This is part two of my interview with Derek Dietz, chef-owner of Bocadillo; part one of our conversation ran yesterday.
Most underrated Denver restaurant: JJ's Chinese Seafood, which has great Chinese food and lots of live fish that turn into dinner. One of the things I miss most about Philadelphia is Chinatown, where we would get awesome food on a weekly basis, and JJ's is the closest thing I've found to authentic Chinese food in Denver. Chef Kevin Ho worked in Guangzhao, China, for twenty years, and it shows in his cooking. His seafood is amazing.
Most underrated chef in Denver: Christopher Howe, sous-chef at the Kitchen. He was my poissonier at the Fountain in Philly six years ago, and I've seen his skills firsthand. He helped me get to where I am now, and he continues to motivate me with just his presence.
If you could have dinner, all expenses paid, at any restaurant in the world, where would you go? Sukiyabashi, Jiro Ono's sushi restaurant in Tokyo -- and the only three-star Michelin restaurant in the world without a bathroom. I also believe Jiro's philosophy toward cooking is one of the greatest. Yamamota, a Japanese food writer, put it nicely: "If you were to sum up Jiro's sushi in a nutshell...its ultimate simplicity leads to purity." I love great sushi, and his is the best. I'd also like to see Tokyo and try some of the most expensive fish in the world.
If you left Denver to cook somewhere else, where would you go? Probably back to Philadelphia, just because I have a lot of connections there in the culinary world, and my mom is still there. It's hard here in Denver, because I have no family here.
Weirdest thing you've ever put in your mouth: Bull-calf testicles, otherwise known as Rocky Mountain oysters. They were tasty, and I'd eat more, but they're probably the weirdest things I've ever eaten. It can't get much weirder than testicles.
Would you ever send a dish back if you were dining in a friend's restaurant? No, I wouldn't send a dish back anywhere unless I knew the food would make me sick, like sour sushi. I understand what's going on in a restaurant and realize that shit happens. Later, if I had any constructive criticism that I thought they would respond well to, I'd let them know.
What do you expect from a restaurant critic? I think it's important for a critic to understand the story behind any restaurant or dish -- to know why the restaurant opened, the goals of the chef, and the background and history of the establishment, including the employees. It's not just the taste of the food. I obviously expect honesty when a critic comes in, and I also expect criticism -- constructive criticism. Feedback is good only if it's constructive and gives us ideas as to how we can make the proper improvements. If you just say the food was bad, then I don't know what I should do to improve it. If you say the food could have been hotter, then I have something specific to work on.
Recent innovation that's most influenced the restaurant industry in a significant way: Sous-vide cooking. The immersion circulator and Cryovac machines have created an ingenious way to cook just about anything. Being able to cook a tenderloin for twelve hours and not worry about it overcooking is awesome. Most of the great restaurants in the country, and around the world, are using nothing but sous vide for their meats, fish and veggies.
Cookbooks and/or food-related reading material that you draw inspiration from: Chef Michel Guerard's Cuisine Minceur and Cuisine Gourmande, Larousse Gastronomique, Lucky Peach magazine, and any Alain Ducasse book. I also read books from all of the classical French chefs: Pépin, Robuchon, the brothers Troisgras, Boulud and Escoffier. I think the book I use the most in the kitchen, though, is Prochef, from the CIA; it's a great reference that answers all the basic questions. I also think that Culinary Artistry and The Flavor Bible are amazing references for any cook. You can look up just about every ingredient, and it will tell you all the things it pairs with.
Favorite culinary-related gift you've been given: The French Laundry cookbook, a gift from Martin Hamann, my former chef at the Four Seasons. I love this book for all sorts of reasons, but it's my admiration for the chef who gave it to me that most inspires me.
Favorite culinary-related item to give as a gift: Nature, by Alain Ducasse, is one of the greatest new books on the shelves right now. It's written by one of the greatest chefs in the world and designed for a home cook who wants to cook with lighter, fresher ingredients. I've always appreciated his books, but many of his dishes are way too difficult for the average person to make, and his recipes often use a lot of butter -- but in this book, he proves that healthy and flavorful can mean the same thing.
Fantasy splurge: An immersion circulator, a big Cryovac machine, and a double-deck Rational oven. The sous-vide cooking method is a great technique, and I would love to have the accessories to cook sous vide.
What advice would you give an aspiring young chef? Stay focused on the basics and don't get cocky, ever. Keep your head down and stay clean and organized. I also would also tell them what this industry entails, and that if they can't handle it, find a new career.
What skills and attributes do you look for when hiring kitchen staff? Love and respect for food, and modesty, are the two most important things I look for when hiring cooks. Basic knife skills and a solid work ethic are important, too, but as long as the person cares about what they're doing and has a good attitude toward their job, they have the ability to be successful. Technical skills come with practice.
Biggest blunder a chef can make on the line: Losing your cool. It's okay to burn some bacon or croutons every once in a while, but if you stress about it too much, you'll fail, especially when you're in the weeds. It's always important to remember, "First plate, last plate." If you lose your cool and pull a Marco Pierre White tantrum and start cursing and breaking plates, you'll just get more and more buried in dupes. I think that when a chef is nasty all the time, it creates an intimidating workplace. Then the chi in the kitchen suffers, and so does the food quality.
Your biggest pet peeves: Dirty or slow-moving cooks, or people who just like to "wing it." Organization and mise en place is the key to success in a busy restaurant. I have met many cooks who just say, "Oh, we'll figure it out" -- and that's definitely a pet peeve of mine. The ability to "fleck" and winging it are two different things. The art of "fleck," as I like to call it, is being able to create, at a moment's notice, amazing and spontaneous dishes from whatever's in your kitchen. When we used to have VIPs come into 1862, my chef would fleck the fleck and create some incredible dishes within minutes. People who just wing it on their stations aren't dedicated to their craft and just want to do as little as possible to get their paycheck.
Your best traits: Making soups. I love soup so much, and it's one of my favorite things to make and eat, especially in the winter. I try to have four to five soups on the menu all winter long.
Your worst traits: Paperwork, computer skills, people skills and the art of baking. I have a hard time measuring, weighing and following recipes. I like to just fleck.
If you could dress any way you want, what would you wear in the kitchen? I think the traditional chef's uniform is important to wear in the kitchen, not just for safety reasons, but also for my head. There are days when it's hot and I'll wear shorts, or if the Eagles are in the playoffs, I may wear my Dawkins jersey for a day -- but overall, I like wearing the whites. When I put on my chef coat, pants, apron and shoes, it switches my brain from civilian mode into cooking mode.
If you could cook in another chef's kitchen, whose would it be? Louis XV, Alain Ducasse's restaurant in Monaco. It's a three-star Michelin restaurant, not to mention one of the best French restaurants in the world. It's very simple yet extravagant. He doesn't try to create groundbreaking dishes; instead, he perfects simple or familiar dishes and executes them perfectly.
If you had the opportunity to open your own restaurant with no budget constraints, what kind of restaurant would you open? A restaurant that focuses on a variety of meats, or a Korean noodle house similar to David Chang's noodle bar at Momofuku. I think it would be awesome to have a restaurant where everything on the menu is just properly cooked offal and other "weird" meats. It's important to utilize the entire animal, and if I can use everything that no one else wants, that would be great.
Biggest moment of euphoria in the kitchen: When we get super-slammed and everything goes great, that's the ultimate euphoria. I think the best night we've had was around sixty covers, and I was alone in the kitchen and everything went really well. Being in the weeds and handling it properly is one of the best parts about being a cook, even if it does require the ability to switch your brain from chill mode to crazy mode at a moment's notice.
Craziest night in the kitchen: It was a 500-person bat mitzvah at the Please Touch Museum in Philadelphia, and there were a bunch of celebrity chefs running the event, which just added to the craziness. Everything went smooth from the diners' perspective, but the kitchen was madness. It was a prime example of too many captains and not enough deck hands. I was told to do three different things in three different kitchens by three different chefs, and no matter what, it was inevitable that one of them was going to be mad. A huge argument erupted about plating, and I learned that too much pride can result in mayhem. I make sure to always take the peon position whenever there are multiple chefs; the most important key to a successful event is clear communication and teamwork.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef: My greatest accomplishment as a chef will be when I become a chef. I am only 24 years old, and the term "chef" should not be used for me. I know many great chefs who have been cooking better than me for longer than I have been alive.... My goal as a cook is to one day earn the title of chef. Yes, I own my own restaurant and run the entire operation, but I don't think this automatically makes me a chef. If I'm already a chef at 24, then what am I striving to become? Nowadays, "chef" just means a person who cooks professionally for other people, but to me and any old-schoolers, it means a highly skilled cook who is overly proficient in all aspects of food. I do not enjoy chefing, I enjoy cooking; I did not get into this career to become a chef. I did it because I love cooking. Therefore, I am just a cook. My greatest accomplishment as a cook will be when I am able to proudly have the title of chef and know that I earned it through years and years of hard work and training.
What's one thing that people would be surprised to know about you? I have a 110-pound Dogo Argentino and a red-nose pitbull. I also have a sick passion for Cheerios.
Last meal before you die: I'd start with a classic French cheese plate with Roquefort, Camembert, délice de Bourgogne, maybe some raclette and mimolette, then finish with Vienna mocha-chunk ice cream and a few glasses of Hennessy Richard to warm me up for the afterlife. I'm hoping I can reincarnate as a bald eagle. That would be sweet.
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What's next for Denver's culinary scene? More local and sustainable farmers and the continuation of farm-to-table restaurants. I think the more quality meats and produce that are available, the better it is for everyone. We can't ever have too many Colorado ranchers. I'd also love it if we had more quality seafood distributors in Denver, and I hope that at some point, that will be the case.