David Payne, exec chef of Jelly, on losing your authority, Rick Bayless and gross sticky goo
He returned to California, nabbing a line-cook position at an upscale European restaurant in Chico, where he was later promoted to exec chef. Boredom eventually set in, however, and after four years, he left to join the Pyramid Ale House, which now has multiple locations in California, along with outposts in Seattle and Portland. "It was a great place to land," says Payne. "When I got there, it was transitioning into something much bigger than it was, and I was part of the beginning of that transition. It was very cool."
Before moving to Colorado in 2010, Payne also spent years working on the line in restaurants in Austin and Chicago, where he cooked at Dunlays on the Square, where the "hours were long and the pay was unfair," he recalls. Not surprisingly, he and his girlfriend -- now wife -- wanted a change of scenery, so they "threw a dart at a map," he says. It pierced a hole in Denver.
The original Jelly was still under construction in Capitol Hill when Payne stopped in to inquire about a chef's job (the space is currently undergoing a four-week remodel). It turned out that the owners, Josh Epps and Christina Smith, were familiar with Rick & Anne's, but that wasn't enough to solidify the exec-chef job. To score that, Payne would have to cook several dishes from the stash of ingredients in the refrigerator of a friend of Jelly's owners. "They told me to open the refrigerator and cook whatever I wanted -- that was my interview," he recalls.
And he nailed it. "I did my drop biscuits, the sweet-potato-and-chorizo hash, and a frittata, and the hash really won them over," says Payne, who in the following interview explains why his food at Jelly is anything but ordinary, argues that arrogance is a recipe for disaster, and recalls the hippie guest in Berkeley who insisted that red plates are radioactive.
How do you describe your food? I try to bring thoughtful, interesting and fresh dishes to the table, along with a level of cleverness, without compromising what makes the dish great in the first place. The eggs Benedict we serve at Jelly, for example, feels like the same dish you can get elsewhere -- at least at first glance. But I've done small things to make it different. We use sourdough baguettes instead of English muffins; I slice the ham thin instead of using a small slab of Canadian bacon; and I've tweaked the Hollandaise a bit to make it subtly different by using sriracha in it. I like trying to find the truth behind the flavor of the food -- why it tastes so good. Understanding that allows you to blend flavors together so that people can follow the same "Aha!" moment you experienced when you put a dish together for the first time. And, yes, I think that we do the best breakfasts in Denver.
Ten words to describe you: Obsessive, organized, brash, focused, open-minded, directional, thoughtful, maestro, forward-thinking...and did I mention obsessive?