"Ever since I saw Grover waiting tables on Sesame Street, I knew I wanted to work in restaurants," says Paul Reilly. And he didn't waste much time following in Grover's footsteps, considering that he got his first taste of restaurant life while washing dishes in a German joint at the age of fourteen.
Reilly, now the kitchen magician at Encore, the regional American food temple (and home of the best fries on the planet) in the Lowenstein complex, sharpened his knives at several restaurants in the Hudson Valley before moving to Colorado in 1995, where he put in time at Dandelion, a Kevin Taylor restaurant, as well as 221 Oak and Allred's in Telluride. He eventually headed back to New York to attend the French Culinary Institute and then continued to hone his craft in noted Big Apple kitchens, including Danal, a French-Mediterranean restaurant that was awarded two stars from then-New York Times restaurant critic Bill Grimes.
In 2004, Reilly moved back to Denver, where he opened Mirepoix (now Second Home Kitchen and Bar) with Bryan Moscatello, then did a stint as executive chef at Mona's before taking a sous chef job at Black Pearl. From there, he moved to sibling restaurant Encore, where he was promoted to executive chef following the recent departure of Sean Huggard. "Being a chef has been the best damn experience of my life," says Reilly, who also freely admits that he can't live without coffee, despises hard-boiled eggs (but loves them scrambled or over easy), doesn't understand Denver's obsession with green chile, and wonders when it became necessary for restaurants to stock baby slings.
Six words to describe your food: Simple riffs on the American kitchen.
Ten words to describe you: Loud, infectious, impatient, raconteur, debonair, imaginative, husband, father, son and chef.
Favorite ingredient: Lemon. For years, I've taught cooks under me that salt breaths life into food, but lemon is the alarm clock that wakes food up and brings it around to its full potential. Every time I'm stumped on a dish, I add a drop of fresh-squeezed lemon and it comes to life.
Most overrated ingredient: Salt. I don't know how we'd cook without it, but how many times do you hear someone complain that a dish is too salty, or that it shouldn't be made with salt at all? It's overused, and I'm totally guilty of overusing it myself, but I think that people's palates are extremely discerning toward salt -- more so than with any other ingredient. It's a tricky slope to tread.
Most undervalued ingredient: Tarragon. It's my favorite herb. So many times when people eat my food and they can't quite put their finger on why they're enjoying it, I'm sure it's because of tarragon. It gives the dish a "Why am I enjoying this so much?" feeling.
One food you detest: I hate hard-boiled eggs! Hate them! It's a long story that involves my youth, a playground on Long Island, a sweltering 98-degree summer day, a picnic lunch, too much iced tea and a merry-go-round swing. You fill in the gaps.
One food you can't live without: Coffee. Need it first thing in the morning, have it when I first get to work, have it again after lunch and then right before dinner. It's my friend, my blanket of comfort, my solace and my pick-me-up.
Favorite local ingredient: We get the most beautiful micro-greens, micro-herbs and salad greens from Josh Halder at Verde Farms. He's a former cook, so he knows exactly what chefs like and want. Not only are they the perfect aesthetic finisher to our dishes, but they taste unbelievably good, too.
Most embarrassing moment in the kitchen: I moved back to Denver to take a job at Mirepoix under Bryan Moscatello, who opened Adega. Because I was living in Brooklyn, I was about two days behind the rest of the kitchen as we were preparing to open the new restaurant. On my first day there, no one knew me, so I'm a bull in a china shop trying to show off the fact that I'm the new kid from NYC that's gonna cook circles around the guys in the kitchen. I volunteered to make duck-liver sausage, which was going to be the accompaniment to the seared duck breast, one of the signature dinner dishes, and I'd barely begun to grind the meat when I realized I had the blade in backwards. So I took it over to the dish station and started to clean the whole thing out. As I dropped the blade in the sink, the dishwasher turned on the disposal...so not even two hours into my new job, it was goodbye grinder. Later I heard chef Bryan lean over to our sommelier and whisper, "Who hired this fucking kid? I can't let him ruin my new restaurant." It took a week to get a new blade, and I don't think that exact dish ever made it on the menu.
Proudest moment as a chef: Every day that I walk through the kitchen door at Encore, I'm proud to be a chef...but I think that all the philanthropy we do around town is when my proudest moments really hit home. We work in an industry that's all about self-promotion and prima donnas, especially among chefs. It's often all about us and our restaurants, so when I work with organizations like Project Angel Heart, Operation Frontline, American Liver Society and the Christopher Reeve Foundation -- just to name a few -- I'm contributing my talents to help others. Those are proud moments for me.
What you'd like to see more of in Denver from a culinary standpoint: I'd like to see more Denver diners taking chances. We have a plethora of great chefs with great restaurants and great imaginations. We all joke about it, but it's a shame that so many diners always fall back on the ubiquitous green-chile-smothered breakfast burrito, peppercorn-crusted steak or cheeseburger. Those dishes are fine in their own right, and we put them on our menus to appease the masses, but I really wish that diners would be a bit more adventurous.
What you'd like to see less of in Denver from a culinary standpoint: Green chile. I know it's a local treasure, but I just don't get it. Sometimes it actually grosses me out. And every brunch menu in town has some gringo version -- mine included.
Current Denver culinary genius: Tyler Wiard, the executive chef at Elway's Cherry Creek. Most people only think of Elway's as a great steakhouse, but I've been lucky enough to do several charity events around town with Tyler when he's cooking off the menu -- and that's where his creativity truly shines. His food knocks it out of the park every time.
Denver has the best: Neighborhoods for eating and drinking. I love all the different sections of Denver, each with their own look, residents, restaurants and bars. I don't think most outsiders realize how diverse Denver really is. It's fun to drive people from out of state around and explain each neighborhood's name and history.
Denver has the worst: Food delivery. It's either pizza or Chinese -- and that's it. I'd love to see some good Mediterranean, Thai or healthy Mexican restaurants with delivery options.
Weirdest customer request: A woman recently came in with an infant and asked if we had a sling...so she could breastfeed. And then she was furious that we didn't have one. Um, since when did restaurants start carrying slings? The funniest thing is that I initially thought she was talking about a Singapore Sling...
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Hardest lesson you've learned: It was Thanksgiving weekend in New York, and I was hung over from a long night out. I got on the line and just completely embarrassed myself: My station wasn't ready, I was way behind and I undercooked things. I apologized to my chef and promised that it would never happen again. Of course, he said that it would happen again...but that if I learned from my mistakes, I'd become a better cook. He was right. That day was all about humility, and when I was a younger cook, I struggled with the humbling aspects of the industry, and I even quit for a few months. I've since learned that a good night is the highest high and a bad night will put you in your place.
What's next for you? Getting up and going into work tomorrow morning, plugging away like I do every day and continuing to make Encore a great restaurant. We've won some great awards, but I still don't think that enough people know what we do and how good we are. My goal is to change that. Eventually I'd like to open a breakfast joint that bridges the gap between the gross-out, hung-over greasy spoons and the high-end joints -- a place where everything is done in-house, from pastries and breakfast meats to even having our own chickens lay the eggs. That's probably years down the line, though. First, I'm gonna watch my son grow up.
For part two of Lori Midson's interview with Paul Reilly, check back here tomorrow.