Something From Nothing: Jeff Osaka

Photo Courtesy of Jeff Osaka

Photo Courtesy of Jeff Osaka

The fact that I have the ability to create something from nothing with my words will never cease to amaze me. One of my writing goals for 2013 is to land at least one interview per month with a person (or people) whose creative work I enjoy or appreciate or am otherwise inspired by. January’s first interview is with chef Jeff Osaka of Denver’s twelve restaurant, where we ate dinner on Dann’s last birthday. As the name implies, twelve’s menu changes monthly. Our meal was so good I was inspired to ask Jeff to talk with me about how he does what he does. Hopefully you’ll be inspired too.

Jeff Osaka did not always aspire to be a chef. He remembers watching his mom cook for their family when he was a kid, but not being particularly inspired himself. "I was curious, but I didn't really get my hands dirty in the kitchen. I think it was more of a chore when I was younger. It wasn't until later that I appreciated what she did."

Osaka’s grandfather owned a Chinese restaurant in West Hollywood before World War II, sold it for pennies on the dollar just before he went to an internment camp, then re-opened after the war in the Fairfax District. The family business is where his mom learned to cook. “A lot of people say their mom is a bad cook or a good cook. I think my mom is a great cook.”

Growing up in a family of seven sharing a 1000-square-foot home, Osaka started working at a grocery store when he was still in high school. He bagged groceries, then worked his way up to management, which afforded him the ability to eat out as often as he liked. He recalls the moment he was first drawn to his current profession. It was at a restaurant called DC3 at the Santa Monica Airport and he was on his way to the bathroom. 

“I saw an army of cooks in white jackets and flames flying and things like that so on our way out I asked the hostess if they were hiring and she said ‘I don’t know come back tomorrow and talk to the chef.’ So I took an application with me. I went back to talk to the chef. We sat down and talked for - the way I remember it - almost a couple hours. Most chefs don’t have two minutes, let alone two hours. He saw something in me that maybe he saw in himself. I don’t even remember the chef’s name.”

Osaka began his cooking career in the kitchen at that restaurant, showing up to cook for private parties after a full day of working at his day job. He eventually attended culinary school at a city college, spending about $500 total on his education.

It was during his second semester that he landed a job working for Bradley Ogden at One Market in San Francisco.

“That was the first time I saw 20 different kinds of heirloom tomatoes. You know, I shucked an english pea for the first time. (Ogden) suggested to the farmers what to grow. We used to place our order during the week and pick it up on Saturdays. I mean, it was the most beautiful produce you’ve ever seen. It tasted like nothing I grew up with. I grew up with frozen vegetables.”

Osaka went on to work for the likes of Wolfgang Puck, and opened the highly-acclaimed Chloe in LA. He worked as a private chef for various Hollywood families while looking for investors to back him in Denver.

And while I like to think of myself as a somewhat savvy restaurant patron, I did not even hear of Osaka’s restaurant until nearly four years after it opened, reinforcing his perception of our city. “Denver is a small town, but news travels pretty slowly,” he said, “There’s still the stigma of being a cow town, but we have some of the better steakhouses because of it.”

One thing you are unlikely to encounter when you eat at twelve, however, is a pretentious sense that you may not belong.

“We have people who come from out of town and who travel and who know what good food is,” Osaka said, “Then we have people who don’t dine out that often who come and experiment. We had escargot on the menu last month and this guy, I think he was in his 40s, it was his first time he tried escargot. I think that is part of my job too, to educate diners. Not to shove my philosophy down their throat, but to open people’s eyes. You take that fear factor out of it. If you’re more informed about something, you’re more willing to try it.”

Now on his 51st menu at twelve, Osaka’s creative process starts with relationships.

“It starts with making phone calls to purveyors. They know I’m changing the menu each month, so they’ll call me two weeks into the month to see what I want to purchase for the following month,” Osaka said, “and a lot of times mother nature dictates what’s available.”

And while Osaka knows that chefs who own their own farms are at an advantage, he’s more concerned with quality and seasonality than with following trends.

“It comes down to the best product, not so much the local product. And a lot of times the local product is the best,” Osaka said, “Even if I could get a tomato from South America right now, I’m not gonna bring in a tomato in January. I’ll wait until August or September when they’re in season, when it’s plentiful and it costs the least, so I can carry that on to my customer.”

He starts with the protein - most protein is available year-round - then builds around it, making as much of the food in-house as possible. The staff at twelve bakes fresh bread on a daily basis. And though the green salad and the chocolate dessert stay on the menu year-round, everything else is new each month. 

“I like the challenge,” Osaka said, “You know, this is my 20th year of cooking and it still doesn’t seem like work to me.”