This is part one of my interview with Andy Martinez, executive chef of Citron New World Bistro. Part two of my chat with Martinez will run in this space tomorrow.
When Denver native Andy Martinez, the executive chef at Citron New World Bistro, was a lowly dish rat at a hoity-toity restaurant in Indianapolis, he not only washed dishes, he licked them clean -- and he isn't embarrassed to tell you why. "All sorts of celebrities would eat there, including David Letterman, and one night when he came in, he ordered frog legs, but he didn't eat them all, so when the plate came back to the kitchen, I ate every last bite of what was left on his plate," Martinez recalls. "Because, you know, it was Dave Letterman, and I wanted his leftovers."
And it was while he was scrubbing plates (and eating off others) that Martinez found his calling. "My dad was a chef, restaurateur and food-and-beverage manager in restaurants around Denver, but I'd done nothing but wash dishes, which isn't exactly fun work, and after watching the chef and all the guys on the line working magic with food at the restaurant in Indianapolis, I decided that I wanted to be a cook -- that I wanted to be a chef," he says.
He landed his first grunt cooking job when he was eighteen, frying eggs and making sandwiches alongside his dad, who "literally kicked me in my ass when I screwed up," Martinez recalls. His father didn't quite kick him out the door, but Martinez walked out anyway -- and that was the last time father and son shared the same spatula in a restaurant kitchen. "My dad is awesome -- he's my biggest culinary inspiration -- but, yeah, no, that was the only time we cooked together professionally," he says.
Even so, Martinez has now been cooking professionally for more than 23 years, doing time on the line at Baby Doe's, Simm's Landing, Off Belleview Grill and the Manor House -- all of which have since shuttered (although the Manor House is now back in business; it's open to the public on Thursdays, and Thursdays only). He was the executive chef of Season's Cafe and Catering, too, which is where he met Tom Karas, who owns Citron New World Bistro with his brother, George. Season's, where Martinez spent nine years, closed in 2006, but Martinez, who describes himself as a "fierce loyalist," reunited with the Greek brothers in 2007, when they opened Citron.
In the following interview, Martinez dishes on his one and only "steak shake," sings the praises of his paella and staff meals, and admits that his back yard is overrun by pepper plants.
Six words to describe your food: Authentic, inventive, flavorful, robust, simple and original.
Ten words to describe you: Passionate, knowledgeable, energetic, artistic, intense, loyal, happy, humorous, caring and fun-loving.
Favorite ingredient: Chiles. I have 33 pepper plants in my organic garden at home: Jalapeños, serrano peppers, cayenne peppers, Thai chiles and Anaheim peppers all grow back there. I like to use them in fresh salsas and hot sauces, and in traditional and contemporary dishes to add a little extra flair -- and flare.
Favorite local ingredient: Haystack Mountain goat cheeses. They get all of their milk from Colorado, and they have a great new line of raw cheeses, including queso de mano, which is great with grilled white-corn quesadillas. Their pasteurized line of cheeses is a hit, too. My favorites are the green chile Jack and the Camembert.
Most underrated ingredient: Juniper berries. I use them a lot to help spice up my stocks, sauces, brines and marinades; I also use it, along with other herbs and spices, to cure my bacon, and it's also a big part of my braised lamb and beef dishes. As an added benefit, it's also a great digestive aid.
Most overrated ingredient: Not overrated, but overused is sodium nitrate, which shouldn't be used at all. I try to keep processed foods in my kitchen to a minimum, and thanks to my sous chef, Colin Mallet, we have boosted our production of in-house nitrate-free sausages and bacon. We offer three nitrate-free sausages: chorizo, Italian and a Greek sausage called loukaniko, all of which are scratch-made.
One food you detest: Beef liver. It's a carry-over from my childhood. My mother made liver once a week, and I couldn't choke it back. Thank goodness we had Sunshine, the dog. Unfortunately, she was an outdoor dog, so my solution was to hide the cooked liver in my pockets, and then after dinner, I'd go outside on the pretense that I wanted to play with the dog. That dog sure did like me.
One food you can't live without: Tacos. I love every kind of taco -- shredded beef, shredded chicken, pulled pork, sautéed cabbage, mashed potato, and my absolute favorite is scrambled eggs and zucchini blossoms. Basically, anything I can put in a white-corn tortilla, I will -- and it'll taste great.
Best recent food find: H Mart in Aurora. The fresh-fish counter is amazing, especially considering that we're in Colorado, and the choices of wild-caught fish are remarkable. My family shops there at least once a week, and the fish, along with exotic fruits, vegetables and other rare finds, keep us going back week after week.
Favorite spice: Chili powder, which I use in a lot of my dishes, although I use it diligently, so that sometimes you don't even know that it's in there. My father got me hooked on it when I was a kid, when he used to make chili con carne, and he would only use the freshest spices for his recipes. I've found a company in Denver -- European Imports -- that has the freshest spices, which helps me keep the quality of my dishes at a high standard.
What's never in your kitchen? Bad attitudes. I've been a line cook, sous chef, chef or executive chef for more than 23 years, so I've seen a lot, and the thing that most works against the quality and timing of all food is bad attitudes. It's unfortunate that a bad attitude can spread, so I nip it in the bud -- fast.
Rules of conduct in your kitchen: The biggest rule is to follow the rules. The first rule is keeping the kitchen clean and in working order, followed by doing your work the way you're taught and having fun. Do those things and you'll be a success in my kitchen. A little hooting and hollering and a little song-and-dance also go a long way in establishing good relationships with my guys.
Biggest kitchen disaster: That's easy. It was my first dishwashing job. I was working for my dad, who was the food-and-beverage director at El Torito -- that was a long time ago. Anyway, it was a Sunday night, and the man who was training me took off at 8 p.m., but before he left me to my own devices, he told me to just keep doing what I was doing and I'd be fine. But I was unwisely cocky with the six-man line crew, telling them that I should have their jobs instead of mine. Little did I know that everything -- and I mean everything -- was taken back to the dishwasher on Sunday night for deep cleaning. There were stacked dishes from the dish table to the floor and beyond. My dad came in and helped me, but it was so bad that we didn't leave the restaurant until 4:30 a.m. the next morning. But something good always comes out of something bad -- and I learned a good lesson that night, which began to form my work ethic.
Favorite music to cook by: We have two competing styles in the back: classic rock, which is my favorite music to sing and dance to, and the Spanish music station, which I have been known to sing and dance to as well. In my mind, it's the beat and the sound of the music that inspires me -- and we all work faster and happier with music.
Favorite dish to cook at home: We like to make herb-stuffed grilled red snapper served with white beans, green sauce and Ichiban eggplant from our organic garden. It's my wife, Amy's, favorite. Then we open up some wine and enjoy. Now that it's nice outside, we're grilling a lot more than usual. Sundays are a good day to hang out by the pool, do some gardening and then have a grill night.
Favorite dish on your menu: My paella with sautéed onions, peppers, nitrate-free chorizo, shrimp, mussels, calamari and saffron rice. It's not your traditional paella, insomuch that it's always made to order -- and if I can toot my own horn here, I've had people come in who tell me that they've had paella all over Spain and that mine was better. That's a really great compliment.
If you could put any dish on your menu, even though it might not sell, what would it be? The owners of Citron Bistro, Tom and George, are Greek, and the Greeks have a dish called pastichio, which is a Greek lasagna traditionally made with ground beef and tomato sauce. I joke with them about making it with green chile with pulled pork and calling it the "Southwestern Greek." I know it would sell.
Typical staff meal: It could be anything, but I have a lady in the back who makes the best tamales in the world. All the staff meals are Hispanic-based, and depending on who's making the meal, it can be anything from chicken enchilado to fresh tamales to barbacoa to mole. And when it's someone's birthday, then we really go all out.
Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: Sweet-and-sour chicken feet in San Francisco's Chinatown. They were actually pretty good; you sucked the meat off and spit out the bones. I'll get another bag of them when I go back.
Weirdest customer request: When I was a sous chef at Baby Doe's, a customer wanted his filet, along with a baked potato and vegetables, put in a blender. He wanted it pureed to a smooth consistency and put in a glass with a straw. The poor guy wanted a steak dinner but had a wired-shut broken jaw. He got my one-and-only "Steak Shake."
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SHOW ME HOW
What's next for you? I wish I knew, but online instructional cooking videos, a series of cookbooks, corner cafes, a big heart, and friends and family who love me can only be good.