Chef Art Denmon shares a little of what he pulls around in his red wagon, his hatred of funnel cakes and how cooking has helped form him as a person.
By Bobbie Curd
Art Denmon and his older brother were raised by a single mom who worked hard as a server to support them. If they weren’t able to stay with his grandmother while she worked, they’d stay home by themselves.
“We were doing that at about 8 and 10 years old. We had basic rules — don’t answer the door, don’t use the stove and don’t go outside,” Art says. He’s eating a platter of food on a Sunday at a Mexican restaurant before we head to Harvey’s, where he’s head chef, to prepare several gallons of chili — a little fuel before cooking.
While Art and his brother, Derrick Lang, who is the bar manager at Harvey’s, were at home alone, he did most of the cooking — without the stove, of course, unless an adult was around. So he’s been working on recipes and developing a discerning palate since he was a little boy.
“As soon as I could walk, I’d push a vacuum. I’d make food for me and Derrick. I could flip an egg in a pan at 9 years old and not break the yoke. The first thing I learned how to make was eggs; the second thing was ramen.”
Sometimes staying inside for six or seven hours was tough on them as kids, he admits. “We just had to keep it together until she got home. Mom was doing what she had to do.”
As a kid, most of his presents were about cooking. When he was 10, he asked for a rotisserie. He said he saw commercials for them showing how you “set it and forget, and that’s what I wanted for Christmas.” Then, one year he got a funnel cake maker.
“I was probably 14 or 15, and had never had them. So, I used it, ate about seven of them, doused with powdered sugar, and woke up at 3 in the morning, yacking that up. The smell of funnel cakes still makes me sick to this day …”
Born in Orange County, California, Art’s dad was never involved in his life. His dad wasn’t the greatest guy growing up, he says this in a very factual manner, with no attempt for sympathy.
“He worked in factories and was in jail a lot when I was little — for, I believe, drug-related issues. He was a dealer. I’ve never spoken to him as an adult about it,” Art says, holding his hands out in front of him as if to say, “it happens.”
So, he, Derrick and his mom followed his grandparents from San Bernardino to Kentucky to start over. First in Garrard County, where he went to school until fourth grade, but he’s been in Danville since ‘99. His mom, Christine Lang, worked at Freddy’s, where Art would sometimes tag along with her as a teenager and wash dishes. It was his first restaurant job, and his start to learning the importance of a good work ethic — not only from the job, but from watching his mom.
During that time, at 16, he was also a paperboy for The Advocate-Messenger; he delivered to the Streamland neighborhood. He remembers hating the Sunday edition: He’d have to pick up his bundles at 3:30 a.m. — “They were so big and heavy” — and by 4, he would “park my car at the end of the road, then run straight through it,” throwing papers sometimes in the foggy, dark mornings.
He returned to California for a few stints when younger, and said he will always feel attached to the area. “I learned a lot of life lessons whenever I went out there. I was more accepted there than I was here.” Art’s mom is white and his dad is black.
“The neighborhood my dad lived in … there were African-Americans, Hispanics, Caucasians … and yes, it was different. You’d see bulletproof glass everywhere at stores — (you) don’t see that here. But I did feel more accepted there. I mean, not necessarily by my dad.”
But he’s kept close with the rest of the family. He tips his head down to show off the red hat he’s wearing, designed by his cousin who owns a clothing company back in Cali. “It’s POAD — Power of a Dreamer. My cousin Kendel made it especially for me.”
But after his stays on the west coast, he always returned “back home,” where he graduated from Danville High School. They put down roots here, he says, although he doesn’t have a southern dialect at all.
“I have diction,” he says in his booming voice. “But, when I go back to Cali, they can hear it. They tease me about it. I can put the twang on if I want.”
Although Art’s mom wanted to switch his last name to hers and Derrick’s when he was younger, they never went through with it. “I told her a long time ago, I’m going to make the ‘Denman’ name proud. No offense to that side of the family, but that’s how I felt.”
His relationship was strained and distant with his father, but his grandmother on that side kept Art close, keeping in touch with him, flying him to California to see them, involving him with the family.
“Both grandmothers I have are the rocks of the family. I mean, my mom is No. 1. But through the whole family support network, though, my grandmas are the ones who made me cook. I was raised with strong female influences.”
Aside from funnel cakes, there’s only a couple of things Art doesn’t like to eat. “I blame my grandmother for homminey. I can’t do it, because of the texture. Or lima beans, or chipped beef on toast — more people will know it by ‘shit on a shingle,’ what it’s really called. I don’t like soggy bread …”
The way he was raised made him very independent and strong, he says. “If you’ve got an extra 10 minutes, (you’ve got) time to pick some stuff up and straighten up. If you’ve got time to get on Facebook, then you’ve got time to take the trash out. If you’ve got time to do something, do it.”
And he did just that. After graduating high school, Art enrolled himself in Sullivan College’s culinary studies program in Lexington. It was expensive and demanding, but he pushed himself, graduating in 2010 as one of only three students in the program with perfect attendance. He did every extra credit assignment he could, joined the culinary club, got chosen to work with internationally renowned chefs during the World Equestrian Games in Lexington …
For anyone who thinks that a trade school is a joke, Art laughs. “People may think it’s easy — it’s not. My first culinary instructor told us on the first day, at 7 a.m. — he was a former Marine — he said look to the left and right, and that three-fourths won’t be here by week five. It was real life … Because it’s exactly what happened.” When he walked across the stage during graduation, he asked the instructor why he’d said that.
“It’s $56,000 for 18 months. He was trying to weed out the people who weren’t serious about the art and the skill; he said they are a distraction.”
Aside from his grandmas, cooking all his life and his culinary training, he learned discernment about food through watching documentaries and working in the field.
“And I’ve learned I hate people who don’t like fat.”
After celebrating his birthday in December, Art says, “I made it to 29 with zero children. Seems like a milestone. I’m trying to focus on life; hopefully I’ll find the right person.”
He was engaged for a few years and was in a stepfather role to his ex’s children, something he holds close and dear to his heart. He credits his ex, Ashley Gaceta, still his close friend, for helping him find the motivation and confidence to get the head chef job at Harvey’s. However, the relationship — as a couple — just didn’t work out, he says. But that’s OK.
“Even though life seems mad sometimes, there’s always light at the end of the tunnel. Always something you can push for to push forward. Cooking is a good release for me.”
He pauses for a moment when asked what exactly it does for him.
“It’s not just something I do for a living … I’m a very proud person. The look on someone’s face after they’ve tried something you’ve cooked, and you know it’s going to be good — that’s not conceited. You put your best into it and they have a good reaction, that’s all you need — a smile on their face. As corny as it sounds, I enjoy cooking good food for people.”
Art uses the words of a Japanese chef, who told him in a thick accent during the equestrian games: “‘What you’re making, the food that goes out on that plate, is a direct representation of you. That’s your face on that plate, and if something’s wrong — it’s my fault, whether it is or not. It’s about taking pride in what you do.’ I was humbled when he said that, and I took it to heart.”
He says mistakes happen and everyone is human.
“We have no idea what’s in each others’ little red wagon. The wagon, you know, it’s your life, your woes, everything you pull around with you is in that wagon, and you leave it in the door when you enter work. But it makes us who we are.”
Art wanted to share his chili recipe with readers because “it really doesn’t take much time. The longest part of the process is browning the ground beef.” He says it’s a great dish for Super Bowl parties, or to cook, eat and then store and break back out over cold nights.
For the ingredients that call for a No. 10 can, it is the larger size, normally about 109 ounces; 5-6 regular sized cans of that ingredient should work if you can’t find the larger cans.
8 pounds of ground beef
3 No. 10 cans of stewed tomatoes
1 No. 10 can corn
2 No. 10 cans kidney Beans
½ cup of mild green chilis
5 white onions
3 green bell peppers
9-10 cloves of garlic.
1 head of celery
6-ounce bottle of Crystal Hot Sauce
1 can of Bud Light Chelada
¼ cup red wine vinegar
2 cups of chili powder
2 tablespoons Paprika
½ cup oregano
¼ cup of sugar
1 tablespoon of red pepper flakes
6 or so bay leaves
Salt and pepper to taste
- Put ground beef in large pot with all of the vegetables, chopped: celery, onion, green peppers mild green chilis and garlic.
- Add and about half of what’s called for of each dry seasoning (except bay leaves).
- Brown the beef and drain the grease.
- Add the beer and red wine vinegar.
- Add beans, corn and stewed tomatoes (Art likes to blend his so they go in smooth).
- Incorporate the rest of seasonings and add bay leaves.
- Simmer for about an hour on low heat.
- To serve, add a dollop of sour cream and a fresh jalapeno slice to the top.
This recipe makes a large, 5-gallon pot of chili, which can be frozen and reheated later.