Brett Shaheen, exec chef of the Wooden Table, on staging at Alinea and the restaurant he'd call "Butter and Veal"
This is part one of my interview with Brett Shaheen, exec chef of the Wooden Table. Part two of our chat will run tomorrow.
Flipping pizzas at Pizza Hut. That was Brett Shaheen's first introduction to a professional kitchen -- if you can call it that. "The best part about it was I got to drink beer every morning at 6 a.m. because they had a tap and I was the first guy there," recalls Shaheen, now the executive chef of the Wooden Table.
He messed around in the kitchen at home, too, usually to the dismay of his sister, the recipient of whatever Shaheen flung together. "My grandma was a good cook, my mom was a good cook when she wanted to be, and I was always cooking stuff as a kid, usually pancakes made with all sorts of really weird stuff that I'd give to my sister, just to irritate her," says Shaheen, who also spent some time "cutting chickens" behind an Albertson's meat counter.
But Shaheen wasn't one of those guys who knew early on that he wanted a culinary career. "I had graduated from college and was working for a litigations-support company, and one morning I woke up, bored with my job, and suddenly decided I'd go to culinary school," he remembers. "That usually doesn't work out well for people -- making those kind of spontaneous decisions -- but it worked out well for me."
He was living in Montana at the time, and while he was happy there -- "I love Montana; it's Denver without the people," he says -- he pined for a warmer climate, so he headed off to the Johnson & Wales campus in South Carolina. "True, the whole culinary thing was on a whim, but it was easy, and I was really good at it," says Shaheen. "Plus, I was eating at a lot of restaurants that were disappointing, and I thought I could do better."
After graduating, he came to Denver to spend some time with his parents and plot his next move. He did an internship with the Grand Hyatt and "pretty much hated it," he admits, "especially the hours and the scrambled eggs. I'd get there at 3:45 in the morning, and there'd be forty pounds of scrambled eggs in a plastic bag that I'd have to throw into steam kettles filled with hot water. Needless to say, I mastered scrambled eggs, but I didn't learn much else."