DJ Nagle, chef of Humboldt: Farm, Fish, Wine, on benching the fifteen-pound burrito
This is part one of my interview with DJ Nagle, executive chef of Humboldt: Farm, Fish, Wine; the second installment of our chat will run tomorrow.
Even though it wasn't a requirement, DJ Nagle always sported a tie when he sat down to Sunday dinner with his family in New York - -- or, as he likes to say, "New Yawk." Born and raised on Long Island, Nagle, the 45-year-old chef at Humboldt: Farm, Fish, Wine, actually wanted to wear a tie. After all, if his parents were willing to haul out their best china, the least Nagle could do was play the part of the respectful kid. "There was a formality to Sunday dinner at my house, and I'd always wear a collared shirt and usually a tie; we all got dressed up for a big plated meal with china," says Nagle, who also grew up watching Julia Child, Graham Kerr and Great Chefs of the West.
"I was always geeking out on food," Nagle admits. In junior high school, he got his first taste of a professional kitchen, working at a deli that became his after-school stamping ground for six years. But cooking wasn't his calling -- at least not then, he says. Instead, he enrolled in a community college in New York to study architecture, but then dropped out after a year and headed to Vail to become a ski bum. "I just wasn't feeling the whole college thing -- it wasn't for me -- and I was interested in being a ski instructor, so I moved to Vail. But I realized I wasn't the greatest skier, either," he says, so he returned to cooking "because that's what I knew best."
He landed at Two Elk, a now-closed, on-mountain Vail restaurant, where he started as a line cook and moved up to the grill station before being named the kitchen supervisor. "I had never seen the white coats, the clogs and the white hats before, but I loved them, and after being there a while, I realized that I was good at cooking -- that cooking came very, very easy to me, and I was very much into the instant gratification of knowing whether I was making was a tangible success or failure," explains Nagle, who stayed at the restaurant for three years, leaving to become the sous-chef at Cook Shack, another on-mountain restaurant in Vail.
Following that stint, he headed to neighboring Beaver Creek, where he secured his first exec-chef gig, at Gundy's Camp, a barbecue trailer that's now the Ritz-Carlton. He'd tied the knot while cooking in the Rockies, and he and his then-wife wanted to buy a house, but even mountain slumming comes at a high price, so they moved to Denver in 1998, and Nagle was hired as the sous-chef at Sfuzzi, a long-gone Italian restaurant in Cherry Creek.
From there, he took his knives to YaYa's Euro Bistro, and after a year and a half as the sous-chef at the Denver location, Nagle became part of the chain's nationwide opening team, which gave him the opportunity to open Ya Ya's locations in Memphis, Kansas City and Leawood, Kansas. "It's a really great, chef-driven company that treats its chefs really well, but I was living in Kansas City and wanted to get back to Denver," says Nagle, who returned to the Mile High City five years after joining the company.