Chef and Tell, part two: Snooze's Spencer Lomax dishes on lard-ridden pastries, Eric Ripert, Bourdain and Besh
Spencer Lomax Snooze, an A.M. Eatery Four locations in Colorado www.snoozeeatery.com
This is part two of Lori Midson's Chef and Tell interview with Spencer Lomax, the culinary director of Snooze. In part one of that Q&A, Lomax dishes on swine, green chile and cheek meat.
Favorite restaurant in America: El Dorado Kitchen in Sonoma. A few years back, my wife and I tucked into their chef's tasting menu and wine pairing, and about four hours later realized we'd just had the best meal of our lives. The chef at the time and most of his line were expats from the French Laundry who started their own outpost over in Sonoma. The food was inspired, the wine pairings were thoughtful and generous, the service was unmatched, and the patio setting on a cool Nor-Cal evening was perfect.
Best food city in America: Call me a nativist, but I think Denver -- especially if you include Boulder -- is, pound for pound, fast becoming the Manny Pacquiao of food cities, fighting well above its weight class against the likes of New York, Chicago, San Francisco and Portland. Combine a thriving sustainable and local agriculture scene with a growing list of heavy-hitting restaurants garnering national praise -- restaurants like Frasca, Mizuna, Fruition and Colt & Gray, just to name a few -- and I feel that we can more than hold our own.
Favorite music to cook by: Some mix of the Black Keys, Calexico, Langhorne Slim, anything Stephen Malkmus, Townes Van Zandt, A Tribe Called Quest, the Felice Brothers, the Avett Brothers and Toots & the Maytals. I also play in a bluegrass band called the Highland Ramblers -- picture a boozed-up hoedown -- so I mix in plenty of bluegrass as well.
What's the best food- or kitchen-related gift you've been given? For Christmas last year, my sister-in-law gave us an olive tree. Actually, she gave us a year's worth of olive oil production from an "adopted" olive tree in Italy through a company called Nudo. We started out getting tins of the highest-quality oil from the first pressing, and then later on in the year, they sent the second pressing, which they had infused with either chiles, lemons or clementines, which are amazing drizzled on salads and pastas. The oils are really tasty, and I find myself reaching for the tins just about every time I'm in the kitchen.
Favorite dish to cook at home: Whatever I can cobble together using our backyard garden bounty. This year we had an abundance of arugula, Swiss chard, watermelon radish, Sun Gold tomatoes, mortgage-lifter tomatoes, poblanos, tomatillos, serrano chiles, heirloom carrots, celery, snap peas, golden beets, red scallions, Vietnamese coriander, strawberries, peaches, cherries, basil and rosemary. Pile some of that goodness into a salad or with meat or fish and we're happy campers.
One book that every chef should read: Eric Ripert's On the Line. I mean, he's Eric Ripert, but aside from the fact that he's Eric Ripert, it's also a very introspective look at Le Bernardin, and just a beautifully put-together, straight-ahead book.
What show would you pitch to the Food Network, and what would it be about? I'd love to see a show that puts celebrity chefs back on the line in various, rocking, real-world restaurants to test their mettle. It'd be even better if it was shown live during dinner service on a Friday or Saturday night. Imagine, for instance, Mario Batali holding down sauté at Duo, or Morimoto on eggs at Snooze on a Sunday morning.
Current Denver culinary genius: Max Mackissock is knocking it out of the park over at the Squeaky Bean. He's got a tremendous reverence for the products he uses, and he manages to bridge sophisticated ideas and flavors with simple, approachable and playful presentations. And somehow he's pulling off this food with a kitchen that could fit into an RV that's equipped with an Easy-Bake oven and a Bunsen burner. He gets bonus points for keeping a secret garden on the other side of Polidori Sausage.
You're making a pizza. What's on it? Whatever's on hand; last night it was spinach, bacon and Hazel Dell mushrooms, Parmigiano-Reggiano -- and drizzled, as always, with some chile-infused olive oil.
Guiltiest food pleasure? I scare myself with my inexplicable periodic lusting for convenience-store "chocolate pie." You know -- those flaky, lard-ridden pastries folded around delicious, delicious, thick, dark chocolate pudding that have been toiling on the shelves since my last visit.
You're at the market. What do you buy two of? Depending on the scene at home, either two packages of size-five diapers or two six-packs of Dale's Pale Ale.
Weirdest customer request: We just had a customer who came in and requested our root beer float French toast topped with green chile. Disgusting.
Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: Probably duck breast carpaccio or pigeon breast seared rare in France while I was there on an apprenticeship. I saw the farmer bring the birds to the back door, so I trusted the product -- and I'm glad I did, because it was really tasty.
If you could cook for one famous chef, dead or alive, who would it be? I'd like to cook for -- and then down a couple of Abitas with -- John Besh. I respect the hell out of him as a chef, but respect him even more for the work he did in post-Katrina New Orleans to help those in need and to maintain the culinary tradition.
Favorite Denver restaurant(s) other than your own: Alex Seidel is on to something special with Fruition. Even if he hadn't started a ten-acre farm to supply himself with goat cheese, greens and other produce but had merely achieved the sublime, creative, seasonal cuisine that he has, I think Fruition would still be in the running for my favorite local restaurant. Once you figure in that deconstructed carbonara dish of his, though, it's game over.
Favorite celebrity chef: Love him or hate him, Anthony Bourdain has maintained an admirable position as an anti-celebrity, keeping his focus on the culture of food and the working men and women in kitchens. I think that he's achieved a special accomplishment with No Reservations in combining -- easily -- the best travel show I've seen with a fascinating and detailed window into the flavors, products and techniques that produce unique food the world over.
Celebrity chef who should shut up: I'd rather punch myself in the head repeatedly before ever again watching Gordon Ramsay give a browbeating to some poor no-talent shlub that he's paraded out before millions of people for surefire humiliation.
Are chefs artists, craftsmen or both? I'd have to punt and say both. A proper sauce requires building blocks, but a great sauce requires an artistic touch or flourish, and it's the same thing with chefs. You can take that metaphor and apply it to cookery. A craftsman is adhering to those building blocks and laying down the foundation, but if you just master those, it doesn't get you to where you're going, so you need to also be an artist to lend the creative flourishes. Ideally, the best chefs master both.
What's your favorite knife? I have a very old set of cleavers that were given to me by my grandparents. They were used by my grandfather and his forebears to break down animals on the family farm back in Missouri. One of them is about eighteen inches long, and both still hold a great edge.
Hardest lesson you've learned: Sometimes, even if you think you're right, "Oui, chef" is the right answer. I was a young know-it-all, and there were multiple incidents where I was hardheaded, yelled and thought I knew everything, when I should have just shut up and moved on. That sort of humility becomes even more important when you're the one in command.
Last meal before you die: A carnitas burrito smothered in green chile.
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