Interview with Chef Jody Denton of Merenda Restaurant – Washington, DC

October 2011

Oliver Ludwig: Looking at your restaurants, how do they all fit together in terms of your cuisine and your personal style? What is the common thread?

Jody Denton: The way that it all fits together is that I have a lot of different passions. There are a lot of chefs who are extremely passionate about a cuisine. A lot of chefs are very passionate about Italian food. A lot of the French guys are very passionate about French food. There are people who are very passionate about Asian food. I’m really passionate about a whole lot of food. I’m passionate about pizza. I’m passionate about Latin cuisines. I’m passionate about Asian cuisine. I really love all the different cuisines and cultures.

So with Lulu we’ve got the south of France, with Zibibbo we’ve broadened it, but it’s still focused on the Mediterranean. In that restaurant [Zibibbo], we lean towards the eastern and southern Mediterranean countries because I happen to be a spice head. It’s Middle Eastern, Moroccan… all the North African countries. And Spanish, Greek and Arab cuisines and all that type of thing. I love that stuff. And then at Azie, it’s all got some semblance of Asian influence. It’s exciting for me to focus my energy in one area. And I think that is the common thread now. I have plans to do more restaurants in the city here [San Francisco].

OL: Is it fair to say the mold is set in terms of your artistry and your business plans?

JD: It’s fair to say that the plan is not to open a bunch of restaurants that are all really similar, so that I can exercise my various food passions in different venues.

OL: Given this eclectic range of interest – or passion as you put it – how would you explain your personality? How did you get to be who you are?

JD: Oh boy! That’s a good question. Nobody’s ever asked me that one. I’ve had the good fortune in my life of having a father who was an airline pilot. We traveled a lot growing up, and that’s something I’ve always enjoyed. I have continued to travel – even more so in the last several years. Traveling got me interested in different foods and different cuisines. It got me into trying new and different things. I was pretty finicky as a kid and getting into the chef world slowly but surely broadened my chef horizons and that translated into having more interest in trying different ethnic cuisines in different restaurants and reading cookbooks. It just developed over a long period of time. And then there are the people I’ve worked with over the years. I’ve been lucky to work with some people – for example I worked with a guy from India for a couple of years who got me very enthusiastic about Indian food. Now, I’m not convinced that that’s a commercially viable thing at this point, at least in San Francisco. I know Tabla has made a good run of it in New York. But he got me interested in that. Then I worked with a guy from Thailand for a while. I’ve worked with guys from Italy, and French guys, different people who got me interested in different cuisines over the years.

OL: Are there any individuals who you’d definitely count as mentors over the years?

JD: I definitely count Dean Fearing at The Mansion on Turtle Creek as a mentor. He got me excited about a lot of different cuisines. That was where my interest in Latin cuisine started to get refined. I was always interested in it, but I started to get a good handle on those flavors working with him. And obviously Wolfgang Puck was a big mentor.

OL: Would you consider yourself in some sense a very American kind of chef insofar as you are open to the rest of the world - the opposite of the French stereotype of being inward looking?

JD: Oh absolutely. I think people from France and people from Italy and from many places really do tend to get kind of hyper-focused on their piece of the culinary puzzle. And I think that there are a lot of American chefs who are extremely open.

OL: Are there any particular ingredients that you come back to again and again, that find their way into dishes at the different restaurants.

JD: Well you can never have too much garlic! That finds its way into all three restaurants. There are also a few herbs that are common to all the restaurants such as mint, basil and thyme.

OL: Are there ingredients you really love to work with?

JD: I love all ingredients! (Laughs).

OL: Do you have a routine that stimulates your creative process? Does a recipe come to you while jogging or when you are cooking?

JD: Eating out is a very big source of inspiration. It’s not like I’ll be having a meal and I’ll have a dish that I’ve got to go put on the menu. But there will be a component or an ingredient used in a certain way, or a technique or a combination of flavors. There’ll be something that is just very inspiring in a meal. Sometimes there’ll be several things in a meal and sometimes only one thing over the course of the whole meal that sort of perks up my eyebrow and makes me say: ‘I kind of like that.’

I try to go with my partner and sometimes with one of the chefs from one of the restaurants on a trip. Like the chef from Lulu, he and I went a little over a year ago to Provence in the south of France. We’re going again in October. Those trips are very, very productive. They’re also very productive on my waistline! (Laughs). We eat way too much. We’ll just go, and the whole focus of 10 days of traveling through that small area of France will be eating lunch and dinner; sometimes early lunch, early dinner, late dinner.

It’s seeing what’s going on over there and how we can use that in the restaurant. That helps me out. We go to Provence and the chef from Lulu gets all these ideas for Lulu and meanwhile I’m getting all these ideas for all three restaurants.

OL: I’d like to hear about your products…

JD: We started doing the products at the San Francisco Ferry Landing Farmer’s Market about four and a half years ago. We did a couple of things - the thick balsamic vinegar and the white truffle honey and a couple of seasoning salts. But it started to get big enough that it was a real big pain in the butt and we had to hire one person part time just to do the products. Then we did the math on it, and we were just losing money like crazy. So we decided about three years ago that it was time to either do it for real or drop it.

We decided that we were going to produce products that used the same quality of ingredients, the same kind of techniques that we use in the kitchen; that we weren’t going to go down the road of most commercially manufactured products. So I’ve got a guy who grows heirloom tomatoes for me. I’ve got like four acres of heirloom tomatoes growing for one of our sauces. Then I’ve got another guy who takes those tomatoes once they’re grown and roasts those heirloom tomatoes for me, freezes them and then sends them to me. I’ve got all my little sources of high-quality stuff. I’ve got a guy making balsamic vinegar in Sonoma to my specifications.

We started out with seven products at the Fancy Food Show in San Francisco a year after that and have been slowly growing the line and attending the different trade shows. It started out with half an employee. We had somebody who did packing, shipping, order taking and accounting, and it was only half a job. And now we have five employees in the company, our sales are going through the roof and we’ve gotten a couple of awards.

OL: In the kitchen, when you’re cooking, are there any tools or any kinds of equipment that you enjoy working with?

JD: Well I can hardly live without my Japanese mandoline. I’m not really hooked on equipment, but I love Japanese knives when I’m working at Azie. But I sometimes feel I can’t afford it. Since I’m not in the kitchen everyday the way I used to be – I’m definitely more businessman than chef a lot of days – I have a strong tendency to forget that I’ve left my Japanese knife laying on the table and go back three hours later and it’s gone.

OL: Do you miss the kitchen now that you’re on a more managerial level?

JD: I get enough cooking so that that’s not really a problem. My work life is very well rounded and fulfilling. I have enough cooking to keep me feeling like I’m still a chef and do enough talking about cooking with my chefs de cuisine at the different restaurants to exercise my creative level. And the rest is kind of a big puzzle of making all these businesses run well and getting the right kind of critical acclaim.

OL: Do you find that you’re applying more attention to one segment of the business at this juncture? For example, the catering business, since it’s relatively new?

JD: The catering got a lot of attention until this last month. I feel like everybody’s somewhat in place. I am still peripherally involved in that, but not as directly involved as I was for a while. I’m really involved in all of the businesses at the same level. I have a lot of conversations with the people who are in charge of running those businesses. They’re responsible for making sure that I have all the information so that I know that things are running properly. And when they’re not running properly, that’s when I start to focus harder on one place or another. But right now they’re all running pretty damn well.

That might make me bored. I might have to open another restaurant. Because, you know, the fun’s all building the tree house. When the tree house is built, you’ve got to start looking for another tree. (Laughs).

OL: As a manager and as a businessman, are you feeling the labor crunch at this time?

JD: There’s a huge labor crunch. In San Francisco it’s horrible. Oh! We’re having a hell of a time. I mean we’re staffed, but it’s much harder to stay that way than it ever used to be.

OL: Does it ever pull you into the kitchen on an emergency basis?

JD: On rare occasions. But, you know, I’m very fortunate. I’ve got some very talented people running the kitchens and front of the house at these restaurants. And they really don’t create a lot of emergency situations that I have to bail them out of.

OL: Do you see any kind of solution on the horizon? Any sign that cooking schools are cranking out more graduates?

JD: Well cooking schools are cranking out more graduates. But more of them are going into different parts of the business. Especially in this area – with all the dot-com companies – a lot of the graduates are becoming private chefs.

OL: In your spare time, where do you go to eat, and where do you dream of eating?

JD: Well, when it comes to eating good food, the first piece of the puzzle is finding the babysitter. (Laughs). Which is just a big old pain. (Laughs). My wife and I have a 20-month old, and before the baby we were a ‘go-out-all-the-time’ couple. Then we had the baby. Life changed very dramatically. Now going out and getting good food is a lot of delivery and a lot of take out. When we do get the chance to go out, our No. 1 favorite is sushi. Love sushi. She and I are big sushi fanatics.

OL: San Francisco has really transformed in terms of restaurants…

JD: Yeah, and it continues to transform.

OL: Does it ever have a hope of competing with New York?

JD: Well pound for pound, we kick their ass! (Laughs).

OL: Are you saying that jokingly or with some seriousness?

JD: I’m serious!!! If we had the population of New York, that would be a different story. But if you talk about the number of quality restaurants per capita, you’re very likely to have a good meal going into an average place in this city. I think that this town has some amazing restaurants. New York has completely different kinds of concepts; it’s got a much larger population to support that type of thing. And San Francisco is growing, and the restaurant clientele is changing. It’s becoming even more diverse. For a long time it was only French and Italian places and Mediterranean-based type cuisine. I think Caroline Bates in her recent review of Azie said that Mediterranean – specifically French or Italian – was the unofficial cuisine of the city. It’s nice to see a lot of people doing something a little different these days.