Kelly Whitaker, exec chef of Pizzeria Basta, on faith and his new restaurant
This is part one of my interview with Kelly Whitaker, exec chef-owner of Pizzeria Basta. Part two of our chat will run tomorrow, and part three will run on Friday.
I have news," declares Kelly Whitaker, sliding his slim body, clad in a T-shirt and jeans, onto one of the wooden benches inside Pizzeria Basta, the wood-fired-inspired restaurant he opened in Boulder in 2010. "You're one of the first to know," he continues, "and I think you're going to be happy. I know we are."
The news, it turns out, is that Whitaker, along with his partners at Id Est Hospitality Group, the company that Whitaker founded when he opened Basta, will have a new restaurant in Denver, on upper Larimer Street, next to Work & Class, another new restaurant that will open in the fall.
By the time you read this, Whitaker will have a name for his new place, but he insists it won't be Pizzeria Basta -- although another one of those could be forthcoming, too.
But while Whitaker will soon have two restaurants under his umbrella, the Tulsa native didn't set out to be a chef or restaurateur. In fact, while he was growing up, he didn't gravitate toward food at all, save for hot dogs, hamburgers and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. "My mom loved to cook, but we were super-picky eaters and wouldn't eat our vegetables," recalls Whitaker, who spent his lazy summers on his grandfather's farm, where vegetables grew in abundance. "I passed most of my time shooting bullfrogs in the pond, although I do remember my grandma propping me up on a stool in the kitchen while she made jams and jellies -- those were amazing -- and she'd mix the peanut butter together with the jelly, which was a revelation. I just stayed away from the vegetables."
He worked at bagel and java joints throughout high school, mostly because he "enjoyed engaging with customers," he says. Cooking came later, while he was attending college at Colorado State University, where he graduated with a degree in hospitality management. While he was there, Whitaker put in time at Ciao Vino, doing sandwich duty and running the kitchen. He left to become a dishwasher at Pulcinella's, a now-closed restaurant that was owned by the same people behind Ciao Vino. "I wanted to start in this industry from the ground up," explains Whitaker, adding that while he was eventually allowed to "plate desserts, bake bread and make pastas, I was always the dishwasher learning the fundamentals."
As part of his degree program, Whitaker also staged in kitchens in Switzerland and Italy, and when he graduated from CSU, he took off for Bend, Oregon, where he worked as a restaurant consultant. But he missed cooking -- and Italy -- so he returned to Naples to sharpen his skills at a fine-dining restaurant. "It was miserable," admits Whitaker, who managed to stick it out for a year. "It was the coldest winter in Naples on record, and I worked myself to the bone with no pay, so, yeah, it was tough." But there was a bonus: staging at other restaurants during his time off, which is when the idea for Basta was hatched. "I spent what little time I had working at restaurants that had wood-fired ovens, doing pizzas mixed with pastas and a little fish -- and that's where I developed the concept for Basta," says Whitaker.