Iain Chisholm, chef of Amerigo: "I simply cannot appease everyone's every desire"
This is part one of my interview with Iain Chisholm, chef-owner of Amerigo Delicatus Restaurant & Market; part two of our chat will run tomorrow.
My mom never used salt. She thought it was the devil," chuckles Iain Chisholm, likening salt's absence in food to "being deprived of oxygen." Salt, he points out, is the "magic ingredient." He figured that out in high school, which is when he got his first taste of the restaurant business, working at a now-defunct Swiss restaurant in Greenwood Village, starting as a dishwasher and quickly moving up the ranks to pantry cook. "Food didn't become important to me until I started working in kitchens, and that's where I started to realize what I'd been missing," says Chisholm, today the owner-chef of Amerigo Delicatus Restaurant & Market, an Italian food temple on Upper Larimer.
And once he got his first jolt of the crystalline mineral, the gateway to a culinary career was all but cemented. Chisholm even spent his last year of high school at Johnson & Wales, graduating with an associate's degree in culinary arts as part of the culinary school's Early Enrollment Program, which gives students the opportunity to take classes and apply the credits back to high school. Between mastering sauces and learning the proper names of every pot and pan, Chisholm did an externship at Disney World and worked on the line of Ventura Grill, a long-gone restaurant whose kitchen was bossed by Jenna Johansen, now the innovation chef at Epicurean Catering. "Jenna showed me how to do everything right; she taught me all of the cool touches that you don't get in culinary school, and because she did everything from scratch and everything she used in her cooking was fresh, it was like a whole new world to me," says Chisholm, who spent more than ten years cooking alongside Johansen at various restaurants, including the Great Northern Tavern; Dish, in Edwards; and Ocotillo, which closed several years ago.
He eventually returned to Johnson & Wales to get his bachelor's degree, and when he graduated in 2009, he began formulating a business plan to open his own restaurant -- one that would take four years to conceive and build. "I was kind of daunted by what it would take financially to open my own place, and I figured that the more I could do myself, the more money I could save, so I spent three years working for contractors and learning how to build a restaurant with my own hands," says Chisholm, who opened Amerigo last fall.
"For my first restaurant, I wanted to do Italian -- it's my go-to comfort food, and it's never redundant -- and I felt like Italian, at least the way we do Italian, with fresh, housemade pastas, was an underserved niche in Denver as a whole," explains Chisholm, who believes that Amerigo is "99 percent more authentic than other Italian restaurants in our price range." Amerigo, he adds, is "my stepping stone to set up the prototype for other concepts in the same vein -- small, neighborhood restaurants that I can build with my own hands." And opening a bar is on his wish list, too. "I'd love to do a bar next, and if I could find somewhere in this neighborhood, I'd jump on it," says Chisholm, who in the following interview admits that cockiness has no place in his kitchen, implores diners to put their restaurant experiences into context, and pleads for the taco craze to take a hiatus.