As I walked into Twelve Restaurant for my interview with Jeff Osaka the dining room was dark and quiet. He poured me a cup of french press coffee as we sat at the bar talking. This was one of those interviews that could have lasted all day as Jeff is an accomplished chef and eater. I was enraptured listening to him speak about why he became a chef.
Jeff began his career in Los Angeles, before moving to Denver. “I was a foodie for so long. When I was younger I used to work at Vons grocery store. I actually made money and I liked to spend it dining out. I loved trying the newest and trendiest restaurants in LA. One day during a meal I walked by the kitchen and saw a whole brigade of chefs working. It piqued my interest and I asked the hostess for a job application. I don’t know what came over me. Later, the Chef sat down with me for two hours. He hired me right on the spot. I thought that I would just do prep but I ended up working with a Sous chef for private dining. I did this part time while I still worked at Vons. Finally I decided to go to culinary school. It came easy to me. I had a passion for it. I never took notes in class and I passed with a 4.0.”
From there Jeff worked with the greats in L.A. including Wolfgang Puck, Joaquim Splichal and Bradley Ogden. While Jeff was working with Bradley Ogden he was introduced to the Farm to Table concept. This was back in the 90’s. Even though One Market, Chef Ogden’s restaurant, was huge he would close for lunch on Saturdays and visit the farmers markets. He also worked a coop deal with farmers in the Napa Valley so that he could bring in the freshest produce.
Twelve Restaurant gets its name and its concept because the menu is entirely different each month. For those of us without kitchen experience this may not seem like a big deal, but it is. No dish is repeated even from year to year. It takes creativity and foresight to be able to change a menu so frequently let alone do it flawlessly and make it delicious. “It’s challenging,” Jeff says, “but it keeps my staff excited. My Sous chefs have input now into changing the menu and they like that. ”
Chef Osaka prefers to have a small restaurant although that can be challenging as well. “Business has been good and steady, “ he says “but I would like to see my dining room full each night. I think Denver thinks that Twelve is a high-end restaurant, expensive and with small portions. But that’s not true.”
Having eaten at Twelve a few times now I also don’t understand why it’s not cranking every night. It’s in a super location – right by Coors Field and the Ballpark Lofts and with his $35 three-course prix fixe menu on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays Twelve, in my opinion is primed to become the best restaurant in Denver.
Jeff shares his experience and knowledge with anyone interested in cooking. One night a young boy, Zeb, came to dinner with his father. After talking with the table Jeff found out that he was very interested in food and fine dining. He offered to have Zeb come and hang out in the kitchen for a day. Jeb now stops by about once a week to help with prep and service. His father even bought him knives and a jacket. “I think this kid is going to do something big. I teach him how to do things and the reason for doing them a certain way. I bring him up to my level, I don’t talk down to him,” says Chef Osaka. Under the influence of Jeff and his Sous Chef Dain, Zeb is certainly in a great kitchen for learning.
What’s on the menu: Who knew that sweet breads on a menu would sell? They do. I don’t worry about a dish selling. When I put fois gras on the menu I make zero money. I choose to bite the bullet on this one because I want to offer my customers something different and good.
Favorite Ingredient: I don’t really have one. I just keep things rotating and try to use ingredients that are not on other restaurants menus.
Biggest Pet Peeve: Anything being overdone. What is going on with the hamburger craze in Denver these days? That has been going on in LA for years he says. It’s ridiculous but in a good way.
How to relax: I like to watch Food Network Kitchen Nightmares and I play golf to decompress.
Favorite Season: Spring and summer are the most plentiful for produce although I enjoy the challenge of winter. How many creative ways can you use root vegetables? I love to braise meats and make hearty dishes.
Favorite Kitchen Utensil: Tweezers. I got them from a dentist. I use them to plate the most delicate items like micro greens. I also have a pair of metal tipped chopsticks that I like to use.
Best part of being a chef: Learning something new everyday. If you have a bad day in the kitchen the next day is better. After 18 years of doing this I still am learning new things.
Rules in my kitchen: I lead by example. I’ve been in kitchens with too many rules. I encourage my staff to learn from me.
Eating anywhere in the world: El Bulli, the Maison in Las Vegas.
Best meal ever: The French Laundry and also Ginza Sushi-ko in LA.
Favorite local spot: I have been here 1-½ years. I am still trying spots where the chefs are people I respect. I really like Alex Seidel and Scott Parker. I think you should surround yourself with successful people. Justin at Masterpiece Deli is great. He is talented and good people. I would like to see more chefs coming into Twelve.
What is next: A bunch of different ideas. I would like to get back to my roots and do some Asian and Japanese food.
Parting Words: Denver is what it is. I balance my menu a little bit. It’s stylized food of the big city but also the ingredients that Denver diners want like steak and potatoes. Oh and we need a late night place for chefs to hang out. Everyone says that but no one is doing it yet.