District Meats exec chef Jeff Russell on food trends, Paula Deen and spring
This is part one of my interview with Jeff Russell, exec chef of District Meats. You can read part two of our chat in this space tomorrow.
Dinner was bonding time, Jeff Russell recalls. "Food was the thing that brought us together on a daily basis, and we had a family dinner every night at 5 p.m. -- no exceptions," says Russell, today the executive chef of District Meats, an American roadhouse in downtown Denver that's part of star-chef Charlie Palmer's kingdom of restaurants.
"I started playing around with food when I was really young, making tomato sauce, spaghetti and meatballs, and grilled cheese sandwiches with sharp cheddar, and by the time I got to the fourth grade, I knew I wanted to be a chef," says Russell, who was born in Finger Lakes, New York, and started working in the kitchen with his mom when he was seven. "I'm not sure if she just wanted to spend time with me or keep me from breaking bones and starting fires, but whenever she cooked, which was a lot, she wanted me in the kitchen with her," he remembers.
Russell's first experience in a professional kitchen was at the age of fourteen, when he did a one-night dish-duty stint at a local country club. It was New Year's Eve, and it didn't go particularly well. "My brother was working there, too, but he wanted to take the night off to party, so he asked if I'd help out, but it was a three-course dinner with 250 people, and we were so far behind it was unreal. We were still washing dishes at 2:30 a.m., and by the time we were cut loose, they still weren't done," recollects Russell, who thought he'd never wash another dish in that kitchen again.
But he was asked to come back, and after a seasonal stint mastering the art of scraping plates, he spent the next several years ascending the ladder in various country-club kitchens in New York and on Martha's Vineyard before eventually making the leap to culinary school. "One of the great chefs I worked with, Bull Dunn, pushed me to venture out and broaden my horizons. He said that I could stay in the same job my whole life or go to culinary school, so I applied to the CIA," says Russell, who did his externship at the Broadmoor in Colorado Springs, where he cooked for eighteen weeks before heading back to the Big Apple, a move that would ultimately cement his future in the Palmer empire.
"I landed a job at Aureole, which is exactly where I wanted to work," says Russell, who did a four-day stage before getting a coveted invitation to join the ranks of the elite, albeit at the bottom of the totem pole. "I was doing the amuse-bouches, which were very involved -- there were eight or nine components to each one -- but I was also the guy who had to go fetch ice for the stocks and sauces, which seems to be a rite of passage in New York restaurants," he muses. Within a week, he was yanked from presiding over the ice baths. "They realized that they were wasting their time making me get ice, and I moved up quickly after that," Russell remembers. "By the time I left, a year and a half later, I was the junior sous chef."