Tony Hessel, chef of West Flanders Brewing: "Cupcakes are over-indulgent"
This is part one of my interview with Tony Hessel, exec chef of West Flanders Brewing Co; part two of our conversation will run tomorrow.
Born in Manhattan and raised in Connecticut, Tony Hessel always thought he wanted to be a teacher -- but the 6' 5" teenager realized that while his attention span for the classroom was short, his interest in the kitchen just kept growing. "Yeah, I wanted to be a teacher when I was young, but when I got my first job as a dishwasher, I realized that I liked the kitchen a lot more than I liked the classroom," says Hessel, today the executive chef of West Flanders Brewing Co. "And I was good at cooking, even at a young age -- plus I loved the marriage of ingredients, of taking five or six things and making something amazing out of it."
And the kitchen liked him: He rose from pearl diver to sous-chef in three years, a progression that encouraged him to enroll at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park -- where his tenure lasted all of six weeks. "I was bored out of my mind, falling asleep, and didn't have the patience for the rigidity of a classroom," admits Hessel, who stuffed his wallet with his leftover tuition money and jetted off to France to cook in professional kitchens. "I preferred to be in kitchens where I could really learn, and France was the ideal place for that," he says.
Two years later, when he returned to Connecticut, he was hired as a pantry cook at Tavern on the Green, a gig that he later relinquished for San Francisco and a stint at Stars, a landmark restaurant that was touted as one of the most influential eateries in the country until it closed in 1999. Chef Jeremiah Tower, who opened Stars in 1984, towered over his staff there, demanding -- and commanding -- respect. "Working for Tower was one of the most intense experiences I've ever had, and it was the first place I'd ever worked where it was, 'Yes, Chef!'" remembers Hessel. But while he was a fan of Tower, he didn't feel the same way about San Francisco. "Maybe it's because I'm from New York, but I just didn't like San Francisco very much," he says.
So he left and moved to Denver, cooking at the long-gone Josephina's in Uptown, Tante Louise and Strings, where he was under the tutelage of the late Noel Cunningham. "Noel was amazing, and so creative when it came to plate presentation. I learned an incredible amount from him," remembers Hessel. "I loved the openness of the kitchen at Strings, too; it's still my favorite kitchen that I've ever worked in."
After shuffling around Denver for four years, Hessel, who'd long thought he wanted to settle in Boulder, finally made it there in the early '90s. "I was at Pour La France for three years, but I walked away after going through a divorce and then took some time off to figure out what I wanted to do next -- wondering, frankly, if I still wanted to be in the restaurant business," he recalls. "But I love being a chef, so I set my sights on the Mediterranean, if only because it was the hippest and coolest restaurant in Boulder at the time." He started there as a line cook, but quickly advanced to the exec-chef position.