Chef and Tell, part two: Black Cat's Eric Skokan dishes on his required reading list, blood sausage and knives
This is part two of Lori Midson's interview with Eric Skokan, owner/chef of Black Cat in Boulder. Read the rest of Lori Midson's interview with Skokan.
Favorite restaurant in America: Rincon Peruano in San Francisco. It's just a crazy place. For about twenty years, the chef and front guy -- just the two of them -- have been putting out wonderful Peruvian food every day in an eleven-seat restaurant lost in San Francisco's Latino neighborhood, the Mission District. There's a lot of quiet pride in that restaurant, which I greatly admire.
Best food city in America: I recently heard that it's Boulder, but my vote goes to San Francisco, because it's what a mature food city looks like. There are great restaurants at all levels doing really good food based on really good ingredients. There's not a lot of flashy showmanship, just a focus on making things taste great.
Favorite Denver/Boulder restaurant(s) other than your own: Pizzeria Basta. Kelly's a helluva good cook, and I love where he buys his ingredients -- some from me. He does a great job making sophisticated but simple food that both my wife and I love, and he makes a pizza that my kids call "killer."
Favorite music to cook by: Music isn't allowed in our kitchen; it's too distracting.
Biggest kitchen disaster: The hot night, two summers ago, when the exhaust fan on our hood vent broke at 6:30 p.m., right in the middle of service -- and a rush, too. Talk about great timing. The kitchen smoked out quickly, and the dining room got so hot that we were making "tableside cooking" jokes. We were trying to repair it with shoelaces. "Disaster" is the most generous description for what it was like. MacGyver would have been proud.
What's the best food- or kitchen-related gift you've been given? Friends and customers who bring fruit from their backyard trees: Audrey's Meyer lemons; Bill's friar plums; apples from Becky. I usually make a dish with them using their name. I originally fell in love with cooking because of the connection it forges between what I'm creating and the friend, neighbor or guest at the table. It's hard to feel any more connected to those I cook for than when they share from their backyard trees. Like smelling the roses, it's one of the important things I stop to appreciate.
Favorite dish to cook at home: One-eyed Susan -- an egg fried in a hole and cut into a slice of bread. We raise our own chickens, so the eggs are great. I have three little boys, but they didn't like the name of the dish very much, so they've renamed it pirate toast -- you know, because pirates only have one eye.
Favorite dish on your menu: We raise our pigs in a grove of walnuts at our farm, and I add walnuts into the pigs' organic feed. So I've been pairing slow-cooked pork shoulder with black walnut cream, leeks and pickled pears. This dish says a lot about what I'm trying to do at the restaurant. Like Michel Bras in his locale, I'm trying to create dishes that speak to mine.
If you could put any dish on your menu, even though it might not sell, what would it be? Because I raise the animals for the restaurant, I need to sell all of the odd bits and pieces when we process them. There's more to a lamb than just the chops, and fortunately, our guests are up to it. We normally sell out of the tongue dish before we sell out of the tenderloin.
What's your favorite knife? I generally use only one knife: a Wüsthof. I believe in the Suzuki style of knife, which means use one knife, master it completely, and then you can move on to different knives and tools. The knife needs to speak to the person, but it's not like a magic wand. It needs to be the sort of knife that you want to use for everything. Chefs who cook with 90 knives tend to not have good knife skills.
One book that every chef should read: I have a required reading list for our sous chefs and front-of-the-house managers: On Food and Cooking, by Harold McGee, because it dispels the myths and bad habits learned in cooking school and starts an inquisitive mindset; Hug Your Customers, by Jack Mitchell, because it articulates my feelings on why we cook in the first place; Setting the Table, by Danny Meyer, for its emphasis on great customer service; and Simple Cuisine: The Cookbook That Redefined Healthful Four-Star Cooking, by Jean-Georges Vongerichten, which is a landmark cookbook that begins to construct a new set of culinary building blocks. And last but not least, Charlie Trotter's Seafood. It's a great entry into the art and science of food and wine pairing.
What show would you pitch to the Food Network, and what would it be about? The Year-Round Harvest: From the Fields to the Kitchen. At our farmers' market stand in Boulder, I get tons of questions about what to do with certain vegetables, and I see lots of interest in using new ingredients from the general public, but lots of apprehension, too. This show would be a week-by-week series combining tips from the farm with how-tos in the kitchen, all timed with the regular growing season. Go home with a bag of organic baby turnips from the farmers' market and flip on the TV to learn how to use them.
Current Denver culinary genius: Kelly Whitaker at Pizzeria Basta. Wow, he's a great cook. He creates simple food that's delicious, and he makes the ingredients the focus.
You're making a pizza. What's on it? Braised kale, fresh sheep's-milk cheese, pickled garlic and smoked pork from one of our heritage pigs.
Guiltiest food pleasure? Movie-theater popcorn with gobs of "butter." We also grow popcorn at the farm -- just for our family.
Weirdest customer request: The person who wanted to see the raw duck before we cooked it. I still don't know why.
Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: Blood sausage I made the day we butchered our first hog. It was delicious -- and thought-provoking, too. Best culinary tip for a home cook: Season your food with salt until you think the dish is properly seasoned. Then add a little more salt and see if it tastes better.
If you could cook for one famous chef, dead or alive, who would it be? Dan Barber, the chef and owner of Blue Hill Farm in New York. We speak a common language and are confronted by the same issues in the kitchen.
Favorite celebrity chef: Hosea Rosenberg. I love it when a genuinely wonderful guy wins it all.
Celebrity chef who should shut up: I don't own a TV.
What's next for you? I'm interested in doing some dinners at our farm -- canapés on our porch and dinner under the big shade trees, serenaded by the sheep from the next field over.
Last meal before you die: There are so many things that I'm completely gaga over that I feel sorry for all the dishes that I can't eat on my last day on earth. That said, my wife and I had dinner in the Basque part of France, and the chef/owner cooked an entire leg of lamb for us with amazing haricot verts and a terrine of foie. It was the single best dinner and company that I've ever had. I'd want that chef to re-create that dinner.
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