Zolo Grill's Brett Smith raps on pig, chile and a second Zolo Grill
This is part one of my interview with Brett Smith, the executive chef at Zolo Grill. Part two of my chat with Smith will run in this space tomorrow.
"I know it's probably overkill, but we just butchered a pig, and even though this dish probably doesn't need it, you should try it," says Brett Smith, plopping down a plate of tamales augmented by fresh corn and two generous ropes of pork sausage. "I'm a pork fiend," admits Smith, the executive chef at Zolo Grill, Dave Query's Southwestern restaurant in Boulder. "I know that some people have said it's had its heyday, but I can't get enough of it. Pig is king."
But while Smith now knows how to butcher his own swine, he didn't learn much about cooking while growing up just south of Poughkeepsie, New York, in the small town of Wappingers Falls. "I definitely didn't grow up in a food family, and my first job was at a deli, and even though I learned how to use a knife -- that was the good part -- it wasn't a job that exactly made me want to be a chef," says Smith. But there was something about the fast pace of restaurant life, the adrenaline rush of working on all cylinders, that did appeal to him, and after moving to Boulder in 1994 (he wanted to ski), he snapped up a prep job at the long-gone JJ McCabe's, where he did this, that and everything else -- and it didn't take long for him to settle on his career path. "I loved the competitiveness of it, the excitement of being in the kitchen and the pulsating energy, and after a month of working there, I decided I wanted to be a chef," says Smith, who eventually landed the "illustrious title of assistant kitchen manager."
While Smith was shlepping burgers and fries behind the line at JJ McCabe's, Query was opening his first Jax Fish House, and Smith set his sights on crashing the kitchen there. He did a stage, which went well, and two days later, when a line cook didn't show up, he was hired. He stayed at Jax for four years, ending his tenure as the sous chef, and then did some time at Zolo Grill, starting as the sous and ultimately stepping into the exec-chef role -- a job, he says, that may have been too much, too soon. "I was 24 and didn't know shit -- or even half as much shit as I thought I did -- but I managed to do pretty well, and I was, at the very least, efficient," he notes.
And restless. "I decided that I needed to broaden my horizons and do some other stuff, so I left Boulder to bounce around San Diego and New York, but I was kind of spinning my wheels and eventually went back to Colorado," remembers Smith. He didn't stay long: "A buddy of mine, who was working down in St. John, called me and said I'd have a great opportunity down there, and at first I was like, I'm totally not going to do this, but he talked me into it, and by the time he was done, I wanted to get down there as quickly as possible."