Aaron Youngblood, exec chef of Dixons Downtown Grill, on bourbon, sea-turtle options and the woman who went on a tirade
This is part one of Lori Midson's Q&A with Aaron Youngblood, exec chef of Dixons Downtown Grill. Part two of the interview will run tomorrow.
Aaron Youngblood needed a job. Any job would do, as long as it entailed hard labor. "I was in high school and got my driver's license, and for the privilege of driving, I had to get a job, which I did at a fast-food joint that I won't mention," says Youngblood, now the executive chef of Dixons Downtown Grill, a post he's held for nearly three years.
"I never really pictured myself as a chef," admits the 32-year-old Denver native. But after declaring his major in hospitality management at Colorado State University -- and subsequently dropping out -- Youngblood developed a taste for life in the kitchen, starting with Johnny Carino's, where he was initially hired as a pizza cook before getting an upgrade to sous chef and then taking a gig as corporate trainer, which allowed him to jet around on Johnny's dime. "I went to different cities to do soft and hard openings and train the staff -- and then I'd leave them on their own. And then I left, because I got sick of it, and I was an egomaniac in my twenties," he confesses.
But not such an egomaniac that he wouldn't take a job on the line of some of Denver's most lauded kitchens. He nailed down a line-cook gig at the long-gone Zenith, easily one of Kevin Taylor's best restaurants, where he sweated blood and tears alongside Sean Yontz. When Zenith closed post-9/11, Youngblood joined the crew at Restaurant Kevin Taylor. "I was a hothead and got fired, big time, but I can't even tell you what a wonderful learning experience it was working with Kevin and Sean," he says, "and along the way, I also got to meet a lot of other people who've worked their way up in the industry."
Youngblood was soon back on his feet, kicking around kitchens at the now-defunct Chinook Tavern in Cherry Creek and the Garden Terrace at the Inverness Hotel and Conference Center, but then he took some time off to soul-search. "I had started to really question what I wanted to do with my life, and it wasn't until I turned 25, in 2003, that I started to come into my own and take things more seriously," he says. He secured a sous chef position at Epicurean Entertainment, the catering company for Invesco Field at Mile High, and in six months was promoted to exec chef. "That was a cool job," recalls Youngblood. "I ran the kitchen for two football seasons, catering weddings on the field, doing buffets for 6,000 people and sit-down dinners for 3,000, and catering suites and private parties at Mike Shanahan's house."
But the hours got the best of him. "I was working so much that I became a horrible, miserable person," he confides, "and I knew it was time to leave." He was taking some time off from the kitchen when a friend put him in touch with Lee Goodfriend and David Racine -- an introduction that led to Youngblood's joining the staff at Dixons. "This is such a great company to work for, with fantastic owners who treat everyone like a huge family," he says. "I love cooking here, and I'll be here for as long as they'll have me."
Or until he eventually opens his own restaurant, a desire that Youngblood talks about in the following interview, along with his grilling prowess, the day the kitchen closed down at Dixons, and the clearly out-of-touch customer who waltzed into the restaurant and insisted that the chef cook the food she brought...from home.