Chef and Tell, part two: Zi Fusion's Rhett Songer on more of the F-word, a pompous prick and being wine-drunk
This is part two of Lori Midson's interview with Rhett Songer, executive chef of Zi Fusion. In part one of that interview, Songer dishes on the F-word, racism and sexism and eating a puppy...dog.
What you'd like to see more of in Denver from a culinary standpoint: I'd really like to see chefs putting a little more work into making things from scratch. It makes a huge difference when we make our own pasta, pita bread, tortillas -- whatever. We're becoming a society of convenience way too quickly, and some things are just too good to be lost. A simple plate of homemade pasta with a good Bolognese is such a beautiful thing, but very rare these days.
What you'd like to see less of in Denver from a culinary standpoint: I'd love to see people's fear of fusion cuisine disappear and fewer places afraid to call themselves "fusion." If that's what you are, be proud of it. Just make sure your dishes make sense and your cooking techniques are solid. As a society, we're becoming more and more fused, whether you like it or not, and it's only natural that food follows suit. I've learned a lot during the opening of Zi, and our owner has been like a father to me. I'll proudly take what he's taught me and use it to make dishes that represent both of us.
Current Denver culinary genius: To be honest, I have no idea who's a genius and who isn't, but I'm a big fan of Lon Symensma from ChoLon. He seems like an honestly good guy, and I've eaten at ChoLon and was pretty impressed. I would definitely want to befriend him -- and for me that says a lot.
Favorite Denver restaurants other than your own: Arada, Damascus Grill and Purple Ginger. I love authentic ethnic cuisine, and while I could go through the list of all the fine-dining places I love, I really don't go to those places too often -- I'm a working stiff. I will say that Solera, Jax and ChoLon are all doing a fine job, though.
Favorite restaurant in America: Nobu in Las Vegas. I'd fly to Vegas just to eat there again. Everything was beautiful, the presentations blew me away, and everything had been impeccably prepared.
Best food city in America: If you want a sure thing, Las Vegas is hard to beat. I love Guy Savoy, Nobu and Bouchon, just to name a few.
Favorite music to cook by: I've got to have music that fits the mood of the day, so we listen to anything from the Clash and Langhorne Slim to Otis Redding and Marvin Gaye. One of the best things I've ever experienced in a kitchen was an impromptu musical to "Bohemian Rhapsody," by Queen. It was hilarious and looked rehearsed, but it was just a bunch of us prepping for a dinner function. Before that night, I never thought things like that happened in real life -- just in bad movies.
One book every chef should read: Anything by Tom Robbins, because as chefs, we, more than most, need a good laugh at the end of the day. I recommend Jitterbug Perfume. It's his best work, in my opinion.
What show would you pitch to the Food Network, and what would it be about? I'd want to pitch a reality show that truly depicts the real life of a chef -- one that shows the headaches and heartaches, what it's like to work a sixteen-hour shift on your feet, the stress it puts on your personal life, the addictions, the failed marriages...all of that truly goes with being a chef. I think all these youngsters going to culinary school need to know the true story before they come into this business all disillusioned. It's hard work, with a lot of pitfalls and a lot of hours, although if you ask me if I regret any of it, I'll tell you no every time -- but even I know that's a little sick.
You're making a pizza. What's on it? Capicola, aged pepperoni, jalapeños and three or four beautiful cheeses. Damn, now I'm hungry.
You're at the market. What do you buy two of? Two bottles of good, old-world French red wine.
What's the best food- or kitchen-related gift you've ever received? The respect of my cooks and fellow chefs. It means more than anything to me to be respected by those who really know and understand what we do.
Guiltiest food pleasure? Foie gras. I've watched the PETA videos, and I know how inhumane it is, but God, is it good. I've sworn off it, but I can't swear that if you put a plate of tournedos Rossini in front of me, I won't eat it.
Best culinary tip for a home cook: If you want to try to make your own version of a dish, make it in the most traditional way first so you truly understand the essence of what it is. The worst thing you can do is bastardize a dish you don't truly understand.
If you could cook for one famous chef, dead or alive, who would it be? Paul Prudhomme. I had the opportunity to talk to him on the phone when I was sixteen, and he was one of the most wonderfully supportive people I've ever spoken to; he made me realize that this is something that I truly wanted. I would just really love to show him the fruit of his inspiration.
Favorite celebrity chef: Nobu Matsuhisa. He continually pushes the envelope and creates original ideas, which impresses me more than anything, but if you try the food, it's all truly wonderful and well thought out.
Celebrity chef who should shut up: I hate Bobby Flay. He's a pompous, arrogant prick who's beyond overrated, and having a show where you go around trying to prove to people that you're better than they are at their own specialty is horrible. FU, Bobby Flay Fu.
Are chefs artists or craftsmen or both? I would definitely say both. The artist creates and the utilitarian craftsman makes it reproducible and consistent. If you can't be both, you can't truly be successful in this business.
What's your favorite knife? A good, sharp eight-inch French chef's knife with some weight. There aren't too many things you can't do with one of those, because they truly are the jack-of-all-trades in the knife world.
What's next for you? I'm a bit wine-drunk after doing the world's longest questionnaire, so I'm kind of hoping for bed. After that I want to make Zi a success with all of your help, then open a small pizza place with three taps, a jukebox with nothing but music I like, a pool table and a couple of video games -- specifically, a cocktail sit-down Centipede game and Galaga. And then I want to retire and write children's books and enjoy life. I've got about five finished, all of which are influenced by Shel Silverstein.
Last meal before you die: Homemade pasta with Bolognese. I can't think of a better meal to comfort me before I kick the bucket.
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