Chef and Tell, part two: Jim Cohen on the Domino's pizza delivery, undercooked partridge and Michel Richard
This is part two of my interview with Jim Cohen, chef/owner of The Empire Restaurant and Lounge and Pizzeria da Lupo. Part one of that interview ran yesterday.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef: Turning the Lodge at Vail into a great food destination. When I arrived in Vail in 1984, I went to a wine shop, and the owner asked me why I was in Vail. When I told him that I was just hired as the chef at the Lodge at Vail, he laughed and asked why they would need a chef, since no one eats there. I think I got nauseous. The first crew I had was drug dealers and bookies, and no one knew how to cook. After the first winter, I just wanted to get out of there, but then they sent me on a two-week vacation to Hawaii. When I got back, we slugged it out until we started getting a much better reputation. Howard Head, who invented Head skis and Prince tennis racquets, lived next store and asked us to do his wedding, and after that, we just started being the place to be. Then, you know, the whole thing steamrolled -- better people started applying for jobs, and we were able to accomplish a lot more because our talent was so much better. The first few years there were the hardest of my career, with a lot of ninety-hour weeks, and then we'd die in the end of the season and our families didn't know who we were. I think after twelve years, though, we created a really great and successful food-and-beverage program that a lot of people had been a part of. It's really sad for me to see what's happened there since: All that hard work, and it's back to having a similar reputation as when I arrived.
Favorite restaurant in America: It was Honmura An, a soba noodle place in SoHo that served the best noodles I've ever had, but sadly, it closed a couple of years ago. I miss it so much. I will say, too, that I really respect the chef of Pizzeria Bianco, in Phoenix. Fifteen years ago, he was doing what I'm doing today, and now he produces consistently day in and day out. He also has an enormous amount of discipline.
Best food city in America: New York City. It has everything. I love Katz's deli; Barbuto for Jonathan Waxman's take on Italian; Prune because Gabrielle Hamilton's cooking is just so honest; Alfred Portale's Gotham Bar and Grill because it's quintessential Manhattan; and, of course, Jean-Georges. Then you can go to Queens Boulevard and walk from block to block and travel the world.
Rules of conduct in your kitchen: Listen to my wife, Connie, who's the chef de cuisine at the Empire; she knows more than me. Taste everything you make; work clean; be focused and professional during service; close the door to the walk-in; no cell phones; be passionate about what you do; and don't use too many ingredients -- that really drives me crazy.
Biggest kitchen disaster: After 32 years, I've had a lot of disasters, but the worst came just after I was promoted to executive chef of the Wildflower, just two weeks after I started working there. It was our first big banquet, for a group of Texas and Oklahoma bankers, and all the meat we served was undercooked and returned. It was a buffet, and we ran out of food halfway through, so we started pulling everything we had out of the freezer to try and get enough food out there. We sent out champagne for the president of the bank, and the waiter spilled it on him, and then his daughter found glass in the ice cream. They finally gave up and had a Domino's pizza delivered. Pretty bad, huh? I hired a new banquet chef after that.
Favorite music to cook by: In my restaurants, it's Lou Reed. Every night before service, while I was at the Wildflower, we played Rock and Roll Animal. There's no music in my kitchens, however, during service. At home, though, it's Haydn piano concertos.
Favorite dish to cook at home: Risotto, with whatever.
Favorite dish on your menu: We just changed the menu at the Empire this week, and I'm really excited about pork Napolitano. It's very old recipe made with Berkshire pork cooked very slowly in San Marzano tomato sauce. We serve it with pork-and-ricotta meatballs. It's beautiful, tasty and wonderful.
If you could put any dish on your menu, even though it might not sell, what would it be? A sea urchin submarine sandwich. I did it at the Wildflower for a whole winter, and I think we only sold one, but the sous chefs and I ate it every other day.
Guiltiest food pleasure? Pasta. I'm on a no-carb diet.
Typical staff meal: At Pizzeria da Lupo, it's pizza; at the Empire, it's generally pasta with meat and tomato sauce and a salad.
What's the best food- or kitchen-related gift you've been given? Connie, my wife. She's a great craftsman.
One book that every chef should read: Chez Panisse Cooking, by Paul Bertolli and Alice Waters. It's full of great ideas and great techniques, and it extols a philosophy of cooking that we should all follow.
What show would you pitch to the Food Network, and what would it be about? The crew at the Empire thinks we should do a family-affair reality show of Connie, Lexi (my eldest daughter), Hannah (my youngest) and I all working together. Sometimes things are said in the kitchen that are better left at home, but the crew sees it, and I think it reminds everyone of their family in some way.
You're making a pizza. What's on it? That's easy. Extra-virgin olive oil, sea salt, San Marzano tomatoes, mozzarella di bufala, Parmesan cheese, and then, after it's cooked, a little more great extra-virgin olive oil. That essentially describes the Margherita pizza at Pizzeria da Lupo.
You're at the market. What do you buy two of? Greek yogurt.
Weirdest customer request: A customer who wanted all steamed food and no fat, which is fine, except for the fact that they then wanted ice cream for dessert.
Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: Undercooked partridge that a celebrity chef, who will remain nameless, insisted was great. It wasn't, and to add insult to injury, we were doing a dinner for the Bolshoi Ballet in Vail.
Best culinary tip for a home cook: Have a well-stocked pantry with great ingredients, notably great extra-virgin olive oil, great pasta, sea salt, Italian tuna packed in olive oil, peanuts, chocolate and anchovies.
What's your favorite knife? It changes over the years, but right now, it's a four-inch serrated knife from the CIA cutlery collection.
Most memorable career moment: There are several, but when I was working at the Lodge at Vail, we had a guest chef dinner, and Michel Richard was one of the chefs. He was in the kitchen, driving us crazy, so Jonathan Waxman and Robert Del Grande, the father of Southwestern cuisine, took him over to the Sonnanalp to get a drink and calm him down. When I got over there, he was standing on a table, shouting, "I AM Michel Richard," like he was prince of the world. He's crazy and wacky, but a great chef.
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