Trattoria Stella's Valentino Ujkic dishes on dill doughs and dookie-staining his knickers
This is part one of my interview with Valentino Ujkic, the executive chef of Trattoria Stella on East Colfax. Part two of our interview will run in this space tomorrow.
Valentino Ujkic emerges from his open kitchen at Trattoria Stella balancing two plates, both of which are propped with fresh figs, among other food candy. "You're hungry, right?" he asks, sliding into one of the tattered booths in the rusticated bar. "I love figs," he says, popping one past his lips. He pauses for a moment to savor the fleshy sweetness before starting his story, which begins in Montenegro, the former Yugoslavia. "We left illegally," he admits, "and snuck into Canada when I was just five," escaping "because we wanted opportunities in the States that we didn't have there."
Working with food -- and cooking -- for example, passions that took hold when Ujkic was growing up on the North Fork of Long Island, where he and his mother eventually landed. "I was eleven, picking green beans on a farm every summer and getting paid $4 for every box that I filled," remembers Ujkic, who snagged his first cooking job when he was thirteen. "I was working illegally, doing prep in an American-cuisine restaurant, and by the time I was seventeen, I was running the kitchen." His first job lasted a solid eight years, and by then, he had his green card and was itching to leave New York. "New York is great, and I had family there," he says, "but sometimes families can be destructive; it was time for me get out and be on my own."
He moved to Boston, where he landed an apprenticeship at a restaurant called Sage, starting off as a line cook and eventually walking his clogs into the sous chef position. And it was there that he met Mark Ladner, who heads the kitchen at Del Posto in New York, a restaurant owned by Mario Batali, Joe Bastianich and Lidia Bastianich. "Mark was cooking royalty," says Ujkic, and when Ladner suggested the twenty-year-old pack up and return to New York to work the line at Del Posto, Ujkic couldn't resist. "I was lucky enough to work in the kitchens of Del Posto and Luca, another Mario Batali restaurant, and I got to steal recipes," he jokes.
In time, however, the vast metropolis of New York wore him down, and Ujkic plotted yet another escape plan. "I was getting anxious, mostly because I wanted my own restaurant, and I knew that I could either try to compete with the big-name chefs in New York or I could move to a smaller city and make a bigger name for myself," he explains. Ujkic had already visited Denver, a city that was "refreshingly laid-back and devoid of attitude in the kitchen," he says, so he kissed the Big Apple goodbye and touched down in Denver in 2010. "I didn't have a job lined up," he recalls, "but I have mad skills, I didn't need a lot of money, and I wasn't afraid of struggling, so I wasn't particularly worried."