Corey Cunningham has cooked for Bill Cosby, former presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, NASCAR and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame -- and he also once gave a cigarette to Queen Latifah. "Cooking for Bush was wild," recalls Cunningham, the executive chef at Baur's Ristorante. "There was a posse of Secret Service standing next to me and looking over my shoulder the entire time I was cooking, and they insisted on tasting everything I made. All that, and I never even got to meet Bush."
The thirty-year-old chef, who was born in Loveland and then bounced around New York, New Jersey and California, enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park -- a decision, he says, that was all about advancement of his culinary career. "I wanted to learn the simple steps to making a dish, the proper way to sauté and grill, and I wanted to have a degree so that I knew I'd really accomplished something," explains Cunningham, who graduated CIA when he was just twenty years old. "To make it all the way through the curriculum, when something like 50 to 60 percent of students drop out completely or have to take classes over again, was a huge accomplishment."
So, too, was nailing at a job at Stonehill Tavern, a restaurant at the St. Regis in Monarch Beach, California, run by hot-shot chef Michael Mina. "I met Michael on my very first day of work, while he was doing a celebrity chef dinner," remembers Cunningham. "And then I never saw him again, which is what happens, I guess, when you're opening a million restaurants." Still, he says, it was "a great learning experience that taught me to really appreciate the value of working with good ingredients and to treat those ingredients with as much respect as possible."
Which is an axiom that Cunningham brought with him to Baur's, after returning to Colorado almost three years ago. "I'm all about great ingredients that haven't been bastardized by chemicals or subjected to overwrought preparations, and I love putting together a dish that's all mine, because it's like painting a picture, except you have the instant gratification of seeing people eat your food and telling you, hopefully, that they love it," he says. In the following interview, Cunningham talks more about his cooking philosophies, as well as his deference to swine and indifference to prima donna chefs.
Six words to describe your food: Simple, fresh, local, creative, approachable and seasonal.
Ten words to describe you: Outgoing, spontaneous, creative, funny, active, adventurous, loving, friendly and career-driven.
Favorite ingredient: Pork. Not only is it an amazing ingredient, but it's also a great cooking vessel. Instead of vegetable oil, I use rendered pork fat to cook other ingredients. I often use bacon or prosciutto to hold a dish together, and knuckles and feet for flavoring. Pork is unbelievably versatile.
Favorite thing to cook at home: Soft tacos with pintos cooked all day in the crockpot, ground beef, pico de gallo and cheddar and Jack cheeses in a flour tortilla.
Best recent food find: Niman Ranch guanciale. It's just so tender, with a great fat cap on it, lots of herbs and a delicious, salty flavor. I think of it as a high-end cross of bacon, prosciutto and pancetta.
Most overrated ingredient: Filet mignon. People think that it's high-class food, but there are so many other cuts of meat that are far more preferable. Filet mignon lacks the fat and flavor that other steaks have. I'd take a sirloin or a New York strip over a filet any day.
Most undervalued ingredient: Fresh lemon juice. It can greatly enhance the flavor profile of foods, whether you're using it in sweet preparations or in savory ones. I often use it instead of salt to bring out the natural flavors of a dish, or a sauce, or a marinade. When I go out to dinner, I'll never ask for salt to season a dish, but I will ask for a wedge of lemon.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: Palisade peaches. I do a grilled-peach salsa and a peach purée that's great; I use them in salad dressings and cobblers, and I love grilling them, because the sear adds just a little bitterness to counteract the sweetness.
One food you detest: Sea urchin. I have some food-texture issues, and sea urchin is the worst; I don't like anything that's just mush.
One food you can't live without: Bacon. Let's face it: It tastes great with almost anything you put with it.
If you could, what would you add to your menu? I'd love to do veal cheeks, a monkfish osso buco and foie gras.
Rules of conduct in your kitchen: I'm the boss. If I show you how I want something done, don't do it a different way. If you want to come to me with an idea, I welcome that, but don't do something the opposite way of what I've taught you. I encourage my cooks to follow the chain of command, to respect each other, the food, the ingredients and our customers. I want my cooks to feel as proud as I do about what we're serving. Each person has their respected job to do, but if I need to pull you off and move you to another station -- if someone is slammed and needs help -- I don't expect you to say, "That's not my job." Also, if you don't know how to work with an ingredient, leave it the hell alone. Food isn't like wood or metal: If you screw food up, you can't always fix it, so get it right the first time.
What's never in your kitchen? Liquid Smoke. If you want to add the flavor of smoke, use wood chips or bacon -- anything but Liquid Smoke. It's way too overpowering, and when you get it on your hands, they stink for weeks.
What you'd like to see more of in Denver from a culinary standpoint: More chef-driven restaurants rather than business-driven restaurants. The bottom line is important, obviously, but ultimately, restaurants should be about expressing creativity and passion. The people who do the hard work should be appreciated. Employees are your internal guests; you need to take care of them before you can take care of your external guests.
What you'd like to see less of in Denver from a culinary standpoint: Prima donna chefs. We have a lot of passionate chefs in Denver who are in this business for all the right reasons, but the chefs who think they're above it all -- that their food is above it all -- piss me off.
Current Denver culinary genius: James Rugile at Venue. Considering how young he is, he's unbelievably focused. He just really seems to get it, and he just does everything really, really well. I love the restaurant. And I love that you can see right into the kitchen.
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SHOW ME HOW
What's your favorite knife? My boning knife. I use it not only for butchering, but for many other things, too, like cutting small, intricate decorative garnishes. I can do most anything with it.
Hardest lesson you've learned: Managing people has been one of the hardest things I've had to learn since I've been an executive chef. When I was growing up and cooking, I always worked for someone else. Now that I have people working for me, I've had to learn to deal with things like people getting sick or just not showing up for work. That said, I treat my cooks with as much respect as I would expect from them. I've learned that, by and large, if you treat people well, they'll be loyal and reliable.
What's next for you? I'd really like to have my own place at one point. I want to create a place where someone who wants to cook a dinner at home but doesn't have the time to do all the preparation can place an order and we'll prep it completely for them -- the kind of place where you can buy a quart of demi-glace, a quart of my marinara, some chicken stock, maybe chicken parmesan for four people -- and we'll do almost everything on our end and send you home with instructions on how to cook everything. I guess you could call it a market/restaurant/catering operation, with six or seven tables if you want to eat in and a small, seasonal menu that changes every week.
To read the rest of Lori Midson's interview with Corey Cunningham, click here.