tinkering with his Beard House menu, creating an old-school/new-school multi-course board that bridges classic preparations with experimental molecular gastronomy methods. "The menu that I'm doing in New York is really fun -- foie gras cotton candy with the buffalo tenderloin, black truffle chips and a macadamia nut powder, a lobster cloud and coconut caramel dust -- but it's sensible, too," says James, who began dabbling in the chemistry of cooking soon after he joined 1515 as an executive sous chef in 2009.
"The chef before me, Chris Laramie, was doing a little bit of molecular gastronomy when I came on board, and I started slow, doing things like molecular caviar balls," recalls James. By the time he'd become the executive chef, he was making stabilizers, powders and thickening agents, and getting up close and personal with liquid nitrogen. "I really dig this stuff," admits the California native who did time at the Broadmoor, Cheyenne Mountain Conference Resort, French 250 and the Palm before taking over the kitchen at 1515 -- a gig he calls "a ton of fun."
But while James loves dabbling in molecular gastronomy, he hates the name. "I wish someone would come up with something better to call it," he sighs. "When you hear people say 'molecular gastronomy,' it makes everyone think about just the chemistry and science, and while that's certainly part of it, it's also just as much about cooking from the heart."
In the following interview, James talks not just about the Beard House, but Miracle Fruit tongue trips, his obsession with cheeseburgers, the technical intricacies of a microwave, and why he thinks Alinea is the best restaurant in America.