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Chef instructor plants seeds of creativity in his students

Chef Davis loves cooking with a variety of produce.
Chef Davis loves cooking with a variety of produce.Chef Darren Davis

Although many chefs go the traditional route of culinary school, not all of them do. Some start as dishwashers and work their way up the kitchen hierarchy. In these instances, the kitchen serves as the classroom for these chefs. This was the experience of Chef Darren Davis, another of Platt’s fabulous chef instructors.

In fact, he commented to me that he didn't even know culinary school existed until he had been in the business for 10 years.

He began his career when he was 17 as a dishwasher at the Painted Desert in Oklahoma City. After two months, he began pestering the chef until he finally let him work the fry station. It wasn't long until he was working on the grill as well.

Of course, anyone who wants to work in a kitchen is probably a foodie, at least to some extent, but Chef Davis thinks there is something else behind it too.

“It’s funny, but I think a lot of us get addicted to the adrenaline before we are all that familiar with the food – and that’s what happened to me.”

Within about a year, he had become the assistant kitchen manager at the Painted Desert and was coming up with the dinner specials and could really start enjoying the more creative part of the job.

While in Oklahoma City, he also worked at the Classen Grill, Waterford Hotel, Harry’s Oyster Bar, Dakota’s and other jobs as well. Most of the time, he was working either double shifts or two jobs just to make ends meet.

“I was always working in at least two restaurants. I stopped counting after about 40 different kitchens.”

And while that may sound like a lot, he says that a lot of those were part-time jobs.

“I have worked in a lot of different environments, he added.”

When asked about his favorite thing to cook or his favorite ingredient, he said that loves making soups and sauces, but says that he doesn’t really make them when he is at home because they are trying to eat lighter.

“Now we are trying to eat healthier so I really enjoy working with good, fresh produce.”

He continued by adding, “Around this part of the country, everything is built around the protein on the plate and flavored frequently with fat and salt, but I have tried to get away from a lot of that. We eat smaller portions with more vegetables and fruits and herbs, but fewer sauces. I may teach sausage and pate making, but it’s not really where my heart is these days.

Because of my own fascination with sauce making, we revisited to that topic for a few minutes.

According to Davis, one secret to a good sauce is a good stock to use as the base.

“If you make good stocks, you can create just about anything you want. Once the foundation is there, you can flavor it however you like.”

But back to the topic of his favorite produce, he says it changes seasonally.

“During the winter months, I crave heartier fare like starchier vegetables, root vegetables, winter squash, but in the other three seasons, I really like fresh greens of all kinds for salads, steaming, braises, sautés and so on. They are so versatile and healthy.”

He also talked about his new-found appreciation for fresh fennel.

“It’s one of those things that takes on different flavors, depending on the cooking method. For example, if you grill fennel, it becomes a little tangy.” Braising tends to make it a little milder, earthier and using it fresh brings out its bright crispness with more of a pronounced licorice flavor.”

When I asked him whether or not he has a least favorite ingredient or food, he initially couldn’t think of one at first, but then it finally hit him.

“Organ meats,” he said. “Using them came from an age where you had to use every bit of it, but I don’t.”

With that said however, he added, ”There are times when you have to learn how to prepare things properly that you might not care for, so I have learned how to prepare them, but I don’t want to eat them.”

Finally, I asked him the zinger question that tends to stump almost everyone at first. “If you could cook anything for anyone, what would it be and for whom?”

“There are several people I would like to cook for,” he says. “I would like to cook for Anthony Bourdain, just because I think he’s a hoot.” But to take the question more seriously, I think Escoffier would have to be the one. I don’t know exactly what I would make, but it would be a contemporary version of one of his dishes.”

Just to listen to Chef Davis talk about food, it is obvious that he loves it and loves what he does and he passes that same enthusiasm on to his students everyday.