“Let me just get this lamb out, and then we’ll step outside”

James Beard Award-winning chef Greg Denton on the sometimes absurd life behind the line.

“Let me just get this lamb out, and then we’ll step outside”

Illustration: Erin Maala

“Wow does it feel to be a rock star chef?” Ever since my wife, Gabi, and I won a James Beard Award this year, I get that question a lot. It’s flattering, but looking back at my life in the kitchen—not a rock star place—the question always feels funny. I was nine years old when I started working at Lum’s in Rutland, Vermont, where my dad was the general manager. When you’re a kid working the salad bar, you certainly don’t feel like a rock star.

THE BRUTALLY ODD HOURS

As a young chef, you have to put in an extreme amount of time in the kitchen. You go in around 10:30 in the morning and you get out at midnight. Even now as an established chef, I don’t celebrate birthdays. I don’t celebrate Christmas. We don’t celebrate anniversaries. We celebrate Tuesday [a typically slow day]. We’ll take Tuesday off and it’s like, “Let’s go ball out on some caviar and champagne and have a great day just because it’s Tuesday.” A lot of people lose marriages over it. I feel very lucky that my best friend is my wife, who’s also my partner, who’s also my favorite chef, who’s also the person I can be 100 percent honest with.

PROS AND CONS OF A NOMADIC LIFE

Part of being a chef is the “culinary tour,” as I like to call it. You shouldn’t be in one place for a really long time because there’s so much to learn. I grew up in Vermont, but I’ve worked in 13 different restaurants in six states, everywhere from private islands in Maine to fine dining in Maui. Along the way, you end up missing things. I’ll never forgive myself for not going to my grandfather’s funeral. That’s one of those moments in life when you don’t realize it, but you’re moving in a different direction—you learn how to push your emotions down and just focus on the work.

TEMPERS ON THE LINE

At my restaurants now, we turn out 500 dishes every night. It gets aggressive back there. You can easily find yourself in a potential fight. There was one annoying guy in Maui and he put something on my cutting board, and I freaked out at him. He starts challenging me, like, “Oh, yeah? You want to … ?” And I’m like, “Let me just get this lamb out and then we’ll step outside.” Luckily, we both calmed down and nothing ever happened.

THE PAYOFF

My biggest goal has always been to just be respected by my peers. I once did an eight-course tasting menu for my mentor Hiro Sone and his guests where I served a different version of each dish to each person at the table. I made 32 completely different dishes by myself. At the end of that meal, Hiro called me “chef.” That meant everything to me. I’ve been in the kitchen for over 30 years. That’s a long time, and I still get excited about coming to work.

Chef Greg Denton and his wife, Gabi Quiñónez Denton, own Ox and Superbite restaurants in Portland, Oregon, and won the James Beard Award for Best Chef Northwest this year.