John Little, exec chef of Harman's Eat & Drink: "I find inspiration everywhere"
This is part one of my interview with John Little, exec chef of Harman's Eat & Drink; part two of our chat will run tomorrow.
My mom was a pretty terrible cook," laments John Little. "She worked all the time, so TV dinners were pretty prominent in my life as a kid -- and when my mom did cook, she never cooked with salt."
Little, today the exec chef at Harman's Eat & Drink, discovered the flavor enhancer when he was around seven and hanging out at his nanny's house. "I remember having salt the first time and thinking what a magical substance it was," he recalls, "so I'd try and stay there for dinner or hit up a friend's house where the parents salted their food."
- 100 Favorite Dishes: English pea agnolotti from Harman's Eat & Drink
- Get your pig fix at Harman's Eat & Drink, now open in Cherry Creek
- Mark Fischer opening Harman's Eat and Drink in Cherry Creek
Salt was his first culinary epiphany, crème brûlée his second. "My sister's boyfriend was going to culinary school to be a pastry chef, and he made me a crème brûlée that was a life-changing experience. I got pretty excited about what food could really be like after eating it for the first time," says Little, who got his first restaurant gig soon after, scrubbing plates at a diner. "I slowly moved my way up to a line cook, and while it was a shitty diner, I just loved the restaurant and kitchen atmosphere."
He went on to cook in various kitchens in Maryland before finishing high school and moving to Miami, where he enrolled in an advanced-standing culinary program, earning an associate's degree just nine months after he started. He cooked at restaurants operated by star chefs Norman Van Aken and David Bouley, but his most significant experience, Little says, was cooking at a fine-dining restaurant owned by a former colleague. "It was a restaurant that was only around for six months -- they didn't have the financial capital -- but the food and ingredients were simply amazing, and working there made me realize that this industry wasn't just about cooking, but about running a business," he acknowledges.
He also realized that south Florida sucks. "I hated Miami," he says. "There's no working class there; people either drive a Lamborghini or they're begging for money, so there weren't a lot of people who I could relate to or just have a beer with at a bar."
He began searching for other opportunities and found one at Blackberry Farm, a pastoral resort in the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee with a reputation for bringing in some of the best chefs in the country. "I'd heard it had a phenomenal restaurant -- now it has two -- and I knew it was something that I wanted to be a part of," says Little, who breathed the same air as guest chefs Thomas Keller, Grant Achatz and David Chang, all of whom have cooked at Blackberry Farm. "To this day, it was still the best experience I've ever had." But there was a downside, too: "It's in the middle of nowhere, and you can only go to the same bar for so long, so it was just time for me to do something different somewhere else."