This is part one of my interview with Brett Shaheen, exec chef of the Wooden Table. Part two of our chat will run tomorrow.
Flipping pizzas at Pizza Hut. That was Brett Shaheen's first introduction to a professional kitchen -- if you can call it that. "The best part about it was I got to drink beer every morning at 6 a.m. because they had a tap and I was the first guy there," recalls Shaheen, now the executive chef of the Wooden Table.
He messed around in the kitchen at home, too, usually to the dismay of his sister, the recipient of whatever Shaheen flung together. "My grandma was a good cook, my mom was a good cook when she wanted to be, and I was always cooking stuff as a kid, usually pancakes made with all sorts of really weird stuff that I'd give to my sister, just to irritate her," says Shaheen, who also spent some time "cutting chickens" behind an Albertson's meat counter.
But Shaheen wasn't one of those guys who knew early on that he wanted a culinary career. "I had graduated from college and was working for a litigations-support company, and one morning I woke up, bored with my job, and suddenly decided I'd go to culinary school," he remembers. "That usually doesn't work out well for people -- making those kind of spontaneous decisions -- but it worked out well for me."
He was living in Montana at the time, and while he was happy there -- "I love Montana; it's Denver without the people," he says -- he pined for a warmer climate, so he headed off to the Johnson & Wales campus in South Carolina. "True, the whole culinary thing was on a whim, but it was easy, and I was really good at it," says Shaheen. "Plus, I was eating at a lot of restaurants that were disappointing, and I thought I could do better."
After graduating, he came to Denver to spend some time with his parents and plot his next move. He did an internship with the Grand Hyatt and "pretty much hated it," he admits, "especially the hours and the scrambled eggs. I'd get there at 3:45 in the morning, and there'd be forty pounds of scrambled eggs in a plastic bag that I'd have to throw into steam kettles filled with hot water. Needless to say, I mastered scrambled eggs, but I didn't learn much else."
Working in a hotel restaurant just wasn't his "vision of cooking," he says. He left after six months, then did time on the line at the now-shuttered Sambuca Jazz Cafe, where he stayed for two years, meeting both his wife and Jane Knauf, his business partner at the Wooden Table. He left, he explains, because he was "tired of the corporate culture and wanted to work for a restaurant that was one of the best in Denver."
That restaurant was Mizuna, where he staged for one night in hopes of securing a spot behind the burners. "I wanted to learn from one of the best chefs in town," says Shaheen, who wound up working alongside the kitchen crew at Luca d'Italia instead, starting on the grill and eventually stepping his way up to chef de cuisine before leaving to become the executive chef at Osteria Marco, his last stint before opening the Wooden Table.
In the following interview, Shaheen dishes on staging at Alinea, promises to bring turkey neck back and explains why it's a good idea to marry a chef and why it's an even better idea to put a muzzle on Charlie Trotter and Wolfgang Puck.
Six words to describe your food: Fresh, comforting, thoughtful, classic, delicious and layered.
Ten words to describe you: Passionate, nostalgic, sentimental, consistent, annoying (at least my partner seems to think so), procrastinator, loyal, grounded, fortunate, committed and traditional.
Favorite ingredient: Butter, of course. I once heard someone say that no one likes butter and veal anymore, which is the largest cart of crap I've ever heard. Who are these people who don't like butter or veal? I don't think I want to know them. I've thought about opening a restaurant and calling it "Butter and Veal." If you have butter and veal, you can make a lot of good things. You could do a lot worse, like have mustard seeds and ponzu.
Best recent food find: Salsa made by one of our cooks, Sylvia. It's so simple, yet no one else can seem to make it like she does. Her prep list starts and ends with "make salsa."
Most overrated ingredient: Red onions. Chefs put them on everything simply because they're red. But they're also very strong and overpowering. A salad with raw red onion tastes only of onion. It's a lazy way to add color to dishes.
Most underrated ingredient: Anchovies. I like the salted and oil-cured anchovies the best. Finely diced and added to sauces, they impart a richness that forms a great layer of flavor. You'll never notice a fishy taste, but you'd know it if it wasn't there.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: Two Mile Ranch beef from the market right by us with the same name. Their ranch is out in eastern Colorado, and the beef is dry-aged and exceptional. Even pedestrian cuts like inside shoulder steak are juicy and full of flavor.
Favorite spice: Right now, I really like cloves. They pair perfectly with turkey and pork, plus they're fragrant, exotic and uniquely flavored, and a little goes a long way.
One food you detest: Improperly used garlic. Excess raw garlic, burned garlic and general overuse -- I detest it all. Garlic is great, but it has to be used correctly. Sometimes it's used in heaps with no regard for flavor, and, just like raw red onions, becomes overpowering and obnoxious.
One food you can't live without: Pizza. A good one is cheesy, saucy and crisp. Growing up, we had pizza every Friday and Saturday -- and I mean every Friday and Saturday. Good pizzas are great, but even the bad ones are still okay.
Favorite music to cook by: Friday nights are outlaw country; Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard and Hank Jr. are among the favorites. Busy nights are usually started with Haggard's "If We Make it Through December." Saturday is classic-rock night. Music has to be played during service; if you can't cook to music, than you shouldn't be cooking at all -- and you take yourself way too seriously.
Rules of conduct in your kitchen: To put it nicely, don't be a wuss. Don't complain, do your job, don't take shortcuts when it would be easier to do so, and take pride in your work. This is your job, and your work is a direct reflection of that.
Biggest kitchen disaster: I guess I've been fortunate in my career, because while we've had our tough nights -- overbooked, understaffed, ill-equipped -- we've always gotten through it. I'm not saying that every night has gone perfect, but I can say that I haven't been a part of a total disaster. In fact, I've never seen an Ansul system go off or anyone lose a finger.
What's never in your kitchen? Heat lamps. Just run some damn food and use your manos!
What's always in your kitchen? A can-do attitude, bay leaves, butter, salt, pirates, people without driver's licenses, dice, stock, invoices and salesmen.
Biggest menu bomb: Potato gnocchi with braised turkey neck. I put this on the menu at the Wooden Table right before Thanksgiving, knowing full well that writing "turkey neck" on the menu would scare some people. Some said we should just say braised turkey, but I wanted people to know that it was neck, which is tender and flavorful, and, in my opinion, the best part of the bird. The dish was awesome, but no one ordered it. We could go through a busy Friday and Saturday selling only one or two. But I'm not giving up: The turkey neck will be back.
Favorite dish on your menu: Eggplant Parmesan rolotini. It's fried, cheesy, made with red sauce, and it reminds me of my grandma, Christmas and being a kid.
What do you cook at home that you never cook at the restaurant? Anything on my Weber barbecue grill. I love to cook over charcoal and hardwoods. The best turkey you'll ever have is cooked hot and fast on a Weber: same thing with barbecued chicken, wings during football season, brats and dogs with mustard wrapped in foil and shoved in my backpack on the way to a Rockies game.
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Favorite food from your childhood: My grandma turned me on to cooking. She and my grandfather lived in Utica, New York, where there are all kinds of great ethnic foods. They'd mail different pepperonis and veal to Michigan, and whenever we went to visit, she'd have huge spreads of amazing foods, especially eggplant Parmesan, escarole, eggs and peppers, all with flat bread. When I got older, I wanted to replicate the same food for myself, and when I lived alone, I'd spend all afternoon cooking and then eat dinner by myself, or with that special someone.
Most memorable meal: I got to eat thirteen courses at Alinea after doing a one-week stage there. The food is amazing and technically mind-blowing, and the whole place is a study in precision. At one o'clock every day, all the cooks stop what they're doing and clean up, which includes vacuuming the carpeted kitchen floor. During my first four hours there, I separated sunflower seeds -- dividing the perfect seeds from the ones that were chipped or split. By the end, I think I had a fifth of a small deli container of perfect ones, and I wanted to shove a rusty butter knife in my eye.