Culinary Interviews – Jae Lee
For a while now I’ve been wanting to start a series of culinary interviews to see what’s happening with the food industry on the street level. These interviews might be with cooks, chefs, food bloggers, critics, butchers, foodies, or pretty much anyone involved in or passionate about food.
For our FIRST EVER (insert applause here) culinary interview, I had the pleasure of catching up with my good friend, fiercest opponent, and fellow culinary school alumni, Jae Lee. And yes, chefs are inherently competitive, therefore, culinary school is extremely competitive.
Jae is a second year cook the Roadhouse Boulder Depot, an up-scale casual American style restaurant based out of what used to be the Boulder Train Depot (hence the name). Known for its scratch kitchen, the Roadhouse Boulder Depot offers its back of house staff opportunities to make great quality food for a city of people who really, really, love food.
It’s no surprise then, when I asked Jae about what was popular on the menu, he responded with a cheeky snicker, a flick of his ever-present Cincinnati Bengals hat over skullcap, and gratified baritone, “Man, we sell just about everything on a regular basis. People tend to go with what’s familiar, but when we’re busy, everything comes out.”
For most restaurants, sales guide the menu design. For the Roadhouse, their customers come for the comfort. I asked Jae about the trends he sees on his menu. “There won’t be a push towards Asian here,” he laughs. “The restaurant is based on comfort American. We’ll put out something creative, that looks and tastes nice, but customers don’t really go for it. They’re into the classic favorites, like the lemon chicken.”
That gave me pause. I think about lemon chicken being retro, something my parents used to eat, not something trending on a menu in a place like Boulder. But Jae sees otherwise. “I feel like it’s really more the demographic here. [In Boulder], people are more health conscious. So, going for lemon chicken with the artichoke hearts is a cheat, but not far off.”
Digging further into the most popular items on the menu, Jae rattles off a deep list, but leans back and smirks that devilish smirk when he says “Brussels, everybody loves Brussels.” He is, of course, referring to the sweet/spicy goat cheese Brussels sprouts appetizer, which, just happens to also be my favorite item on the menu.
Knowing that in an operation like the Roadhouse, cooks get limited opportunities for creativity, I asked Jae how he stays motivated and expresses his creativity. Before I can finish the sentence, Jae leans in, looks squarely at me, and says “First of all, I just love cooking. Ultimately, I’m looking to gain knowledge everywhere. Paying attention to what our chef here does differently than me, how other chefs do things. I look everywhere for inspiration.”
Fair enough. I can see there’s still plenty of fire in Jae. He not only loves food but is still excited about it. So, inevitably I must ask, what’s next?
“I’ve always been on the idea of being a personal chef. Just being able to execute a menu I control, and just work one on one.”
“But how?” I counter.
This is the first time I see Jae look like tired, even though he agreed to have this talk with me after an 8-hour shift. He leans back on the bar stool, while the tinkling of drink glasses bumping together, and the buzz of the kitchen printer fills the room around us, places a finger on his upper lip, and contemplates.
After this moment of reflection, he drops his hand from his mouth and says “I guess I need to… hone my skills again… make some contacts and use my restaurant to meet people. Like, I got a chance to cook for coach Bill Cowher, and that would’ve been a good chance to introduce myself, provide some information, and see what happens. But yea, that’s what I’d love to do.”
On that note, if you, or anyone you know in the greater Denver/Boulder area, is looking for a private chef, I know just the guy.
Thanks for reading along and be sure to leave some feedback in the comments section below.