James Van Dyk, exec chef of Lucky's Cafe, on the weird people who don't want eggs in their omelets
James Van Dyk
3980 Broadway, Boulder
This is part one of my chat with James Van Dyk, exec chef of Lucky's Cafe in Boulder. Part two of our interview will run in this space tomorrow.
Back in the '60s, when James Van Dyk was growing up on the East Coast with a single working mom, dinner was cheap. "We were buying the least expensive things we could find at the supermarket -- lamb's brains, veal kidneys, lots of organ meats, calamari, all the things that no one else wanted," he recalls.
It's funny how things come full circle.
But Van Dyk, now the executive chef at Lucky's Cafe in Boulder, never balked at his mom's cooking -- or at what was on his plate. "She was a great cook when she had the time, and I loved what she made...even if she did have to change the names of what she was cooking so she didn't freak me out," he jokes. Plus, he says, the veal kid-neys were a small sacrifice, considering that he frequently had the opportunity to visit fishmongers, butchers, bakers and food stalls in Barcelona, where his grandparents lived. And his father, who had a homestead in Vermont, taught his son all about farming. "We raised almost all of our own food; we slaughtered, we butchered, we milked goats, and we did quite a bit of canning and pickling," remembers Van Dyk, who says his father "reckoned that it was a great way to keep a troublemaking teen out of trouble."
But it was a chef at a Swiss restaurant -- the first restaurant where Van Dyk worked -- who convinced him to pursue a culinary career. "I was washing dishes," re-calls Van Dyk, "but I wanted to cook, and the chef said he'd make a deal with me -- that if I could do my job in half the amount of time that it was taking me to do it, then in the remaining time, he'd teach me how to cook. And he did."
Van Dyk stayed for a year, cooking every day after school and leaving only after his chef pushed him out the door to explore. "He told me that he'd taught me every-thing he could and that if I was serious about cooking, I should go out and work for a bunch of different chefs," recounts Van Dyk. And the chef ushered him out with a few additional words of wisdom: "He told me to be choosy about where I worked and to be a sponge and then move on. It was fabulous advice."
In the years that followed, Van Dyk, who has a degree from the CIA in New York, would sharpen his knives in some of the top kitchens in the country -- and the world. He cooked at restaurants in Texas alongside Jean LaFont and François Soyer, two of the globe's most revered French chefs; he was the first American chef to receive a working visa to Japan, a country in which he cooked for four years in an American restaurant; he landed an exec chef position at China Grill, Jeffrey Chodorow's renowned dining emporium in Manhattan; and he staged at Chez Panisse under Alice Waters, who offered him a line-cook job. He didn't take it. Instead, he accepted a full-time stint at Santa Fe Bar and Grill, another Bay Area restaurant that had opened with Jeremiah Tower at the helm; when he departed, Van Dyk filled his shoes. "I was only 26 and scared shitless," admits Van Dyk, "but I was very ambitious, and I wanted the challenge."