Annabelle Forrestal, exec chef of Vine Street, Mountain Sun Pub and Southern Sun, on food critics, the French Laundry and hot sauce
If you want to pick a perfect melon, Annabelle Forrestal suggests that you pick her brain. Growing up in St. Louis, Forrestal, now the executive chef of Vine Street Pub in Denver and Southern Sun and Mountain Sun Pub & Brewery in Boulder, spent summers -- six, to be exact -- as the resident melon expert at the local farmers' market. "My first job was at the local farmers' market -- I begged the people who ran it to give me a job -- and I was the best melon picker in town," claims Forrestal. "People would come down on a Thursday asking for a cantaloupe that would be perfect on the following Tuesday, and without fail, I could pick the best one, even if I did get really dirty."
Her melon knowledge grew out of working in her family's garden as a child. "We'd go out and pick vegetables every day for dinner, and just about every meal we had included something from our garden," she remembers. "It was a family activity, and I loved having access to raw produce and fruit, and I loved being outside."
But while Forrestal had a fetish for food and farmers' markets, she didn't aspire to become a chef. "I wanted to be an architect, so I moved to New York City for college, thinking that my career would take me away from food," she recalls. She graduated from Parsons School of Design with a degree in architecture and then headed west to Denver to be closer to her sister and continue to build her portfolio. "My plan was to get some experience and just stay with my sister for the summer, but I needed a job, so I applied for a waitress position at Mountain Sun to make some extra money."
She never left. "From the very beginning, I really enjoyed working there," says Forrestal, noting that while she started as a server, the trio of pubs cross-trains its staff, which meant that she'd eventually land in the kitchen. "I'd never cooked professionally, and I was terrified, plus I was a vegetarian when I got the job, and I had to cook an enormous number of burgers. That scared me."
She's no longer a vegetarian. "It turned out that I started to eat meat again, and I loved -- absolutely loved -- being in the kitchen," confides Forrestal. "It amazed me, it was fast-paced, I had to think on my toes, I could hold my own, and I cooked good -- and good-looking -- food." So good, in fact, that she didn't return to the front of the house. Instead, she continued to be a kitchen sponge, prepping, grilling and frying until she became the assistant kitchen manager.
"I bit off a huge chunk of responsibility, and I was really determined to do a great job, so I went home and read cookbooks every night and cooked for my friends," recalls Forrestal, who less than two years later was made the kitchen manager. "When I got that job, I finally committed to this career -- to something that I'd always been passionate about." And this past March, Forrestal became the executive kitchen manager, a job that entails overseeing all three lines. "Someday, I'd really like to open my own restaurant," she says, "but I'm really enjoying my time here, and every day is a new learning experience, which I crave."
In the following interview, Forrestal reminisces about her dinners at the French Laundry, muses on restaurant reviewers who like the sound of their own voices, and downplays the merits of hot sauce and birthday cake.
Six words to describe your food: Classic, fresh, thoughtful, comforting, local and unique.
Ten words to describe you: Perceptive, observant, optimistic, independent, stubborn, playful, caring, happy, passionate and determined.
Best recent food find: The homemade pasta at Patsy's Inn is unlike any pasta I've ever had. Now I know what authentic Italian pasta tastes like -- and it's a gem.
Favorite ingredient: The beet. You can roast it, poach it, pickle it, purée it, and eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Every time I peel back the skin, I'm so amazed by its beauty that I end up photographing it. The color is so intense, and the flavor is so natural.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: Growing Gardens arugula. Freshly harvested arugula, straight from the field, is so spicy and robust, so zesty and delicious, and drastically different from all the rest.
Most overrated ingredient: Hot sauce. It has such an overwhelming flavor, and it overpowers every other aspect of a dish, not to mention most people are addicted to it. Before they even take the first nibble of their food, they douse their meal in it. I'm all for adding extra heat, but maybe try the dish without it first.
Most underrated ingredient: Honey. Adding honey to soups, dressings and sauces can add a whole other dimension of depth and flavor. Flavors of honey can vary greatly depending on the source: Buckwheat honey is earthy; orange blossom honey is delicate and citrusy; and alfalfa honey is spicy and floral. No matter which kind you use, it adds a complementary sweetness to dishes.
Favorite spice: I know that most everyone says this, but salt is my favorite spice, and it's the most important ingredient I have in my kitchen; it's the key to bringing out all the flavors in my dishes. It's essential and necessary and a powerful tool for improving the flavor of food. A favorite customer of mine recently gifted me a book called Salted, and it's awesome.
One food you detest: I've never liked watermelon. The watery, semi-crunchy texture always leaves me wanting something more, and it's never satisfied any fruit craving of mine. It's just an empty food to me.
One food you can't live without: Good, freshly baked bread is unbeatable. It's a perfect complement to just about any dish. My family and I used to bake bread at our cabin in the winter in order to keep warm. I remember letting the dough rise next to the huge rock fireplace and keeping the 1940s Magic Chef stove lit to keep the kitchen toasty.
Favorite music to cook by: TV on the Radio. They're melodic at times, intense at others. Listening to music is one of my favorite aspects about working in a kitchen as opposed to an office environment. I'm surrounded by music and food all day long. What an awesome combo.
Rules of conduct in your kitchen: Common sense. I love it when my cooks are inquisitive and can think past their position, and I encourage them to evaluate their situations and think for themselves instead of copping out and relying on someone else to do their thinking for them. I don't like to babysit; instead, I hold comfort in knowing that we hire and retain intelligent chefs.
Biggest kitchen disaster: I knocked the valve off of a serving tank of beer in the walk-in on my first day out of training. Nearly 186 gallons of Ruckus Wit Belgian Ale came shooting out, and the twenty pounds of pressure blew me out of the walk-in and across the room. I was soaked.
What's never in your kitchen? American cheese.
What's always in your kitchen? Wine.
Favorite food from your childhood: Artichokes that my dad would bring home from the Ferry Building in San Francisco. He'd come home from business trips with produce taking up most of the room in his suitcase. I'd run to help him unpack, and in return, I'd receive my very own, perfectly large artichoke. I had the cooking technique perfected at a young age, steaming them just enough to scrape the meat off each leaf. I'd sit there and eat the entire thing all by myself until I reached the prized heart. To this day, it still remains one of my favorite foods, and the California chokes were far superior in flavor than the ones I could get when I lived in St. Louis.
Favorite dish on your menu: Buffalo saison chili loaded with seasonal and local veggies, deglazed with some farmhouse Belgian saison, fragrant with the roasty spice from charred jalapeños, and served with fluffy, cheesy cornbread and whipped honey butter. I break the cornbread into the chili, and it all just melts in your mouth, and the buffalo adds a nice change from the traditional beef.
Favorite restaurant in America: The French Laundry. When I was in the fourth grade, my dad moved our family to a small town in Napa Valley called Yountville, and I was lucky enough to be introduced to some of the freshest and most delicious foods, unbelievable wineries and, of course, inspiring restaurants. The French Laundry was a five-minute walk from our front door to theirs. I vividly remember the ivy-covered building and the dessert of coffee and doughnuts. Fortunately for me, we ate there often, and I attribute my yearning for unique and stimulating dining experiences to this.
Favorite Denver/Boulder restaurant(s) other than your own: Root Down. It's not too often that my girlfriends and I have coordinating days off, so when we do, we indulge in Root Down's brunch and mimosas. It's important to have a life outside of work, and I rely on my friends for that balance. My motto is work hard, play hard, and eat well.
Last restaurant you visited: I recently checked out Lou's Food Bar for the first time. I love the location, the decor and the lighting. The pâté was unbelievable, and our waiter was extremely knowledgeable and attentive. I felt well taken care of, and I even took a menu home.
Are you affected by reviews at all? What's your opinion of food writers and social-review sites like Yelp, OpenTable and Urbanspoon? A lot of the reviews and critics remind me of the people in the world who just like to hear themselves talk: They just don't get it. Some reviews are helpful and you can learn from them; others are misguided and arrogant. I don't take those personally.
What's one thing about you or your restaurant that people would be surprised to know? I redesigned the Missouri license plate in the fourth grade.
Hardest lesson you've learned, and how you've changed because of it: I can't do it all alone. I have to ask for help when I need it. I tend to be very stubborn and determined sometimes, but at the pubs, we have a very communal aspect where everyone does everything. The same goes for the management. Will, the general manager, and I pretty much grew up together working on the floor at Mountain Sun Pub. We've been working side by side for about five and a half years now, even transferring restaurants together. He's always supported me in my journey and encouraged me to rely on him, forcing me to ultimately realize that I'm not in this alone, that we're a team. Since realizing that and checking my stubbornness at the kitchen door, my creativity and confidence have grown and my anxiety has declined. I feel supported in my journey and have learned that by asking for help, I'm a much more capable, solid leader.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Denver dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.