Jay Leandro, exec chef of Pub 17 on Welton Street, on the Red Baron and fad diets
This is part one of my interview with Jay Leandro, exec chef of Pub 17 on Welton Street; part two of our conversation with run tomorrow.
According to Jay Leandro, it all started with a chicken. "I was nine, maybe ten, and grilling my first chicken, and I remember taking all of the spices out of the cupboard, mixing them all around and going crazy. Oddly enough, it turned out really well," says the 26-year-old chef of Pub 17 on Welton Street, the restaurant inside the Grand Hyatt. "I sort of knew, even that early on, that I really loved cooking."
It would take him a few more years before he stepped foot into a professional kitchen, but once he did, he never looked back. "I dated a girl whose dad was a chef, and he needed help with his catering company, so I started working for him, and while his food was really simple, he was incredibly passionate, not to mention patient, and it was just unbelievably cool to watch him work," recalls Leandro. And that chef saw something in Leandro, too, pushing him out into the culinary universe to explore the possibilities.
Leandro landed at a French restaurant in Newport, Rhode Island, close to where he'd grown up in Massachusetts, and while he was cooking on a line of "controlled chaos," he was also attending culinary school. But then he became restless for a change of scenery. "I was almost done with my second year at Johnson & Wales and was looking for a big change in my life, so I started looking at photos of Denver online, and decided to drive out there the day after Thanksgiving in 2006," recalls Leandro, who soon enrolled at the Johnson & Wales in the Mile High City.
While he was there, he snapped up an internship at the Grand Hyatt. "I'd done quite a bit of catering, and I'd worked in restaurants, but I'd never cooked in a hotel, and I wanted to find out what it was all about," says Leandro, who got his feet wet cooking in the banquet kitchen, eventually working his way up to saucier and bouncing back and forth between banquets and the restaurant until he became the lead cook and, finally, the chef de cuisine in 2010. "When I first started, I didn't know what I was getting myself into. Hotel restaurants have a bit of a sell-out mentality -- the kind of place where good chefs go to die -- but it's so different now," he says, noting that there are "younger chefs in the kitchen who have a lot more creative freedom." There will always be guests who "expect the staples -- chicken, salmon and a burger," he concedes, "but it's what you do with those staples that sets you apart, and we know we have to keep up with the rest of the restaurant community, so we use great ingredients, incorporate a lot of global influences, and have one of the best local beer selections in the city. We're doing some pretty awesome things."
In the following interview, Leandro confesses that he's not above frozen pizza, rallies behind the upgrading of kids' menus and reveals where he eats on his days off.