Jack-n-Grill's Jack Martinez on red and green chile, kitchen drama and alfalfa sprouts
This is part one of Lori Midson's Q&A with Jack Martinez, owner/exec chef of Jack-n-Grill. Check back here tomorrow to read part two of that interview.
For eight years straight, Jack Martinez hauled his weathered pick-up truck up a desolate New Mexico roadway and across state lines to a small patch of land on Federal Boulevard. This was his ritual every weekend between August and October, when scores of capsicum warriors motor up and down Denver's lionized length of asphalt in search of New Mexican green chiles. "We'd leave Albuquerque after work on a Friday, arrive in Denver in the wee hours of Saturday morning, get some sleep and start roasting organic Socorro chiles by 8 a.m. Saturday morning," recalls Martinez, the chef/owner of Jack-n-Grill, the New Mexican restaurant he founded a decade ago on Federal, which now has a second location in Littleton -- and will soon add one in Westminster.
Martinez, a New Mexico native, finally moved to Denver in 1994 and opened a small chile shop later that year. "I had a lot of family here, which was an incentive, but I really wanted to bring New Mexican green chile to the Mile High City," he explains. "I wanted a permanent location to sell our chiles during harvest time, and I wanted a place where people could come in and buy hot sauces, salsas and chile products, because at the time, no one else in Denver was doing anything like that." But hawking hot sauces doesn't pay the bills, so Martinez landed a gig selling cars at a John Elway auto dealership -- a move that turned out to be one of the best he'd ever made.
"I was standing outside one day with a few of the guys, including a Texan who was hankering for chili con carne, and I told him that while chili con carne was just fine, he hadn't lived until he'd tasted green chile from New Mexico," remembers Martinez. A showdown ensued the following weekend, and Martinez emerged victorious: "The Texan brought a crockpot of his chili with crackers, and I brought a vat of green chile with freshly made flour tortillas, and not too many people touched his, but mine? Everyone had a bowl and loved it."
Martinez become the official green chile king of John Elway's car dealerships, spending each Saturday feeding staffs of forty, fifty and more, usually running out of product. Until one Saturday, when he'd had enough of cars and summoned his family to the chile shop for a New Mexican eating orgy. And suddenly, it wasn't just his family. "As I was cooking everything," he remembers, "the scent starting wafting up and down Federal, and people just started showing up, asking how much for that green chile cheeseburger, or for a couple of those tacos."
Eureka! Martinez applied for a vending license, got it and began cooking in the parking lot of his chile shack on Saturday and Sunday. Business was brisk, so he left the car dealership and told his wife that he would never sell another car. "It was time to stop selling cars and start selling myself," says Martinez. Within a week, he had designed a restaurant concept and menu and come up with a name: Albuquerque Jack's.
The name didn't stick. "My wife stopped me and said that it should be called Jack-n-Grill, and the rest is history," says Martinez, who opened the Federal store in March 2000.
In the following interview, Martinez talks about building more restaurants, both in and around Denver and in his home town of Albuquerque, his respect for fellow chef Sean Yontz, and the gift he's never gotten.