Sheila Lucero did not grow up dreaming of being an executive chef. Her goal was not to oversee the food at five restaurants in two states. In fact, the Golden native’s only ambition while attending Lakewood High School was to score goals for the soccer team.
We sat down to talk at the original Jax Fish House location on Pearl Street in Boulder. Lucero lives with her husband in downtown Denver near Coors Field, sort of centrally located for restaurants that she visits weekly.
Q: What had you planned to do as a career after college?
A: I went to college to play soccer. After that was done I played for a semi-pro team. This was before the women’s professional league started. I came home and became a ski bum in the mountains. I was about 22 and I needed an income so I started working in restaurants.
Q: Did being an athlete make working in a kitchen appealing?
A: I think so. I worked in the back of the house (kitchen). I really liked the pace, the physical part of it. You’re running for hours and up and down stairs, lifting things. I thought: “I want to do this every day.” I knew I needed more training so I went to the Art Institute in Denver and tried to sponge up everything I could about cooking.
Q: How did you end up working at Jax?
A: While I was in school I started working in various restaurants in Denver. I started to get frustrated with the culture of the places. They were unprofessional. I was pretty passionate about what I was doing and some people just really didn’t care. Then I found Jax. We talked about what we cooked at home. We brought in cookbooks and had tastings. It was a whole food-making culture. After graduation I was sous chef there and I took over at Jax Denver in 2001.
Q: In a way, the Top Chef TV series opened doors for you even though you weren’t a competitor.
A: I was the chef at Jax in Denver; there were only two locations then, and Hosea Rosenberg was the executive chef. (Rosenberg now owns Boulder’s Blackbelly Market.) After Hosea won Top Chef in 2008 he got so busy and I offered to help out in Boulder. After he decided it was best to move on, I became the executive chef.
Q: There must have been times when you were the only woman in the kitchen. Have things changed, especially now that you are doing the hiring?
A: The culture was starting to change when I began cooking, but you have to be thick-skinned and have a sense of humor. Now there are more women in the kitchen, but hiring someone because they are female never crosses my mind. Can they be a strong leader? Are they a good communicator? Can they cook? I have been part of some great kitchens. It’s a real familial culture here. We treat each other as if we were guests.
Q: Being executive chef with five restaurants must involve some travel?
A: On Mondays I’m at the office. Tuesdays in Boulder. Wednesday in Glendale. Thursday in Fort Collins. On Friday and Saturday it depends. I’ll be going to Kansas City soon to help them out for their Restaurant Week. I also have to deal with five different health inspection departments with different rules.
Q: Do you decide what is on the menus?
A: Except for a few legacy items, we leave it to the chefs in each restaurant to come up with a menu. The best sellers are always the oysters. The miso black cod entrée and the tuna appetizer and entrée always sell. We’re also known for our calamari.
Q: Your menus beg the same question everybody asked when Jax Fish House first opened years ago.
A: People still ask me: “How do you get such fresh fish here every day?” I ask them: “How long does it take to fly from any of the coasts? Two or three hours?” We usually get it within 24 hours of being caught. We pay for it, but it gets here.
Q: Overfishing, ocean pollution and climate change are all impacting fish and seafood globally. How do you deal with this issue at Jax and the other Big Red F restaurants?
A: We work closely with the Monterrey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch list (seafoodwatch.org). We’re really mindful about sourcing and go with what’s in season and what’s sustainable. We also use farmed fish from Colorado, including Alamosa bass.”
Q: Since the day Jax opened it has been among the loudest restaurants I’ve ever experienced. Is the noise, uh, intentional?
A: We throw a party very night.
Q: What was the first thing you learned how to cook?
A: Probably grilled cheese sandwiches. My sister and I also liked to cook breakfast on the weekends — pancakes and omelettes. I learned a lot from dad. He made great green chile sauce and enchiladas were a weekly thing. When I was young, we used to roast the chilies at home. Now my dad goes down to Pueblo to stock up. You should see his freezer. You could do a vertical roasted green chile tasting from what is in there.
Sheila Lucero has shared her recipe for Jax Fish House Clam and Sunchoke Chowder.
Jax Fish House Clam and Sunchoke Chowder
2 pounds cleaned little neck clams
¼ pound smoked bacon, diced
½ cup minced yellow onions
½ cup diced celery
1 cup diced sunchokes
1 cup potatoes, diced
½ cup diced carrots
1 cup clam juice
¾ cup butter
¾ cup flour
1 cup peeled, diced sunchokes
1 quart half & half
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1½ teaspoons salt
½ teaspoon black pepper
Cream— in a medium sized pot melt butter. When the butter is melted whisk in flour. Turn heat down to a low and stir flour until flour and butter mixture is smooth and fully combined. Add the half and half and sunchokes. Bring to a simmer, and cook until sunchokes are tender. About 30 minutes. Place mixture in a blender and blend until smooth. Set aside.
In another medium sized pot, cook bacon until slightly crispy. Remove bacon and set aside. Drain off excess fat and add the rest of the vegetables. “Sweat” or saute vegetables until translucent. Add clams and clam juice. Cover and cook until clams open. Using tongs, remove clams and set aside. Add Sunchoke Cream to the pot, bring to a simmer and cook until vegetables are tender. Pull clam meat from shells and add to chowder with bacon. Season to taste with lemon juice, salt and pepper, and serve with crusty bread. Makes about four to six servings.
Local Food News
Time and the opening of many successful Italian-American eateries in the Boulder area have led to the closing of Louisville’s 98-year-old Blue Parrot Restaurant. A generation of Boulder Valley school kids grew up eating Blue Parrot Spaghetti Sauce, which is also available at local supermarkets. … Roxie’s Tacos is open on The Hill at 1135 Broadway Suite 102, serving healthy, fast-casual, tortilla-wrapped Indian fillings including vegan chana masala, saag paneer and tikka chicken. The tacos come with organic vegetable slaw and housemade chutneys. … The shortage of kitchen workers has grown so severe locally that restaurants are partnering with Emily Griffith Technical College to offer the Culinary Quick Start, a free four-week course to train entry-level line or prep cooks. Graduates will have jobs waiting. emilygriffith.edu/cqs. … Plan ahead: The 35th annual Chocolate Lovers Fling to benefit Safehouse Alliance is Feb. 6 at Broomfield’s Omni Interlocken Hotel. safehousealliance.org. … Plan accordingly: National Pie Day is Jan. 23.
Words to Chew On
“No one who cooks, cooks alone. Even at her most solitary, a cook in the kitchen is surrounded by generations of cooks past, the advice and menus of cooks present, the wisdom of cookbook writers.” — Laurie Colwin
John Lehndorff hosts Radio Nibbles 8:25 a.m. Thursdays on KGNU, 88.5 FM. Podcasts: news.kgnu.org/category/radio-nibbles.