Jonathan Power, exec chef of the Populist, on fungus, the sea bass bomb and "no salt"
This is part one of my interview with Jonathan Power, executive chef of the Populist. In part two of our chat, which runs tomorrow, Power reveals his favorite Denver restaurants, his fantasy splurge and what he looks for when hiring his kitchen staff.
Jonathan Power never wanted to be a chef. In fact, his career ambition was to become a lawyer. Lawyers -- even bad ones -- can make a ton of money. Chefs -- even the best ones -- aren't exactly known for strutting around in Gucci or Armani. And what money they do collect typically feeds their kitchen. But the restaurant industry is like a magnet, and once you're drawn in, it's difficult to escape its pull. That's the story of Power, the executive chef and co-owner of the Populist.
Power's first job was at a Subway in Broomfield, a gig he took because it worked around his high-school schedule, the work was easy and he had a friend working there. The sixteen-year-old Power didn't mind slinging sandwiches, but he knew that heaping meat and cheese on a roll wasn't the path to success, so he attended a job fair and wound up hired as a prep cook at the now-defunct Bloom. He stayed for just four months, and by the end of his short tenure, he was quite sure of one thing: He didn't want to cook. "I know this is ironic, but I told the chef that I wanted to learn how to cook, and he was happy to teach me, and by the time I left, I knew that cooking was a job that was very much what I didn't want to do," says Power. "These guys were working way, way too hard and working too many hours for not enough money, and I didn't see it as a viable career choice."
He spent the next ten years struggling to stay far away from the kitchen, working in the life- and health-insurance field and attending college at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where he graduated with a philosophy degree. But paying his bills required additional coinage, so he took a kitchen spot with Buca di Beppo and delivered cheesesteaks and sandwiches on his bicycle as a side gig.
And then he moved to Chicago, with the intent of getting what he calls a "real job." He landed a position as an executive assistant to a bigwig...and loathed every moment of it. "I was miserable, and knew that this wasn't what I wanted to do with my life," recalls Power, who eventually took his LSATs to pursue a law degree. He did well enough to get accepted to law school, but his scholarship money fell through, so he returned to Denver.