"It was a step off the cliff for sure, but at the same time, I just knew that I was a good fit for the job," says Brian Laird of Barolo Grill, the Northern Italian restaurant whose kitchen Laird has cooked in for the past twelve years -- the last eight as the executive chef, a position he snagged after walking off the line one night following a blowup with Barolo's former guard. "Whether or not I was prepared to take that job, I don't know, but it was a huge pat on the back and I have a great life because of it," he confesses. "This is my livelihood, and I think I must be doing okay -- that we must be doing a good job -- because I haven't had to hire a new face in the kitchen in five years."
Laird grew up in northern California, close to the wine country, farmers' markets and several culinary schools, but he snubbed the textbook and polished kitchen route to work his way up and down the California coast, fine-tuning his talent in real-world galleys. In 1994 he relocated to Denver, where he worked with Kevin Taylor at Zenith. Then in 1996, Blair Taylor, owner of Barolo Grill, snatched him up. "I love this job and can't imagine doing anything else -- except maybe another project with Blair," reveals Laird, who recently sat down to talk about what that project might be, as well as "The Night the Former Chef Departed," his addiction to the barbacoa tacos at El Taco de México and how he's gone from a guy who used to throw temper tantrums to a single father who wants his kid to know that there's more to life than just food.
Six words to describe your cooking style: Simple, fresh, clean, thoughtful, consistent and delicious.
Ten words to describe you: Dad, respectful, giving, stubborn, hardworking, active, enthusiastic and occasionally ornery. Is this for a singles ad?
Culinary inspirations: Blair Taylor and, in turn, Italy. Blair was the first person to take me to Italy and open my eyes to Italian cuisine, and it was there that I really began to understand the virtues of simplicity, which is what that culture had been perfecting for years and years. There was a chef there, Massimo Camia, who has a one-star Michelin restaurant in Barolo called Locanda Borgo Antico, and this guy took me seriously enough to let me cook and share recipes and ideas with me. Both he and Blair offered me such great experiences at such an early age. Traveling, dining out and eating are certainly the main inspirations for my cooking. Put it this way: I've been to Italy several times, and I've never seen a museum. I go to eat, drink and be inspired the cuisine.
Proudest moment as a chef: We'll call it "The Night the Former Chef Departed." I was working as the sous chef at Barolo, and it was a frustrating time for all of us. We were all young and trying to move our careers forward, and the executive chef at the time wasn't there very often, and when he was there, it was all about the pickles -- he's one of the founders of a local restaurant chain with "pickle" in its name -- so he wasn't concentrating on his job. But then came a beautiful moment: The exec chef came in one night, totally unprepared and messing around, and decided he was going to have an issue with me. And then he fired me. I threw my tongs down, and everyone else in the kitchen, including the dishwasher, followed suit. The GM begged us to come back, so we got back on the line and cooked while the chef went to go clean wine glasses. I went to California on vacation, and when I came back, that guy was gone and I was offered his job. I was just 26 years old when Blair gave me the opportunity to take over the kitchen at Barolo, and twelve years later, it's still my proudest moment.
Favorite ingredient: What I reach for the most on an everyday basis is very good olive oil. It just brightens up the cuisine we do at Barolo. Other than that, it's white truffles.
Most overrated ingredient: Truffle oil. It isn't a real ingredient -- it's synthetic and nasty -- and way too many chefs overuse it.
Most undervalued ingredient: Duck fat. We love using it at Barolo. I'll often substitute duck fat for butter, just because it adds so much more body and depth to a dish.
Favorite local ingredient: Our house duckling. Grant Family Farms raises them for us organically, and they're so unbelievably fresh that they're usually processed just a day or two before we get them at the restaurant. We typically go through forty ducklings a week at the restaurant, but we couldn't find anyone who could keep up with what we needed until we talked to the guys at Grant. They've done a really fantastic job for us.
One food you detest: "Detest" is such a harsh word for a chef. I'll eat anything when it comes to our normal everyday eating experiences, although I have to admit that I'm not a big fan of beets. Or catfish, carp or any other bottom-feeder: They all taste like dirt.
One food you can't live without: Tacos. There aren't too many things I'd want to eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner, but I can eat different tacos for weeks. I really love the barbacoa tacos from El Taco de México.
Most embarrassing moment in the kitchen: When my Hercules of a line cook, obviously on steroids, somehow squeezed out two feet of plastic wrap in the mashed potatoes, which got past everyone but the customer. I'm not kidding: The dude somehow managed to squeeze plastic wrap through the piping and into the mashed potatoes, and this poor woman puts her fork in there and pulls out two feet of plastic wrap. And then to top it off, the waiter comes into the kitchen and says, "Hey, chef, is this supposed to be in here?" The truth, though, is that anytime a customer sends a dish back, it's embarrassing.
Rules of conduct in your kitchen: Show up every day, work hard, have your station set up by 5 p.m., be creative with the ingredients that we have on hand -- especially in the winter, since that's when the growing season in Colorado is dormant -- and consistently put a great product on the plate every time. I'm pretty easygoing when things are going well, and I'm lucky in that I haven't had to hire any kitchen staff in a long, long time. I've found that self-management works really well, so we don't have a lot of harsh rules.
What's never in your kitchen? Waiters. I can't ever seem to find them. Just kidding. There's never a microwave in my kitchen, at home or at work.
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SHOW ME HOW
Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: Horse carpaccio, a bowl of raw minnows still moving with olive oil and lemon juice, and boiled cow face. Then again, what's weird to me may be not be strange to someone else.
Weirdest customer request: That's a tough question, because it's often hard to tell what's legitimately weird since food allergies and dietary restrictions are so prevalent. But I definitely think some people may use those kinds of excuses to get out of trying something new. We do have this one guy, though, who occasionally comes in and says, "We brought our own food in. Can you warm it for us?" His wife eats off the menu, but seriously, he'll bring in his own food and ask us to cook it for him. It's normally store-bought pasta and meat sauce. We also had someone say, "I'd like the table sauce for the bread sticks in a soup bowl, please." People are interesting.
Hardest lesson you've learned: My temper and stubbornness is never going to solve problems. I used to be really hot-headed about things, to the point where I'd jump up and down and yell and scream, just to prove my point, but at the end of the night, it's just food, right? I'm night and day from where I was three or four years ago, and I've learned that there's so much more to life -- being a great dad, for instance, which is very important to me. There are still things about myself that I'm trying to improve, good things that I want to pass on to my son.
What's next for you? I'm a happy man right where I am at this moment. There are plenty of other chefs taking over the world. That said, what, for example, would you think about a Barolo Grill retail shop somewhere, maybe in Highland? You know, possibly bringing a bit of Barolo to the retail market. But who knows, right? Who knows? Wait. I do know this: I want to retire in Maui.