Alex Figura, chef of Lower48 Kitchen, on the chicken he turned into chewing gum
This is part two of my interview with Alex Figura, exec chef of Lower48 Kitchen; part one of our conversation ran yesterday.
Most memorable meal you've ever had: This place in Barcelona, Spain, that was tucked away in an alley that my friend and I nicknamed "The Pig Palace." We had both been working in Europe for a good chunk of time, and this joint just hit the spot with its fried morcilla de burgos (blood sausage), chorizo and pork belly and a couple glasses of cava. It was the kind of place that's always packed, and all they serve is pork products with serving utensils that are nothing more than a bundle of toothpicks. The trash cans are the floors, and sausages and bellies hang from the ceiling. It's truly a classic.
Your three favorite Denver restaurants other than your own: Fruition, because Matt Vawter and Alex Seidel's food is always great, plus they've helped the Denver food scene get to where it is today. Not only that, but Fruition Farm makes some killer cheese, too. It's a true game-changer. I also love Beast + Bottle. My girlfriend and I usually go there for brunch on my day off, and it's always great; the food, service and drinks are just on par every time. The same goes for the dinner service; it's just great all around. Saigon Bowl is fun and relaxing and something different from what I cook on a daily basis. And for a great price, you can get a wide variety of foods, flavors and textures, which makes it really fun.
Most underrated restaurant in Denver: Not a restaurant, but a bakery. Babette's at the Source does a great job, and Steve Scott is an excellent baker. He's just under the radar, but in my mind, he creates some of the best breads in Denver. These types of shops help the public realize how we used to shop: going to individual stores and markets to get the products we need, and recognizing the true craft of being an artisan.
Who is Denver's next rising-star chef? I think it will be someone from another market. Major restaurant cities have a lot of chefs from all over the world to make unique restaurants -- and that's something that Denver needs.
What are the most challenging aspects of being a chef? Balancing our lives. We spend the majority of our time at work -- anywhere between twelve and sixteen hours a day, five or six days a week -- and balancing a life outside of work can be very difficult. Still, it's important to have a life outside of work and just enjoy life in general.
If you could make one request of Denver diners, what would it be? To be up-front. I personally want to know what people think about the food/beverage/experience. Good or bad, I'd rather they be up-front and tell me what their opinions are rather than tweet, Yelp or Facebook about it. It will help us create a better experience overall. Also: Less is more. Food is expensive, and to serve products and still keep the prices low is difficult. Denver diners need to understand that. We go out of our way to find great products to serve to you, so when you get a fish that's sustainably caught and killed properly, appreciate it.
What do you expect from a restaurant critic? Fairness. He or she should come into the restaurant with a clear mind, and there should be no preconceived notion that the place will be good or bad; this can be difficult, but it's necessary. And they should try their best to remain anonymous -- the reason being that they should be treated like everyone else. They also need to leave their personal life behind for that moment. Good day or bad day, you can't let your mood interfere with your overall experience.
If you could dress any way you want, what would you wear in the kitchen? In the Lower48 kitchen, I prefer to wear my Bragard chef jacket and an apron that I got while working in Spain. It's just comfortable for me, and the cooks who work here feel the same. When I'm at home, or at one of my family's places, I usually just wear sandals, jeans and an old T-shirt. I'm not a big fan of dressing up.
If you could have dinner, all expenses paid, at any restaurant in the world, where would you go? I would have liked to have gone to Bras, in France, when Michel Bras was the head chef, back in the late '80s and early '90s. He was ahead of his time then, and still is to this day. He opened so many doors and mindsets to make food what it is today. Remember the chocolate cake with the molten center? Bras is the guy who invented it.
What do you enjoy most about your craft? Just being in the kitchen. I love working with a great staff, which we have, and the possibilities of describing ourselves through the food and the scene that we're set in.
What piece of advice would you give to an aspiring chef? Just to work hard. It takes a lot of years to become chef, and it's important to work for great chefs and restaurants so that you know what makes them so great -- and also to find people who want to take the time to teach the way to do it correctly. And travel as much as you can.
If you could train under any chef in the world, who would it be? There are two. First, I wish I would have spent more time working with Brian Lockwood, just because he's a true student and will never stop learning. Number two would be Alain Passard of Arpege. It seems like there's so much great talent that comes out of that kitchen, and it's such a great training ground for aspiring chefs. Not only that, but he's a master with vegetables, which is something I would really like to become.
What skills and attributes do you look for when hiring kitchen staff? A willingness to learn, patience, drive and grit. There are so many great cooks and chefs out there, but you have to have these attributes to really excel in this industry.
Biggest mistake a chef can make on the line: Losing their cool. The chef controls the heart of the kitchen, and if they lose their cool, then the whole restaurant can go down. If they remain calm and collected in a high-stress environment and stay positive, it's more than likely that you'll have a good service.
What's been your worst disaster in the kitchen? It was my first week as meat cook at Blue Hill at Stone Barnes, and I thought I had the station down since I'd already been there for a year...but I went down. We slaughtered thirty chickens every Thursday, which we raised on the farm, and we used every part, from the hearts to the feet to the gizzards. We cooked the breast sous-vide in buttermilk, and I overcooked all the breasts -- and not just by a little: I totally turned them into chewing gum. I was mortified, and I thought I was going to be fired right then and there, but Dan and Josh, the chefs, were totally cool about it. Still, I had to do some grunt work for the farmers for a week.
Craziest night in the kitchen: When I first started at Vetri, there was a blackout in our neck of the woods. It was mid-summer, hot as hell, and the wood grill out back was ripping. We chose to keep the restaurant open, prepping in candlelight and starting service that way. It was intense, extremely hot and dark, but in hindsight, it was also a really neat experience.
Biggest moment of euphoria in the kitchen: I think of it as more humbling than euphoric. I've had the opportunity to work with some of the best chefs in the world and cook for them, too, and at the end of the day, they're just ordinary people who get down and dirty in the kitchen like everyone else; it always reminds you of how great this industry can be.
What, if anything, would you have done differently before opening Lower48? If I had had money and time, I would have liked to have traveled more around the United States to do more stages and see how restaurants work and flow. Focus on the food, but also pay close attention to how the best restaurants run and move to make it all look so effortless.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef: Where we stand today and how amazing it was for me to open a restaurant with such a talented team and two close friends, Mario and Bear. And we couldn't have done it without the great support we had along the way.
What's your biggest pet peeve? Guests who order a dish and then try and make it their own. Example: I'd like the beef, but I don't want the burrata, so sub Parmesan, kale and peppers. You go to a restaurant to try the food and for the experience, so let a restaurant give you that.
Your best traits: I'm very laid-back. It takes a lot to really set my temper off, and that almost never happens.
Your worst traits: I'm a very quiet person, and that can bother some people, because I don't speak a lot.
Which talent do you most wish you had? In the kitchen, I think most chefs would say knife skills -- and I do wish I had really superb knife skills. In my life outside the kitchen, it would be great if I could speak nine or ten languages. I can speak Spanish and English, and that's about it. It opens so many doors when you speak another language.
What's one thing that people would be surprised to know about you? I really like Lord of the Rings. My mom got me into it when I was young, and while I don't have much time to read the books again, the movies are still great.
If you hadn't become a chef, what would you be doing right now? Something hands-on, mostly because I can't sit still for long. I imagine I'd either be working with animals on the farm or out in the fields working with the land. I've also always loved bikes, so maybe something to do with bikes, whether working in a shop as a mechanic or for a mountain-biking company.
What's in the pipeline? At this point, dialing in Lower48 and trying to better the business and ourselves every day.
What's next for the Denver dining scene? The Denver dining scene is moving in the right direction. There are a lot of good restaurants and creative minds opening up new places, and I think more outside talent will help catapult the scene into the mainstream.
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