Eli Odell, exec chef of Highland Tap and Burger, on what he learned from Matt Selby, and what might happen if you wear chile-pepper pants in his kitchen
This is part one of Lori Midson's interview with Eli Odell, executive chef of Highland Tap and Burger. Read part two of that interview, in which Odell dishes on hammering eighty pounds of wings and the Deadliest Chef.
Eli Odell came into the world 35 years ago, delivered by a midwife in a cabin in upstate New York built by his father -- a hippie -- with no running water and no heat. Shortly thereafter, the cabin turned to ash when the adjoining sauna decided it was a good time to spark a fire. This is not where Odell became fascinated with food, cooking or the kitchen life.
That came later, when he moved to a house with modern amenities in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, in the Berkshire Hills, where his father and stepmother introduced him to the marvels of a kitchen -- and restaurants. "My stepmother, especially, exposed me to incredible food, and we always sat down together for dinner every night," recalls Odell. And when he wasn't eating at home, he was parked in a dining room, where he immersed himself in the whole experience. "We were going to restaurants when I was really young, and I fell in love with them at first sight," he says. "With the specials, the menus, the presentations, the setup, the food -- all of it."
His parents, who wanted a slice of island life, next trotted off to St. John in the Virgin Islands, where, at thirteen, Odell got his first restaurant gig, as a busboy and a bar back. Then it was on to Sarasota, Florida, where he landed a stint as a dishwasher and prep cook while collecting money on the side working with his dad and brother in the construction business -- a business that Odell wanted no part of. "I did it for enough years to know that I hated it," he admits. He was lucky enough to inherit a trust fund, and after struggling with how to dispose of the cash, he chose culinary school. "I didn't want to waste the money on a four-year college; I wanted to pick a specific trade and go for it, and I loved cooking and the restaurant business, so culinary school was the obvious choice," he says.
While skiing in Telluride, he saw a television advertisement for the American Institute of Art in Denver, and since he wanted to be near the slopes, that, too, was the most obvious choice. When he graduated from what is now the Colorado Institute of Art, Fadó Irish Pub had just opened downtown, and the kitchen was looking for a line cook. Odell got the job, eventually becoming the sous. But he soon tired of the bar scene, and the St. Patrick's Day mob scene, and he split -- to Vesta Dipping Grill, where he was the a.m. sous chef for three years. "I made all the sauces," he says, "and by the end of the day, I could climb up the stack of sauces that I made that day, there were so many of them." Odell was eventually let go. "I deserved it," he declares, leaving it at that.
He wound up in the kitchen at the defunct Nectar in Cherry Creek, where he stuck it out for a year before heading up to Vail to become the exec sous chef at Game Creek. Hungry for a (affordable) house, he returned to Denver, where he worked as a private chef until he secured the exec-chef slot at Highland Tap and Burger, which opened last August. "We want to become members of this neighborhood, to grow with this neighborhood, to listen to our patrons and become a fixture in this part of town," he says.
Over beers, burgers and potato skins at the bar, Odell opened up about becoming an exec chef for the first time, what he learned from Matt Selby, and what might happen if you wear chile-pepper pants in his kitchen.