Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Appetite extra: Kiss the Cook

Posted By on Wed, Jul 16, 2014 at 11:38 AM

In this week's Appetite column, I visit the surprisingly stellar Wobbly Olive, a newbie to the Powers Boulevard corridor. 

By now you've hopefully read the full review, and have noted my invitation at the article's end to learn more about chef David Cook, which brings us to the now. 
click to enlarge The spectacularly plated Moroccan meatballs. - MATTHEW SCHNIPER
  • Matthew Schniper
  • The spectacularly plated Moroccan meatballs.

As I wrote, the 32-year-old graduated from Johnson & Wales (the Charleston, S.C. location), and during our phone interview, he joked that at his first job at a country club in Harrisburg, Pa. as a teenager, a chef that was mentoring him urged him to head to culinary school: "I didn't know if I wanted to do this forever, but he said, 'Your last name's Cook!'"

So, flash forward again, and Cook was getting offered a job six minutes after culinary school ended — to be the chef for a private yacht in the Caribbean which got chartered regularly for island hopping.

Is there any other rational response to that offer other than "Eff yeah"? (No, there isn't.)

Cook — who's father was an Army officer, meaning he's lived all over the word, spending six years of his childhood in Hershey, Pa. as the longest stint anywhere — wisely took the yacht gig, which he says was actually a pretty demanding 24-hour job at times, though a fantastic resumé bullet point for anyone at age 22. 

After six months, he returned to Pennsylvania and was involved in the opening of a couple of restaurants and hotel eateries, before heading for work in D.C. at fine-dining places on par with the Broadmoor, he says. 
click to enlarge The Mason jar of house-pickled vegetables and tarragon aioli. - MATTHEW SCHNIPER
  • Matthew Schniper
  • The Mason jar of house-pickled vegetables and tarragon aioli.
"My background is classical French, and I spin that with modern and regional things here and there," he says, accounting for a generalization of his eclectic style. 

While in D.C., he says he always made an effort to talk with his guests and truly listen to their ideas — " I want people to feel like they're included. I don't say that I want to challenge them. I'm just in love with food so much, I have such a passion for it, that I want everyone to have that type excitement and passion." 

Passion, of course, gets tied into wanderlust for many people, so it's no surprise Cook ended up craving experience out west. He was looking into a job posting as a food-program director in Alamosa when he came across the Craigslist posting from Wobbly Olive's group of partners. He came out, scoped out our town and cooked for them, earning a call-back within a couple of days. 

Now, he's logging 100-hour weeks with a lean five-person kitchen crew, comprised partly of recent local culinary school grads (from Paragon Culinary School). As chef Alex Seidel does at Fruition in Denver, Cook says he cross trains all his staff to work each culinary station, beginning by sending them to the dish pit for a week — "It's the most under-appreciated place in the kitchen, but without it, the restaurant doesn't run, people forget that."

For Wobbly Olive's opening menu, Cook says it underwent seven re-writes before meeting his and the owners' collaborative comfort zone (i.e. food that's not too far out there for the Powers Boulevard crowd, while still inspiring them to try new things). 
click to enlarge The Tomato Asparagus Indecision soup. - MATTHEW SCHNIPER
  • Matthew Schniper
  • The Tomato Asparagus Indecision soup.

"The biggest problem for me was I'm from the East Coast, I'd never been to Colorado, I didn't know what to expect from the clientele. I wanted the menu to hit everybody with at least one thing." 

On his next seasonal menu, he says he even wants to incorporate a few vegan plates. Interestingly enough (and challenging too for a chef who handles all types of foods all day for a living), Cook says he went vegan for a while a couple of years ago, which is "one of the best ideas I've ever had — it made me more rounded and gave me background for non-animal-based cooking."

A little background in molecular gastronomy informs such current experiments as aiming to make in-house vegan cheeses out of such items as fermented wheatberries and different yeast starters. 

He envisions adding more nightly specials to his menu to feature such items and test them on the public, saying "Where we are now and where we'll be in three years is totally different." (Well, aside from what grows into bestsellers, earning a permanent spot on the menu.)

He says he is well aware of his environment, and is quite excited to break up the "monotony of chains" on Powers Boulevard — crediting Wobbly Olive's landlords, Nor'wood Development Group, for being a "huge part of the success" so far.  

As for the type of culinary soldier we need on the independent eatery front-line, Cook's certainly got the right personality and necessary sense of humor: "Every time someone asks me for ranch, a little piece of me dies," he jokes, noting that he sends out a custom aioli instead, which they generally love. 

Again, you can read the full review here to see what I had to say about all my samplings. 

click to enlarge The adult cordial mousse cups. - MATTHEW SCHNIPER
  • Matthew Schniper
  • The adult cordial mousse cups.

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