Bistro Vendome's Ben Davison: "It's not as cool as a super-badass knife, but a spoon is a chef's paintbrush"
This is part two of my interview with Ben Davison, chef de cuisine at Bistro Vendôme; part one of our chat ran yesterday.
Most noteworthy meal you've ever eaten: Schwa, in Chicago, was an amazing experience. Chef Michael Carlson had just returned from a hiatus, and my wife Jody and I enjoyed fourteen courses of sheer brilliance. Of note was the fact that there were no waiters in the restaurant. Michael greeted you at the door, served whatever wine you brought in, and all of the chefs delivered your courses. There are just 26 seats in the place -- I counted -- and it couldn't have been better. We had everything from jellyfish pad Thai and crispy lamb brains with morels and nasturtium purée to smoked cobia, and the meal was simply out of this world.
Favorite dish on your menu right now: I'm putting sweetbreads on the menu, which come with a wild-mushroom fricassée and Dijon vol-au-vent. It's pretty delicious stuff, and I'm really excited to be working with sweetbreads. Hopefully our guests are on board with that.
What dish would you love to put on your menu, regardless of how well it would sell? Lamb brains. I've become a huge fan of offal, and I had lamb brains in Chicago, which was one of the best meals of my life.
Best recipe tip for a home cook: Consider recipes as guidelines, and cook from your heart. If you're trying to cook something for the first time, there's probably a reason for that -- maybe you had it and loved it as a kid, or your grandma always made it for Sunday dinner. So go with what you like, and make it taste the way you want it to taste. Actually, that goes for everything except baking recipes; don't mess with those. You can't just eyeball some baking soda in your cornbread, otherwise you'll ultimately be let down, but when it comes to cooking, do whatever strikes you.
Weirdest thing you've ever put in your mouth: Deep-fried cod bones, at Morimoto in Philly. I went there by myself and sat at the sushi bar, right in front of Koichi-san, and he totally hooked it up. I had the omakase tasting that was supposed to be eight courses, but he made it seventeen or eighteen, and one of those courses was deep-fried cod bones. They had a crazy-weird texture, delicious flavor, and it was a unique and memorable dish on a super-memorable evening -- all that after walking in unannounced with no reservation.
What's always lurking in your refrigerator? I love pickles and olives and can't get enough of them, especially castelvetrano olives, which have such a great texture.
Favorite culinary-related gift you've been given: My knife, a Misono UX10. It was a going-away gift from the staff and my boss, Richard Arnoldi, of the Ritz-Carlton Cleveland. It's wicked badass, I use it every day, and I have fond memories of the people who gave it to me.
Favorite culinary-related item to give as a gift: A spoon. I know it's not as cool as a super-badass knife, but a spoon is a chef's paintbrush. My second-favorite gift, after my knife, is a Gray Kunz spoon, which has so many more uses than just a spoon, and now I give spoons as gifts to my cooks. At first they look at me like, "Wow...a spoon. Thanks, I guess." But after a month or so, the comments usually turn to, "Ya know, man? I really love this spoon. I use it for everything."
What's your fantasy splurge? I would love to pack a bunch of gear and hop on a motorcycle in Barcelona with my wife and spend a month cruising and eating my way through Spain. We'd start by going north to San Sebastián, spend time in the Basque region, and then head down to Madrid, over to Portugal, and then back down the coast to Barcelona again. Ah, one can dream. This was going to be our honeymoon, but time constraints and money got in the way, so instead we went to Costa Rica, which was amazing, but in a totally different way.
What cookbooks and/or food-related reading material do you draw inspiration from? Lately I've been leaning heavily toward Michel Richard, Michel Bras, Thomas Keller and Jonathan Waxman, and for the first time in years, I recently broke out my Escoffier book and Larousse Gastronomique. It's always good to touch up on the classics.
What recent innovation has most influenced the restaurant industry in a significant way? Social media. It's crazy that people can post pictures of their dining experience on the Internet while they're sitting at the table. It really keeps you on your toes.
What do you expect from a restaurant critic? I expect a critic to be honest and knowledgeable. If they're going to judge me on my food, I expect them to take all aspects into consideration. As a chef, I have to consider the palates of all the guests that come into the restaurant, so while I might want to put some heat in a dish because I'd like it, I don't, because the guests won't. Most of the good critics judge dishes on consistency and continuity and know what they are talking about. It's when you get into the user reviews on social media that this becomes significant, because now, anyone can be a critic, regardless of their credentials. I think anonymity is important if you want a true representation of a restaurant. If the chef knows that a critic is in the house, extra-special attention is paid to that table, when really, every table should get equal attention.
Your biggest pet peeves: Sourpusses. I like to have fun at work, and we're all in this together, so let's make the best of it; teamwork makes the dream work. I can't stand people who always bitch about their guests, the amount of work they have to do, or how someone didn't tip properly. Everyone, both front- and back-of-the-house, have had the kinds of days that just suck. Guess what? Tomorrow is a new day, and we're going to do the same thing all over again. If you don't like it, you're in the wrong job.
Your best traits: A positive attitude and patience. I'm pretty easygoing in the kitchen, although it wasn't always that way.
Your worst traits: I sometimes Hulk out and smash things, and although it hasn't happened in a long time, I can still feel it lurking somewhere in the depths. I used to get pretty riled up; I even had the nickname of "Hulk" by some of my old staff because I would smash things. I'm glad those days are over.
If you could dress any way you want, what would you wear in the kitchen? I'm most comfortable in my track pants and a short-sleeved seersucker chef jacket. I actually really like the dishwasher button-up shirts, as well. I like dressing up in full whites with long aprons and looking uber-professional when I'm doing charity events and fun stuff like that, but on a daily basis, comfy is the way to go.
If you could cook in another chef's kitchen, whose would it be? José Andrés. I met him in Aspen during the Food & Wine Classic, and he was a wonderful guy and genuinely thankful and appreciative of what we were doing, plus I've always loved his food and books. I just have a ton of respect for the man.
What would you cook for Andrés if he came to your restaurant? That would be a toss-up between my grandmother Mimi's shrimp, which is a truly enlightening experience, and the sweetbreads that are going on our menu. They're great, simple, straightforward and delicious.
If you had the opportunity to open your own restaurant with no budget constraints, what kind of restaurant would you open? The real question is, which restaurant would I open first? The gastropub, the fish house, or a NOLA-style jazz bar? I'd like to open all of them, and just hope that I have those opportunities in my career.
Biggest moment of euphoria in the kitchen: Right before I started cooking at Bistro Vendôme, I was helping out at the Little Nell during the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, which afforded me the opportunity to work with Thomas Keller, Grant Achatz, David Chang, John Besh, José Andrés and Daniel Boulud. I was so starstruck by these guys, especially Thomas Keller, who let me help him with plating his cuttlefish pasta. I can't thank chef Mike Daley at the Nell enough for taking me up there and giving me the chance to work with his team and all the bigshots. I felt like a kid meeting his favorite sports star. It was awesome.
Craziest night in the kitchen: Making 450 spinach raviolis in thirty minutes with my former chef in Cleveland. We had 300 wedding guests at the Ritz and got an urgent call from the banquet chef, who said we only had 150 raviolis and were 450 pieces short. And we were really short on time: The course was supposed to go out in fifteen minutes. The banquet chef made the dough, the restaurant chef made the filling, I set up the roller and ravioli press, and the three of us were cranking out raviolis ten minutes later. It was crazy, but luckily the guests didn't know that anything was awry.
What's one thing that people would be surprised to know about you? I was in theater and show choir in high school.
Last meal before you die: Mimi's shrimp. Final answer.
If you hadn't become a chef, what would you be doing right now? Starving as a broke actor, or maybe working on motorcycles.
What's in the pipeline? I'm happy to be back in Denver and working at such a wonderful place and for such amazing people. I can't thank chef Jen and Beth Gruitch enough for the chance they've given me at Bistro. I love this place and don't plan on going anywhere else for a while.
What's next for Denver's culinary scene? That's something I'm wondering, as well. I'm amazed by how much the culinary scene has grown during the years of my absence, and I'm excited to be a part of it. The dining scene here is just going up, up and up.
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