Black Cat exec chef Eric Skokan on cooking for kids, the demise of burrata and his Niwot farm
This is part one of Lori Midson's interview with Eric Skokan, exec chef/owner of Black Cat in Boulder. Part two of that interview will run in this space tomorrow.
In the exhibition kitchen, the Black Cat crew is breaking down ducks in a comfortable silence. There is no music, no pandemonium and very little chatter -- just the familiar thuds and jangles of knives and an occasional grunt: kitchenspeak for affirmation. Eric Skokan, Black Cat's owner and exec chef, is squatting at the bar, a glass of red wine, untouched, sitting on the counter, when the front door swings open and a man marches in and hands him a monumental wad of cash. It's been a profitable morning at the Boulder farmers' market, where Skokan has a stall and hustles organic produce from his farm in Niwot.
Born in San Diego and raised in Virginia, Skokan, who just turned forty, worked his way through college while doing time in restaurants, starting at a Bennigan's. "I loved the energy level of a busy restaurant right from the start," says Skokan. "A busy restaurant is addictive, and it's the only industry that can keep pace with a kid's brain."
His first job in a professional kitchen was at a joint called Tippy's Taco House, in Centerfield, Virginia, where he smashed avocados. "I was the 'guacamole guy,' and at the time, I thought it was the coolest job in the world," jokes Skokan, who went on to become the chef and innkeeper of a boutique hotel before taking a year off to apprentice in the kitchen of the Silver Thatch Inn, where, he says, he cooked with "the best chef in town."
He bounced around the line, doing stints in several more kitchens around the Virginia countryside -- and along the way realized that if he ever wanted to make a name for himself, he'd need to move on. "I muscled through a lot of jobs and I had boundless energy and enthusiasm, but I learned how to be the chef of restaurants without really being taught, and I knew that going to a bigger city would be beneficial," explains Skokan.
He spent time in Washington, D.C., and San Francisco, then moved to Boulder in 1998. "I initially just came for the summer, but I immediately fell in love with Colorado, so I stayed," says Skokan, who ran the kitchen at Alice's Restaurant at the now-closed Gold Lake Mountain Resort and Spa, just outside Ward, before unmasking the Black Cat in 2006, and Black Cat Farm a few years later. "I wanted to grow all the little stuff that I couldn't bamboozle my farmer friends to grow for me, so I started with a 20 x 20 garden at my house, ran out of space, doubled it, doubled it again, and I've been doubling it ever since."
Skokan, whose farm is also roaming ground to chickens, turkeys, guinea hens, llamas, goats, sheep, heritage-breed pigs and the occasional quail, eventually wants to raise cattle and grow his own grains, both for his family and the restaurant, which already benefits from the bounty. "I teach my staff about the relationship between the ingredients and what we want to do with them. Connecting a sense of location, feel or time period with a particular dish is the holy grail of dish creation," he explains. In the following interview, he talks more about his farm, cooking for kids, the (hopeful) death of burrata and the enemy that is black and white pepper.
Ten words to describe your food: Playful, reminiscent, sense of place, nostalgic, savory, pure of flavor and deconstructed.
Ten words to describe you: Focused, father and husband, inquisitive, inventive, creative, farmer, generous, happy and a teacher.
Culinary inspirations: Hands down, Michel Bras, an extraordinary French chef who owns a three-star Michelin restaurant in Laguiole, France. He's cooking at a high level and allowing the unique environment around his restaurant to drive the inspiration in the kitchen. His cuisine is unique and unique to his region -- a reflection of his locale -- which is the way it should be. What's the point of rehashing what everyone else has done over and over again? That's the job of the cook, not the chef. Chefs create, not imitate.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef: Figuring out what -- and how -- to cook for my kids. Cooking great food for adults is a breeze compared to cooking for kids. The secret has been in including them in the process of cooking. We cook together, and in the end, they're really interested in what we -- or they -- cook. They love homemade noodles; my eight-year-old son and I made biscuits and gravy this morning; and my five-year-old owns the pasta machine. They also love doing potato latkes. Kids don't have sophisticated palates, and they're not too concerned with what they should eat -- just what they want to eat -- but by including them in the process of cooking, they become surprisingly adept at learning.
Favorite ingredient: The heritage pork I raise on our farm. After eating it, I understand how we've all been played for fools by commercial pork producers. There is no comparison between the two. Ours is velvet; theirs is sandpaper.
Best recent food find: Jaune d'Doub carrots from our farm. Holy moly, they're good, especially when we roast them.
Most overrated ingredient: First place goes to burrata. It's on every menu in town, and I can't wait until it stops appearing. It's ubiquitous right now, and maybe I just haven't drunk the Kool-Aid, but it reminds me of how the very first Harry Potter book took the world by storm. If you read the first book again, it's terrible. Come up with something else, guys. Please. Runner-up goes to black pepper, which does a great job of making everything taste like black pepper. It's the same reasoning we use for putting ketchup on everything. What's wrong with leeks that taste vividly of leeks or carrots that taste like carrots? If you cook well, there isn't much need to mask a food's flavor.
Most underrated ingredient: Fresh bay laurel. In ragouts of grains or meats, fresh bay leaves add a subtle perfume that sustains the flavor a bit longer. The dry ones are pointless, but the fresh ones are magical.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: It depends on what we're harvesting that day. I love ingredients that are at the peak of their flavor, which is the whole reason I started the farm: the chance to get the ingredients just right.
One food you detest: Most things that come out of a can. Once you make the switch to really fresh ingredients from the farm, it's hard to go back. I especially hate cranberry sauce from a can; the little ridges on the can are so unnatural.
One food you can't live without: It's not really a food, but coffee is the clear winner here. As for things from the other three food groups, I'd say roasted duck. It's what I want to eat on a cold day when the wind is blowing the snow sideways.
Favorite spice: Nutmeg. On the savory side, try it in a creamy risotto or with roasted summer squash. Seriously, you'll see what I mean. In desserts, I prefer it to vanilla as a base flavor in custards because nutmeg has an affinity for cream and eggs. I'd have a nutmeg grove if I could.
Rules of conduct in your kitchen: I'm interested in working in a focused environment where we're always learning, testing, questioning and searching for the best outcomes. Cooking for me is about discovery -- and that's what I expect from the staff: seriousness, focus, the drive to improve and discover. I'm not excited about working with cooks who yell, subscribe to drama or are more interested in techniques than outcomes. There's no time for that in our kitchen. I'm also a stickler for doing things at particular temperatures: We cook potatoes at 147 degrees, we cook stock at 180 degrees and we make custards to 183 degrees. And while it's not a rule, the worst thing in my kitchen is working with tall people who put containers with liquids on the top shelf. It's a downer to my Napoleonic influences -- a total bummer.
What's never in your kitchen? White pepper. Black pepper is scorned in our kitchen; white pepper is excluded.
What's always in your kitchen? Gray salt and fresh lemons -- it's what we use to season just about everything -- and fresh bay leaves and nutmeg.
What you'd like to see more of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: More chefs who commit to using local ingredients instead of just writing about them on their menus.
What you'd like to see less of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: Fewer Italian restaurants. It's funny: We admire the sense of place inherent to Italian cuisine, but we copy theirs rather than relish our own.
You're at the market. What do you buy two of? MouCo camembert and loaves of bread. That and a few pieces of fruit is what we eat for lunch at our farmers' market stand. It's a great way to spend a Saturday.
Are chefs artists, craftsmen or both? Both. The craftsman focuses on ingredients and technique and builds complete dishes from that, whereas artists do what craftsmen do and bring a visual design or inspirational element to a dish. Some chefs find solace in craftsmanship; others find solace in artistry. The ideal is a combination of the two. Craftsmanship is someone who's concerned with flavor, composition and technique. I wouldn't want to eat in the restaurant of an artistic chef who's not a craftsman.
Hardest lesson you've learned: Fifteen years ago, I learned that when I was an asshole in the kitchen, I tacitly gave permission to my staff to be assholes, too. Assholes don't generally make warm, gracious hosts. I realized that when I needed to yell, it was because I had failed as a teacher or a leader.
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