Chef and Tell: Sean Yontz of Tambien, Sketch and Mezcal
This is part one of a two-part interview. Read part two here.
"Hey, get up, I have something to show you," instructs Sean Yontz as he strides into Sketch, one of the five venues he oversees with business partner Jesse Morreale. And their mini-empire will soon expand to a half-dozen, because Yontz, it turns out, is booting me off my stool to show me his newest restaurant space, a 350-seater (give or take) at the corner of First and Broadway, right around the corner from Sketch.
"I like doing the whole neighborhood thing, and I want to do another place here that suits the neighborhood, just like Mezcal," says Yontz, referring to his and Morreale's rollicking cantina on Colfax. "We're still working on a concept, but we hope to be open by the end of the year." He stops short of discussing what that concept might be, but for anyone familiar with Yontz, the opening chef at Tamayo and now the executive chef at both Tambien and Mezcal, it's not difficult to figure out what food he'll be pushing: Mexican -- maybe with a market peddling fresh tortillas and spices; definitely with an open kitchen, a large bar and a patio. I'm betting on a great tequila and mezcal selection, too.
"It's been a crazy, busy year," admits Yontz. "We never expected to open two restaurants within twelve months of each other, but it looks like that's what's going to happen." In between tossing out cagey teasers for his new place and debating the definition of "fastidious," Yontz also clears the air about his stance on chipotle peppers (overrated) and chicken and beef liver (not a fan), praises Denver's little taco joints (loves 'em) and puts forth a plea for the Food Network to send him on a whirlwind world culinary tour.
Six words to describe your food: Latin, bold, traditional, simple, classic and fun.
Ten words to describe you: Punctual, detailed, observant, organized, passionate, fastidious, loyal, intense, hard-core and introspective.
Proudest moment as a chef: It was 1992, I was 23 years old, and I was in New York to cook at the James Beard House. We had dinner first at Restaurant Daniel, and after dinner, while we were waiting for a taxi, Daniel Boulud came out, introduced himself, and mentioned that he knew we were cooking at the Beard House. That was a major big moment for me. And just to be cooking at the Beard House when I was so young was a huge accomplishment. Back then, you actually had to be invited to cook at the James Beard House. It's not like that now.
Rules of conduct in your kitchens: It's all about teamwork, cleanliness and equality. We all pitch in and help, no matter what the job is. I don't like a lot of talking. I want my cooks to focus on the food.
Favorite ingredient: Chiles. Almost every dish I make has some sort of chile incorporated into it, mostly because they're so versatile. It doesn't matter if they're dried, fresh, pickled, ground or flakes -- chiles just seem to bring out the best in a dish, whether it's fish, meat or pasta. Dried chiles are my favorite for making soups, sauces, salsas and marinades.
Most overrated ingredient: Chipotle peppers. Everywhere you go, someone is doing a chipotle aioli or chipotle barbecue sauce or a chipotle martini. I like chipotles, and I like cooking with them, but enough already. Stop it.
Most undervalued ingredient: Stock. The basis of all cooking comes from a good stock. For an entire year, I worked as a saucier for Jimmy Schmidt, a great restaurateur who would never let me so much as touch meat, fish or vegetables; all I did for a whole year was make stocks and sauces. Then I went to work for Kevin Taylor, and he wouldn't let me make stocks or sauces for almost three years, even though I kept telling him that I could do it. That's when I realized how important making stock was. I explain this to my cooks when it comes to moles or salsas. It's all about technique, consistency and taste. I think veal stock, in particular, is really underutilized. Roasting the bones, cooking them with the vegetables, deglazing and the reduction time -- it all has to be done perfectly, otherwise the stock is no good. Most chefs don't want to spend the time doing it right, so they cut corners or buy it pre-made.
Favorite local ingredient: Queso Campesino. It's handcrafted Mexican cheese that's made in Brush, Colorado. You can find it in almost every market here in town -- and definitely at Avanza.
Most embarrassing moment in the kitchen: I was working as the sous chef at Cliff Young's back in 1989, which was a real experimental time for cooking. I remember seeing a dish with squid ink in a cookbook -- so I decided to test my skills. I made a pasta dish, but instead of squid ink pasta, I did fresh pasta with a squid ink sauce. I made the dish as a nightly special, and while I was explaining the dish to the waitstaff during pre-shift, they all just looked at me like I was crazy. Then they tasted it and said nothing. As the dinner shift started, I noticed that all the waiters had jet-black teeth and gums. Yeah...I had to ditch the squid ink special that night. No surprise that I've never used squid ink since then.
One food you detest: I'm not a real big fan of chicken or beef liver, which is kind of weird, because I love duck liver. I don't really have some crazy story about how my mom would force us to eat liver and onions when we were kids; I just don't like it. I do have a story about a childhood dish my mom would make that I hated: It was this beef and zucchini stir-fry that, for some reason, was awful. Sorry, Mom.
One food you can't live without: Cheese. I was brought up on Mexican cheeses, and when I started cooking, I learned about all sorts of different cheeses and discovered so many different flavors and textures. We get Queso Chihuahua from Mexico, wrapped in newspaper, delivered to Tambien, and it's some of the best cheese I've ever had. Oh, and menudo. I eat menudo at least two or three times a week. I remember when I was about five or six years old, I would spend Saturday nights at my grandmother's house and help her make menudo. She had this pressure cooker that, back then, seemed like this huge steel contraption. We would wake up Sunday mornings, and everybody would stop by her house for a bowl. I can still remember putting butter on the hot homemade tortillas, and the butter would run down my arm as I dipped the tortillas in the menudo.
Denver has the worst: Late-night food joints, diners and delis, and suburban restaurants. I live in the suburbs and can count on one finger how many good restaurants there are within five miles of my house.
Current Denver culinary genius: Hosea Rosenberg, right? What's wrong with that answer? Whatever. I'll give props to Roberto Diaz, my chef de cuisine. He's worked with me for sixteen years, and he literally does everything for me. He's a rock star.
Favorite Denver restaurant other than your own: The food and service is always perfect at Sushi Sasa. Everyone's really friendly, and Wayne Conwell is a great guy. I like his new-style sashimi, the tuna tartare with caviar and the monkfish liver.
Favorite celebrity chef: José Andrés. I'm not real sure how much of a "celebrity" chef he is, but the guy rules. The food he's putting out is amazing, and he's not flashy; he's not that whole Bobby Flay type. He's cool and collected, and his food just kills it.
Celebrity chef that should shut up: I don't give a shit about celebrity chefs. I don't listen or pay attention to any of that.
What's next for you? Mexican hot dogs. Maybe in a new restaurant, maybe in a taco truck, maybe on a street corner, maybe from a pushcart, maybe from a takeout joint. Stay tuned.
For part two of my interview with Sean Yontz, click here.
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