Shoni Jones, exec chef of Root Down at DIA: "Stop supporting major food chains!"
This is part one of my interview with Shoni Jones, exec chef of Root Down at DIA; part two of our conversation will run tomorrow.
"Oops, I was way off," says Shoni Jones, the executive chef of Root Down at Denver International Airport, clearly surprised by the numbers in the text message she just got from her mom, who lives on a sprawling farm in Utah. In estimating the square footage of the garden on that farm, where her parents grow corn and tomatoes, chiles and herbs, root vegetables and berries, Jones had guessed it was around 2,000 square feet. "Whoa! It's a whopping 13,000 square feet," she exclaims after reading her mom's text. "Who knew?"
Jones spent the majority of her childhood in that goliath garden. "I remember doing most of our planting in May, around Memorial Day weekend, when all my friends were having fun at Lake Powell, and at first I thought it was punishment that I had to stay home and plant," she says. But then gardening began to grow on her. "I totally started to dig planting in the garden: Seeing that first green pea or tomato is so totally worth it, and once I turned sixteen, I was all about the garden." Because of that, both her brother, who raised Flemish rabbits, and her dad, an avid hunter, nudged her toward a career in the kitchen.
But it took her a few years to land in one. Jones originally enrolled in nursing school in Las Cruces, New Mexico, because, she says, "I liked helping people." But one day during class -- and halfway though her clinicals -- she just walked out. "I realized that the hospital is a pretty unhappy place; people go there because they're sick, doctors are unhappy because they're overworked, and so are the nurses -- and to be honest, I was working more on my waistline than on my degree," she jokes. The day she stepped out of the classroom, she stepped into the computer lab and began researching culinary schools, specifically in Denver. "I had my heart set on coming to Denver, which is so weird, because I'd never been here, but I wanted to be near the mountains, and Denver was just far enough away from Utah to be far enough away from home. Plus the food scene here was gaining recognition, and that appealed to me," she says.
A few weeks later, Johnson & Wales offered her a scholarship, so in 2006, she says, "I packed up my shit and moved to Denver." Jones did an internship at the Doubletree in Stapleton, originally as a line cook, and once her internship was over, she was quickly promoted to sous-chef. A friend of hers from culinary school, Nate Mencini, who's now at Masterpiece Deli, joined her on the line at the Doubletree. And when they spotted a kitchen-manager job at Vine Street Pub, "we sold ourselves as a team," remembers Jones. "We went to a cattle-call interview, and we were interviewing in the same room and kept looking at each other, and they ended up hiring us both," says Jones, who was tapped as the kitchen manager, while Mencini was given the role as her right-hand man.
Jones stayed at Vine Street for two years before "falling off my rocker," she quips. "After doing nothing but burgers, chicken wings and cooking buckets of French fries, you start going a little crazy." She didn't want to manage a line, either: "I wanted to own the three feet of real estate in front of me and behind me, and I just wanted to cook good food."