Kelly Whitaker – Simple But Super Refined

September 21st, 2010 Posted by Boulder, Chefs, Culinary Connectors, restaurants No Comment yet

Chef Kelly Whitaker is excited about pizza, sous vide, his HAACP plan, the new entrees on his menu and coffee. Coffee? Yes, coffee. Kelly has a new coffee system and when I ask for mine iced he makes it for me himself.  As I am waiting for my coffee his daughter toddles over (she is 3) carrying a shallot. Yes, a shallot. Not a doll, not a stuffed animal but a shallot. Like father, like daughter.

“We’re getting geeked out on coffee. I just had Richard Betts and Bryan Dayton (a master sommelier and mixologist, respectively) come by for a coffee tasting,” says Kelly.  One of my friends from L.A. introduced us to the hario system –  a way of brewing coffee very similar to the French press. Kelly is ordering the equipment and coffee so that not only can you enjoy it at Basta, but you can make it at home as well.

Prior to moving to Boulder, Kelly cooked in Naples, Italy and at Hatfield’s and Providence in Los Angeles. Basta, which means “enough” in Italian embodies his culinary philosophy  –  simple, properly prepared food and a good bottle of wine are all you need for a satisfying meal. “I think that so many chefs in Colorado have influence or experience from the French Laundry. I bring experience from an entirely different genre of chefs. I just took Alan Henkin, my beverage director to L.A. with me so that he could see where I started. We went to Providence and were blown away by the loyalty, the dedication to the food and the quietness and intensity of the kitchen. I am modeling Basta after Providence.”

Kelly also recently traveled to New York City where he studied with Bruno Goussault to learn more about sous vide cooking. This cooking technique, wildly popular in New York, is being used in Colorado kitchens as well –but under the radar. Clostridium botulinum bacteria can grow in food in the absence of oxygen and produce the deadly botulinum toxin, so sous-vide cooking must be performed under carefully controlled conditions to avoid botulism poisoning. Unless you have a HAACP plan in place, using Sous Vide is a health department violation.

Kelly is the first chef in Boulder to write a HAACP plan and submit it for approval. There is no stove in the Pizzeria Basta kitchen and when Kelly decided to add entrees to his dinner menu he needed a way to do them well and finish them in the wood fired oven.  His logical choice? Sous vide.

Kelly is still working on his sous vide plan. His first plan was rejected, but he is resubmitting. “I had originally submitted over a 100 ingredients, now I have changed it to just five.” The health department will soon be visiting his kitchen to see exactly how the food is handled.

On his location: Pizzeria Basta is located in the Peloton complex. While not the most prominent location – like on Pearl Street – Basta is making it work for them. “Everyone says that our location is killing us, but I disagree. In just a while the Peloton will be up to 800 in population.” If Pizzeria Basta were steps away from my apartment you can be sure that I would be there 24/7 or at least ordering takeout a few times a week.

Most tedious job ever: At Providence we were using shoshito peppers. Some are very, very hot and some are not. To be sure that no guest got a spicy pepper, I had to slit each pepper and try a seed in each one. It took a long time.

What is the most manly cooking method: Wood fired oven.  It’s hot and there’s fire involved.

What is your guilty pleasure: The poutine at Euclid Hall. But really, the hotdogs outside of Costco with grain mustard and sourkraut.

What chefs do you admire the most: Travis Vaughn at Frasca. He is Frasca. Jonathon Watsky from Frasca and I know many of the same people. We’re cooked with the same people. I really like him. Dakota Soifer from Aion is doing great stuff.

Favorite Cookbook: Larousse Gastronomique, Paul Bertolli’s Cooking by Hand, Grand Livre de Cuisine and the Alinea cookbook for reference. I use cook books for inspiration, not for the recipes.

At this point in the interview Kelly jumps up and says, “ You have to taste my ice cream. We created all the recipes ourselves.” He feds me stone smoked porter, spearmint (made with mint from his own garden) and wood fired vanilla.  When making the wood fired vanilla he actually throws a burning log into the vanilla base and lets it steep for 12 hours. Then the base is strained through a chinois to get the wood bits out. It tastes amazing.  “I want the wood fire to touch all of our food,” he says.

You can go anywhere in the world. Where are you eating: Alinea in Chicago and Eleven Madison in New York City. I think there are amazing things going in the states.

Favorite kitchen tool: My global spatula and my microplane.

Worst kitchen disaster: I made five hotel pans of tirimisu using salt instead of sugar. I realized it at the end when I tasted it. Always taste everything!

Advice for culinary students: Always work in a kitchen before you go to culinary school. Make sure it is something you like.

Advice for home cooks: Simple is better. When you are entertaining keep it simple and fresh.

What trend in food do you like right now: I’m not a fan of long-winded, verbose menus.  I don’t need to know every single farm that provided the produce on one dish.  I don’t need to put “Basta” basil on my menu. I shouldn’t have to explain that I made spearmint ice cream because I had lots of it in my garden and it needed to be used. Farm to table should be a way of life, not a trend. Food tastes better when it’s closer to home.

Last words: Right now I feel as though I am finding my place in the Boulder community. I love Boulder. I love the community. I feel Basta is being accepted into the restaurant scene –  that we are finding our niche.

“It’s my goal as a chef to do simple food, yet super-refined. I want to invoke people’s memories and connect them with their past.”

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