John Davidson’s bright eyes twinkle as he sits down at the Crushery, the restaurant he opened in December 2007. John’s idea for the Crushery came from hours spent cooking on the line at restaurants in Denver, Chicago and New York, including the prestigious Gramercy Tavern. How did a fine dining chef come to open a sandwich shop in Denver? And how did he end up making ice cream with liquid nitrogen?
John Davidson’s aha moment came when he was 22 years old. “I had just catered an event for my mother in-law “to be” for her 50th birthday party. The look on people’s faces as they tasted the food I created made me want to become a chef. Everyone at that party encouraged me to go to culinary school.”
“I did cook as a child. In my Montessori school I was sometimes responsible for cooking for my class. I remember the local paper publishing a picture of me in a chef hat. In high school I cooked for myself, as my mother was working and very busy. I made good spaghetti with the really thick noodles, and beef wellington.”
John went to culinary school at Johnson and Wales in Vail. After culinary school he worked with Jamey Fader and Sheila Lucero at Jax in Denver. Later, John moved to Chicago to work as a line cook at Rushmore. The chef there was a big influence on John. “I learned a great deal. I showed up early and stayed late. I got to see many aspects of a kitchen that I would have normally missed. I saw the butchering of meat and fish and the ordering process.”
John worked at Rushmore for a year and a half. Then he opened Mac’s American Gastropub, before the term “gastropub” existed. After a short stint back at Rushmore John moved to New York City.
“I had a list of restaurants where I wanted to work. I interviewed at Restaurant Daniel but it wasn’t my style of food. Also on my list were Gramercy Tavern, Bouley Bakery and Gotham Bar and Grill.” Ultimately John ended up at Gramercy Tavern.
“I was a line cook at the Tavern. I worked every station in the kitchen except for pastry and garde manger. I showed up early to watch the butchering and the produce coming in. Gramercy was an extremely intense kitchen – every day is like a Friday and Saturday night. There was no joking, and no talking. I took it very seriously. In my mind I was in the number one kitchen in NYC and I had to be focused and directed. I worked hard and they noticed. I was the first person in two years to get all my prep done before service every shift. On my days off I staged at restaurants in the city, including WD-50. I was working 65 hours a week and only getting paid for 40.”
Eventually John decided to leave Gramercy and work at a gastropub in New Jersey. This new position allowed him to spend more time with his wife. It was then that they decided to move back to Denver to start a family. When he returned, John worked at the Manor House and then decided to open the Crushery.
On the Crushery space: We looked at so many places. The Crushery space was vacant and used as storage. There was no electricity, a drop ceiling, plaster over the brick and dirt floors in the basement. I did most of the renovation myself.
Concept for the Crushery: The Crushery is based on the idea of a kitchen sandwich. As a line cook there was rarely time to eat so I took whatever ingredients I was working with, two pieces of bread and then grilled my snack with a heavy pan on top to “crush” the sandwich.
On my life: I love my job, although some days I miss “just” cooking. I find peace in cooking and in doing dishes. Running a business takes me out of the kitchen. Business is good. We’ve been profitable since day one. The best part is going from working 11 a.m. – 11 p.m. to now. Some days I’m home as early as 2:00 p.m.
On fine dining: At some point I want to get back there, I keep up on all the trends. My style of food is home style. It’s rustic, not super refined, which is why I decided not to work at Restaurant Daniel. It just wasn’t me.
On molecular gastronomy: It’s o.k. in doses. I’m not a molecular chef even though I make liquid nitrogen ice cream. Liquid nitrogen is just an alternative method of freezing. I got the idea for liquid nitrogen ice cream from an article in a trade magazine. Richard Blais, of Top Chef fame, was doing liquid nitrogen milkshakes and I thought, I need to try this. Molecular gastronomy is nothing new. Candy companies and businesses like Hormel have used it for a long time.
On liquid nitrogen ice cream: Using liquid nitrogen I can make ice cream to order. (After eating one of John’s delicious sandwiches be sure to order ice cream. He has a list of flavors and ingredients so you can pick exactly what you’re craving. I particularly like his honey lavender combination or the salted chocolate caramel.)
My favorite station: Sauté. This is the station where you have the most control over the food. It’s also the most challenging station. I love the adrenaline and intensity of service.
Favorite cookbook: Elements of Taste by Gary Kunz.
Favorite Kitchen Tool: My Gary Kunz spoon and my micro plane. A micro plane is one of those kitchen tools that actually work very well. And a silpat …..let’s not forget about that.
If I could eat anywhere in the world: Korea. I like ethnic food. My experience with Asian food is very limited. When I go out in Denver I always like to eat at ethnic restaurants. I don’t want to go to a restaurant that uses French technique. I’m always disappointed.
When cooking at home: I cook for my two small children. I do lots of pasta and Mexican. I took them for Persian food this week but they didn’t really like it.
Chefs I admire in Denver: Steve Ells from Chipotle. I would like to follow in his path. Goose Sorensen at Solera has been doing very progressive stuff for a while. Alex Seidel at Fruition is awesome. Jamey Fader and Dave Query are very successful restaurateurs.
Biggest Kitchen Disaster: While trying to clean a stovetop I set the stove on fire. I had to use a fire extinguisher to put the fire out. The kitchen was a mess. Thank God the ansul system didn’t go off. I had two hours before service to clean up and get everything ready. I made it.
My guilty pleasure: Reece’s pieces. I can eat a whole bag by myself.
Trends: I like all the trends. Anything that brings more attention and awareness to food and dining is good.
If I could put anything on the menu and not worry about it selling: I would really like to do a foie gras BLT. Mostly I don’t worry about this too much. I put a chicken liver sandwich on the menu once and it sold just fine. My customers trust me.
Best Meal in Denver lately: Steubens, Colt & Gray.
Do you encourage your kids to be chefs: NO! I encourage them to cook but I’m not sure I would encourage them to be chefs.
Advice for culinary students: Anyone can be a line cook. It’s those extra things that make you a chef. Eat with other chefs. Do as many stages as you can. Never burn a bridge. Knock on many doors.
Advice for home cooks: Learn patience.
Last words: When I left to cook in Chicago there was nothing progressive about Denver dining. The restaurant scene has changed an extraordinary amount. Goose was at the pinnacle of that change, so was Michael Long at Opus Restaurant. Frasca, Bobby Stuckey and Lachlan Patterson have also influenced the scene. Dining in Colorado has definitely changed for the better.
The Crushery is open Tuesdays and Wednesdays from 7:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m., Thursdays – Saturdays from 7:00 a.m. – 9:00 p.m. and Sundays from 7:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.