Jensen Cummings, exec chef of Row 14, on the one ingredient that tastes like "burnt toenails marinated in Kroger brand vegetable oil" and "nooders"
This is part one of my interview with Jensen Cummings, exec chef of Row 14 Bistro & Wine Bar.
A broom and a dustpan -- these are the tools of my trade," declares Jensen Cummings, who's shuffling across the floor of his exhibition kitchen at Row 14 Bistro & Wine Bar, broom in hand, sweeping up dust and debris. "It's not all about the sexy stuff; it's about all the hard work and remembering where you came from."
Cummings pauses, then makes this declaration: "The most noble job in the kitchen is the dishwasher. They -- not the cooks, not the chefs -- touch every guest, by virtue of touching their plates." Cummings even admits to washing dishes himself on Saturday afternoons, when Row 14 is closed and prepping for dinner service.
And scraping plates is how this California native began his own restaurant career. "I got my first job in the kitchen doing the dish thing just after high school," recalls Cummings, who moved after graduation to Ames, Iowa, to join his two uncles, both of whom owned restaurants there. "I thought I was going to a college town to party with Midwestern girls and get drunk, but I got a job as a dish monkey, and I was the fastest damn dishwasher there, mainly because I wanted to hurry up and finish so I could watch what the guys on the line were doing," he recalls. In less than a year, Cummings had not only joined the ranks of the line, he was running the wheel.
He eventually enrolled in culinary school and, after fulfilling his requirements, took off for Kansas City to hook up with an old friend -- now the kitchen manager at Row 14 -- and nabbed a gig at a farm-to-table restaurant helmed by Debbie Gold, a James Beard Award-winning chef. "I mostly worked the fish station -- to this day, it's still the busiest station I've ever had to had to work -- and I got to work with ingredients I'd never seen or heard of before," says Cummings, who stayed for just under a year, leaving only because his wife, Betsy, was itching to move to Denver. "My wife's brother lives in Boulder, so we took off for Denver, even though I didn't know one soul there," he says.
Cummings talked to several chefs once he got here, including Kevin Taylor, who gave Cummings his first opportunity to cook in the Mile High City. "Kevin was the one who was the most hands-off in terms of letting me do my own thing, and I had the chance to move around through all of his restaurants," he remembers. That included Kevin Taylor's at the Opera House, where Cummings ultimately became the executive chef. And then he was canned: "Kevin was reconstructing, and I was a sacrificial lamb."