Restaurateur Chef Award: Jason Denton
‘ino, Lupa, ‘inoteca, Bar Milano | New York
After leaving his home of Twin Falls, Idaho at 18, Jason Denton set out for California to learn the restaurant business from his uncle, nightlife impresario Harry Denton of Harry Denton's in San Francisco. Under the tutelage of his uncle and general manager David O'Malley, Jason absorbed both the business and entertainment facets of being a restaurateur. He furthered his epicurean education by working for two years at renowned wine shop retailer, California Wine Merchants.
After touring Europe for seven months, Jason moved to New York City and worked in the kitchen of Casanis and as a server/manager at Po, where he met his future partner, Mario Batali. In November 1998 Jason and his wife Jennifer, inspired by a panini bar they visited in Monterossa in Cinque Terre, Italy, opened 'ino, a tiny panini bar and bruschetteria in the West Village with an unusual wine selection and warm atmosphere
In October 1999 Denton partnered with Mario Batali, Joe Bastianich, and chef Mark Ladner to open Lupa Osteria Romana, a trattoria specializing in both new and classic interpretations of the foods of Rome. Denton teamed up with Mario, Joe and Mark a second time to open Otto Enoteca Pizzeria in January 2003. In July 2003, Jason and his brother Joe Denton opened 'inoteca, a larger but still casual Italian café on the Lower East Side, with chef Eric Kleinman. 'Inoteca's menu is inspired by classic Italian wine bar fare, and every region of Italy is represented on its wine list. 'Inoteca was included in Gourmet's 2004 round-up of "America's Best Restaurants," and Denton was featured in Food & Wine as one of “The 35 most fearsome talents in wine and food, 35 years old or under.”
In 2006 the 'ino cookbook, Simple Italian Sandwiches, was released by Harper Collins, and in 2008 Denton’s newest project, Bar Milano, opened to much success. While still a neighborhood-style restaurant, Bar Milano, run by chef Steve Connaughton of ‘inoteca, ups the ante with a sleek space and a more formal menu.
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Will Blunt: When and how did you begin your career?
Jason Denton: My uncle Harry Denton sparked my interest in the restaurant business – he is a big entrepreneur and restaurateur in San Francisco. My entrepreneurial spirit came from my parents – from the age of 10 on, in Twin Falls, Idaho, I helped them package and distribute aged meats and cheeses.
WB: What did you study in school? Did you go to culinary school?
JD: Experience was my education for kitchen, front of the house and wine. I wanted to learn wine, so I went to California Wine Merchants when I was 21 and tagged along and went on tastings. I did not go to culinary school.
WB: Describe the circumstances surrounding your first restaurant project. What was the deal? How’d you get the idea?
JD: It was inspired by a trip to Verona and Cinque Terre in Italy in 1996 with my wife. I stumbled on a hole in the wall that made fantastic panini, and I thought that would be a great restaurant concept. I was a struggling actor, and my wife pushed me to pursue the idea. I went to a bookstore, bought a bunch of Italian cookbooks, and worked out the recipes. For the deal, I begged, borrowed and stole from my wife and some kind individuals.
WB: Describe your concepts now. When did they open, and what’s the pervading philosophy?
JD: ‘Ino was the first – the hole in the wall with great paninis. I got involved with Lupa in 1999. I knew that Mario [Batali] and Joe [Bastianich] were looking at the same space – and I had worked with them at Po. I already had plans to ask Mark [Ladner] to get involved, and the four of us just ended up partnering. The concept is a neighborhood Roman trattoria with a focus on traditional and seasonal dishes.
In 2002 I opened ‘inoteca. I learned Keith McNally was opening a restaurant in the Lower East Side – Schiller’s – and I have a lot of respect for him. I figured the neighborhood would be a good place for another ino-style restaurant.
Bar Milano, which opened this year, is really a bigger venture than the others. I felt like the next step was to bump it up a little – so it’s more stylish and chic…Milan-style. I went to Northern Italy to do the research. Steve Connaughton, from ‘inoteca, is the chef.
WB: How much creative control is your hands? How much goes to the chefs?
JD: I’m very opinionated about what comes in and out of the kitchen, but I also trust them and that’s why I partner with them. It’s not as much about like/don’t like, but about direction.
WB: What restaurant concepts/restaurateurs do you respect in your city?
JD: I looked up to Danny Meyer and am amazed by his zeal and by his ability to balance the business side with his relationship with his employees. And I’ve always been inspired by Mario and his constant drive for perfection.
WB: What was a critical inflection point in your career?
JD: When my first son was born – it was right after I opened [‘inoteca – check this]. It really made me feel more in touch with the people that work for me, [and it made my business feel even more personal.]
WB: What’s your next project?
JD: I have a book coming out on simple Italian snacks. I also want to focus more on organics and sustainability.
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