Amos Watts, exec chef of Jax-Denver, on Casa Bonita, English peas and cheese
The French Laundry, Thomas Keller's culinary temple in Napa, gets plenty of accolades, but Cyrus, a petite restaurant in the artsy Sonoma town of Healdsburg, is even better, insists its legion of junkies. And before he was crowned executive chef at Jax Fish House-Denver earlier this year, Amos Watts was cooking at Cyrus, alongside Food & Wine magazine Best New Chef Douglas Keane.
"I was cooking in Miami for a long time, and I loved it there, but it wasn't a great place to raise a family, and I wanted to go to a city with a great culinary scene, so I moved to San Francisco and was lucky enough to get my foot in the door at Cyrus," says Watts, who admits that it took patience and tenacity to get that foot in. "I'd read about Cyrus when I was in Miami, and I was determined to learn from the best, so I bugged Doug like crazy to give me a job, and I just kept calling him and calling him until a spot opened up. I started on the hot line, eventually worked all the stations, and then he promoted me to sous chef after about a year and change."
Not a bad streak for a guy who didn't start out thinking about becoming a chef. Born in southern Illinois and raised in Omaha, Watts grew up in a family of good cooks, but it wasn't until he was a college student at the University of Nebraska that the idea of becoming a chef began to swirl around in his head -- and that was only because his father was fed up with his son's waywardness. "I wasn't interested in anything in college," Watts recalls, "and I never, ever thought I'd be a chef, but I dropped out of college, and my dad told me to go cook."
Fine, he said, but if he was going to cook, it wasn't going to be in Nebraska. So he headed to Chicago, where he got a gig as a pastry assistant, a job that was considered the "bottom of the barrel," he says, and "perfect for someone like me, who knew nothing."
And when he left that job, he still wasn't sure that cooking was his calling. "I stayed for less than a year, mainly because I realized how hard cooking really was. I was so green," admits Watts, who retreated back to Lincoln to finish his college degree, but dropped out again. Then he applied to culinary school at the Johnson & Wales campus in Denver -- intent on determining, once and for all, whether a cooking career was in the cards.