CHEF JOHN DePIERRO
Words & Photographs: Christine Vazquez
When two incredible food worlds collide - like those of Puerto Rico and Italy - it’s no surprise a chef would be born from that home. This is what happened to John DePierro, innocently going about his childhood business, until he was invited into the kitchen to help his paternal grandmother roll meatballs, during the traditional Sunday Italian Suppers the family gathered for. Nothing has been the same since. In the best possible way. On his mother’s side, the soulful food of the Caribbean, with its rice, beans, plantains and more, where seasoning is essential, gave him a fuller understanding of how to coax out flavor from even the most basic ingredients.
Johnny, as he’s known in industry circles, grew up in Queens, NY, which itself was a complex stew of food cultures. At the age of 13, he entered himself in a chili cooking contest, and says if his recipe had been just a little spicier, thinks he could have won. His mom gave him great encouragement, as only moms can, but perspective as well, when she said, “You were going up against adults!”, and that also gave him an important confidence. At 14, his family moved to El Paso, and the bulk of his teenage years were spent there, among the largely Hispanic food influences. When a junior in high school, he made a speech to his fellow classmates, that he wanted to be a chef. It was the first public declaration of the fact, and his professional path was solidified.
“There’s more in my soul that I need to get out on a plate,” Johnny tells me. I understand this. A painter will tell you the same thing about a canvas. A writer, about a page. He’s only been cooking for 7 years, which is astonishing when you taste his food. His ability to conceptualize and create a dish unlike anything you’ve had before, is the sign of inherent talent, along with the necessary skill developed over time, even if just 7 years.
In early 2013, Johnny made another public declaration. Denver’s magazine, 5280, annually selects their Top 25 Restaurants, in a highly anticipated issue. It was one of these coveted spots that he had his eye on this time. He set that goal for himself, and also for his team at Bones, where he’s been the Executive Chef for 3 years, alongside his Sous Chef, Michael Nevarez, who had already been there for 4 when Johnny arrived. Though one of those 25 spots has not been awarded Bones to date - and they continue to strive for that honor - now, just weeks before this issue goes to print, the Denver community got word that Johnny had been selected for an equally coveted spot on the FIVE team for 2015. FIVE, in its eighth year, is an elite group of tastemakers, hand-selected by Leigh Sullivan, to represent both established and up and coming chef talent at special, local dining events, Aspen Food & Wine in June, culminating their season representing Colorado at the James Beard House in September.
Cooking at the Beard House is a long-held dream of many professional chefs, and Johnny is no exception. “Beard House will be a dream come true. I get goosebumps just thinking about it,” he says. “I’m nervous. It’s weird when things you always wanted start happening.”
The menu Johnny and Chris Hoffman conceptualized for our launch dinner at cafe max, was incredible in both presentation and flavor, and even more so in the thought that was put into each course’s meaning. Johnny explained to me:
We started with the Radish & Beet Salad. A rarely seen, virtually unknown combination of ingredients, which I felt mirrored the unknowns of that first meeting when you called us all together to share the idea of Nourish. And the unknown of how it would all work out. Next was the Octopus, which I consider a flamboyant dish - one that I feel fits your personality. Also, it reflected the feeling we all were having around if we were going to do it, we go big or go home. After that, we had the Grano Arso Pasta, which was similar to the first course, in the sense that it was seemingly disparate things coming together to make something truly great. Finally, we did the final course family style - the Roasted Pork and the Seared Scallops, because simply put, we are family.