Ben Davison of Bistro Vendome: "I don't want snot in my tea"
This is part one of my interview with Ben Davison, chef de cuisine at Bistro Vendôme; part two of our chat will run tomorrow.
It's good -- really good -- to be back home again," says Ben Davison, pausing after a long sip of coffee. "I was in Cleveland -- Cleveland's not a great restaurant town -- for quite a few years, and I can't even tell you how much I've missed Denver, how much it's changed in the time I was gone, how exciting it is to be a part of such a growing restaurant scene. It just feels good." So does his position as chef de cuisine at Bistro Vendôme, a job he landed in March after Dana Rodriguez, Bistro's former chef, departed to lead the line at Work & Class, a restaurant on Upper Larimer that's slated to open later this year.
Davison grew up in Colorado but was born in New Orleans and spent his summer vacations in the Big Easy, where his love affair with cooking began at the picnic table. "As soon as we hopped off the plane in New Orleans, we'd have a huge picnic table full of crawfish, crab and shrimp, and we'd just to go to town -- and if it wasn't that, then my grandmother would make her gumbo and red beans and rice, and I was the one who was always following her around in the kitchen," recalls Davison, who got his first galley job at fourteen as a dish rat and prep cook at the Pinery Country Club in Parker. "They had me putting cheddar cheese on apple pie, and I thought it was one of the weirdest things ever, so I'd always look at the guy next to me and ask why we were putting cheese on pie, and he'd just tell me to shut and up and do what the chef said," quips Davison.
But he wasn't particularly interested in what the instructors had to say at Colorado Mountain College, which is where he chose to go to school...briefly. "I like to say that I was pursuing a degree in skiing, but that didn't work out too well," he admits. Instead, he transferred to Colorado State University and got a gig cooking at Bennigan's. Fort Collins ultimately had "too many other interesting things to do," he says, so he dropped out of school, then wound up moving to Denver and prepping and slinging pizzas at an Old Chicago. By the time he got there, he'd settled on cooking as a career. "I knew by then that I was actually pretty good in the kitchen and that I really enjoyed working with my hands, and I realized, too, that if I applied my talent to doing better food, I could do really well," explains Davison, who then took another stab at earning his degree, this time at the Art Institute of Colorado, where he sailed through his culinary program and graduated.
By now he was also entrenched in the kitchen, nabbing cooking posts at the long-gone Sfuzzi, Pacific Star and Michael's of Cherry Creek, Castle Pines Country Club and Mel's Bar and Grill, a Cherry Creek institution that shuttered in 2010. "I had the chance to cook at Mel's as the sous chef, and you were no one in this town unless you worked for Mel Master, so I jumped at the opportunity," says Davison, who would later join another Mel's alum -- Goose Sorensen -- at Solera.
But after several years of cooking in Denver, Davison got antsy. "I needed to move and evolve, and I wanted to work in bigger houses and get some experience on the East Coast," he recalls. He moved to Philadelphia, where he got his wish, cooking at prestigious restaurants like Alma, the Striped Bass, the Happy Rooster, and Le Bec-Fin, a now-closed, then-restaurant powerhouse that was commanded by Georges Perrier, a French chef with a French temper. "I forearmed him to get my endive out of the refrigerator, and he yelled 'Fuck you' in my ear for twenty minutes one night while I was stirring risotto and snails," recounts Davison, who has since pardoned the chef for his tirade. "After he yells and screams and pushes you in the oven, he's the nicest guy in the world, and he'll give you the shirt off his back."