Chef and Tell, part two: Bistro Vendôme's Matt Anderson
This is part two of Lori Midson's interview with Matt Anderson, chef of Bistro Vendôme. Part one of that interview delves into Anderson's take on WHIRL, EVOO, brains and Bourdain.
Culinary inspirations: The seasons, and the way they make me feel. Writing fall menus is my absolute favorite; in winter, I get to do warm, heavier stuff; spring is rebirth with lighter and more colorful dishes; and in the summer, it's all about smoking and grilling and picnic stuff. The seasons, combined with some of my favorite dishes that I get to play off of in the restaurant, motivate me. Thanksgiving was always big in our family, so I like to play off those dishes. Right now we're doing a new duck dish that has a fritter with butternut squash, bacon and sage - it's sort of a take on stuffing.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef: Just to have the average person -- not a critic or chef - tell me that they like my food. That said, it's really nice to get a compliment from another chef, since they know what we all go through. I also cooked at the James Beard House two years ago -- we were invited to go, as opposed to asking to go - and that was a great experience.
Rules of conduct in your kitchen: Don't screw anything up - recipes, setting up your station, whatever. Basically, I don't want to hold anyone's hand. That's what culinary schools are for. I'd much rather have cooks on my line with common sense than guys with the stellar resumé. I want cooks with street smarts rather than book smarts. I'm also a stickler for everything being put back in its exact place. I don't have time to spend all day organizing. I have lots of OCD stuff, too, like the mats have to be in a perfect line and aligned with the tiles.
Favorite restaurant in America: I always have an amazing meal at Bouchon in Las Vegas. It's my kind of food -- cured meats, pâtés, cheeses and pickled veggies. But it's not the food itself so much as the kitchen's mentality and approach to the food that's so impressive. There, the process of cooking and technique is just as important, if not more so, than plate presentation or how many things you can get on the plate. Service is incredible, too. Before you know you want something, it's already there.
Best food city in America: San Francisco. I just like the vibe of it, and it's really, really diverse. You get really good ethnic cuisine - and lots of it - plus amazing fresh seafood. I love what they have going on there and how forward-thinking that city is. When it comes to growth, though, it's Denver. Things are happening a lot faster here than elsewhere, and Denver is definitely going in the right direction. We're no longer just the cowtown everyone thinks we are. There are some really good restaurants and chefs here -- chefs like Jen Jasinski -- who are really testing the waters and pushing the envelope.
Favorite music to cook by: It depends on my mood, but recently, I've been making the cooks listen to Colorado Public Radio during service, because it keeps the mood calm -- and I like that. When service starts to wind down, somehow the party music gets turned on. Which reminds me: I need to find out who it is that's switching the radio.
What you'd like to see more of in Denver from a culinary standpoint: A big warehouse market with vendors, food and everything culinary under one roof -- something like the Ferry Building in San Francisco. We have such great warehouse space here; we should use some of it for a one-shop market that isn't controlled by one entity.
What you'd like to see less of in Denver from a culinary standpoint: Garbage. I would love to see a composting program here. I was watching a special on the culinary scene in San Francisco and how much of their landfill waste is being reduced by composting. So much is being reused, plus it generates jobs. It's a win-win situation.
What's the best food or kitchen-related gift you've been given? A Peugeot pepper mill. I use it all the time, and they last forever.
One book that every chef should read: Culinary Artistry, by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenburg. It's a great resource for matching ingredients, and a lot of things I do are inspired just from looking at lists of ingredients. I might find something I've used in the past that I'd forgotten about.
What show would you pitch to the Food Network? A farm-to-table show, wherein a chef goes to local farms, creates a dish, preps it and cooks it for service at a local restaurant. It would be great inspiration for the local chefs to have a great chef come into their town and show them what can be done with an ingredient plucked from their own back yard.
Current Denver culinary genius: Alex Seidel at Fruition. He's a nice guy, and he doesn't seem to overdo his dishes. He serves nice, clean food that isn't distracted by a bunch of meaningless garnishes. I always think it's funny when my wife and I go out to eat and we have to pick things off of a dish before actually eating it -- like back in the '90s when everyone was stabbing dishes with sprigs of herbs. I don't know about everyone else, but chewing on a sprig of rosemary isn't something I need to do.
You're making a hamburger. What's on it? Colorado bison with avocado aioli, butter lettuce, tomato, spicy bacon, fried egg and pickled red onions. Stop by the restaurant on Saturday or Sunday and we'll make it for you.
Guiltiest food pleasure? Triple-chocolate drumsticks. The chunk of chocolate in the bottom of the cone is the best.
You're at the market. What do you buy two of? Anything that will get me into trouble with my wife.
Best culinary tip for a home cook: Have fun with cooking, experiment a little and just see what happens. Whenever I'm around family and friends, they all get worried that they're doing it wrong, so they ask for tips, and I tell them to just relax. As long as no one drops dead, you've got nothing to worry about. I wish my wife would understand this, because she freaks out, and that's when things go bad.
If you could cook for one famous chef, dead or alive, who would it be? Angus Campbell, a master chef I once worked under. I'd like to see what he thinks of me now. He used to teach classes for the public, and I'd assist him a lot of the time. Before class would start, he'd run through the day's timeline, and we'd cook the same dish side by side that he'd be teaching that day. Everything was all measured out and listed in the exact order it was meant to be cooked. But my dish never tasted like his. It was like he was a chemist: He knew exactly when to add an ingredient or seasoning just by sight or smell, but it was crazy how we could add the same ingredient, the same amounts and in the same order, but the end result was so different. He would just laugh and say, "All in good time."
Favorite Denver restaurant(s) other than your own: Rioja, of course. No, really, even if I do eat there for free and Jen is my boss, I love her food and would definitely pay to go there. I wouldn't work for a chef or frequent a restaurant where the chef didn't have great talent and actually work in the kitchen. If I can't respect who I'm working for, no amount of money can change that. Euclid Hall is doing some great things as well -- a little bit of everything. I like the fact that chef Jen has three completely different concepts as opposed to a string of slightly altered Italian restaurants.
What's your favorite knife? An eleven-inch Global, which I've had for about ten years now. I like the fact that it's one solid piece of metal -- that it's not pieced together. It's a weird mental thing for me.
Hardest lesson you've learned: Not to overreact when a dish gets sent back. Everyone has their own expectations, so I just try and fulfill the guests' needs and move on. When I was younger, I was a yeller, although some people who work with me now would probably have a hard time believing that, because now I'm pretty quiet. Learning when it's time to freak out comes with age and experience.
What's next for you? We've got a baby girl due January 2. Eventually, though, I want to have my own restaurant - something that would be similar to what I'm doing now. It might be a little more continental-based instead of French, just so I'd have the liberty to experiment a bit more. And I'm ready for winter.
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