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Questions for "Ask the Critic" have come from all corners of the restaurant cosmos this month. A sampling:
410 E. 7th Ave.
Denver, CO 80203
Region: Central Denver
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A: Good question, Michael, and one I asked Sean Yontz just last week. The short answer? Nothing. The long one? Plenty. Yontz (who'd worked with Kevin Taylorfor years before becoming head chef at Richard Sandoval's Tamayo, then moving on to his first chef-owner gig at the ill-fated Vega) is currently homeless -- without a kitchen to call his own. He's working with pal Jesse Morreale and crew over at Mezcal, in their continuing attempt to perfect the menu at this eight-month-old East Colfax hot spot. He's spending time with his family, thinking about where he wants his career to go next, and generally taking things easy. The closing of Vega hit Yontz hard, and he, like many other chefs in town, has taken a good, long look at the scene and decided that, for right now, the last thing Denver needs is another fine-dining restaurant, another place with white cloths on the tables and interesting food on the menu, another daring, innovative spot where a chef can really stretch. He's gotten calls from several interested restaurateurs looking for a new top dog, but thus far has turned down every offer.
Meanwhile, work continues on Sparrow, the new eatery that's taking over Vega's former home at 410 East Seventh Avenue. With opening day still a month away (it's scheduled for September 3), the building is already sporting a new coat of pea-green paint.
Q: I'm a culinary student just starting to "make my bones," and I have a question about knives. What would be the best brand/variety to start my kit?-- Lee
A: First off, good use of the lingo. Getting the talk and swagger down is important, especially if (like most C-school brats) you want to jump right into the lucrative world of kitchen confessional writing and hosting food shows without that annoying intermediary step of actually cooking for a living. Knowing a few choice words and phrases should be enough to convince the average civilian that you really know your shit even if you've never worked one night on the hot line. But since you're asking about knives, I'm going to assume that you actually care about cooking and aren't just in this for the big white hat and the title of chef. So I'll give it to you straight.
Buy cheap knives. I know, I know -- everyone will tell you the opposite. They're going to say that, as someone looking to make a career in the culinary arts, you need the best -- and then try to get you to plunk down the green for that full set of pro-series German steel. They'll fill your head with lies about edge maintenance and rocking balance, while at the same time emptying your bank account. But fuck that noise, Lee. You're a student, right? That means you're still learning, and to be honest, you've got no business screwing up five hundred or a thousand dollars' worth of professional tools with the kind of ham-handed abuse you're going to inflict on them in your first couple of years.
But by cheap, I don't mean junk. The basic rules still apply here: Never buy anything with a serrated edge that isn't a bread knife; anything that comes in designer colors or with some celebrity chef's name on it; anything you've ever seen advertised on TV; or anything that says "never needs sharpening" on the package. Just find something inexpensive. What you want is a knife that you won't feel bad about throwing away once you know better and realize what you really like in a blade. For your starter chef's knife, you want something that feels comfortable in your hand, that balances well at the forte, that's got some heft and muscle to it, that you can imagine holding for hours at a stretch. You don't have to love it, just be able to work with it.
Buying your first pro knife is a lot like buying your first car or finding your first girlfriend: You want one you can learn with without fear of fucking it up beyond repair, one you can leave behind with no regrets when you outgrow it. No one starts off driving a Shelby Cobra or dating a French supermodel; that sort of thing would be wasted on someone who didn't know what he was doing. Same goes for knives. No cook should be doing his apprentice work with a grand's worth of custom steel in his roll.
Most of the reputable knife companies -- Wüstoff, Henckel, Sabatier, even Global -- make several lines of blades ranging from the very cheap to the ridiculously expensive. Avoid the very cheap, because they're generally made for amateurs or yuppies who want something to look pretty in the butcher block, and go to the next level. An eight- or ten- inch chef's knife, a six-inch utility, a bread knife (offset, always -- the kind with the blade lower than the handle so you don't scuff your knuckles on the cutting board), a paring knife and another short utility blade (Joyce Chen makes a great one for less than ten bucks) should do you just fine; these are often sold in sets. Butcher's sabers, bird's beaks, specialty veggie knives -- those can wait.
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