Empire Lounge/Pizzeria da Lupo executive chef Jim Cohen on Julia Child, the confusion over Kobe beef and why you should listen to his wife
This is part one of my interview with Jim Cohen, chef/owner of The Empire Restaurant and Lounge and Pizzeria da Lupo. Part two of that interview will run in this space tomorrow.
For the most part, Jim Cohen is an open book. He's a straight-up, honest, no-nonsense guy who doesn't mince words -- and doesn't hold back. Still, he has his secrets. "My nickname was 'food king' when I was thirteen, and I'd eat three dinners a night at different people's houses," confesses Cohen, the executive chef/owner of the Empire Lounge & Restaurant in Louisville and Pizzeria da Lupo in Boulder.
"I always loved to eat, and when I was thirteen, I had a paper route, which ended at my best friend's house, and Dora, his mom, was a great cook and she loved me, so she always invited me to stay," he remembers. Dinner was placed on the table promptly at 5 p.m., giving the insatiable teen enough time to dart home and eat dinner again, this time with his family. But the eating orgy didn't stop there. "I had friends across the street who ate late, and they were always trying to cook from Julia Child's cookbooks," Cohen says. "There was always a lot of commotion, and it was fun to hang out and try all of this weird stuff."
But what really sparked his passion for food was eating at home. "My family spent a lot of time around the table discussing life, so I have a great affinity for dining," says Cohen, whose first kitchen gig was flipping gray matter at Burger King, a stint that, happily, didn't last long: Cohen was fired. A photography major at the University of Buffalo, he needed to make money to pay for darkroom essentials, so he landed another kitchen gig, this time working for a Frenchman. "He was grumpy and he'd yell and scream, but we did pretty good food, we were very busy, and I loved being able to handle six crepe pans at a time when no one else could," recalls Cohen, who worked his way up from dishwasher to sauté.
He eventually enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York, and soon after graduation moved to Colorado, landing jobs at the Denver Country Club; the long-defunct Plum Tree Cafe, which he opened in 1981; the Wildflower in Vail, where he was executive chef; and the woefully missed Tante Louise, where he was tapped as the opening chef -- an extraordinarily talented chef, hand-picked by Julia Child to appear on her television show, Dining With Julia. "We were doing New American cuisine at Tante Louise, and Julia was doing a show that showed off young chefs trying to break away from doing European food, and she chose eleven chefs from across the country to be on the show, and I was one of them," recalls Cohen, who continued to stay in touch with Child after his fifteen minutes of fame were up. "She'd come to Denver and we'd have long conversations about what American cuisine was and how to translate that at Tante Louise," Cohen recalls. But mostly, he muses, "I appreciated her intelligence."