In 1992, Goose Sorensen, then 23, was living in Casper, a fine Wyoming town with bars and brawls and women, but there was something missing, something that Sorensen was longing to have but didn't. That something was -- wait for it -- Bennigan's. "I totally wanted to cook at Bennigan's, so I moved to Denver with my Wranglers, cowboy boots and big jacked-up truck," remembers Sorensen, now the executive chef/owner of Solera. "And you know what? They wouldn't hire me because I didn't have enough experience. The manager told me I wasn't fit to work on the Bennigan's team. I think it's because I was such a redneck."
Dejected but still determined to find a restaurant job in Denver, Sorensen landed a gig as a potato fryer at the former Ruth's Chris Steak House in lower downtown, a stint that led to a chance meeting with Corky Douglas, who owned Tante Louise at the time. Douglas hired Sorensen as a pantry cook, and two weeks later, the former frat boy and Kentucky Fried Chicken alum had been given the title of sauté cook. "I loved working for Corky. It was so much fun, and I learned a ton," recalls Sorensen, who later left that job to complete his degree at the Colorado Institute of Art, a move that landed him in the kitchen of Mel Master. "I had to find a day job while I was finishing my degree, so I walked into Mel's one day, and within like five minutes, I'd walked out to my truck to get my knives, and five minutes after that, I was on the line," he says.
Soon after, Master opened Starfish and hired Sorensen as his sous. Within two weeks there, he was commanding the kitchen. "I really got into my groove and felt totally comfortable cooking," explains Sorensen, who eventually took over Starfish from Master and then got kicked out of the deal because, he says, he "was costing too much."
Sorensen returned to Wyoming, where he oversaw the kitchen at the Saratoga Inn. "I just needed to relax after the whole Denver thing," he says. But he grew restless and longed for the big city, so he went to New York and staged at Aquavit, where owner/chef Marcus Samuelsson offered him a line-cook job. And then came 9/11. "The restaurant was gone, so I picked up my things and moved back to Denver, where I crashed at a friend's pad and started looking for a job," he says. That job was taking over Ambrosia, a flailing restaurant that needed a new lease on life. "I got the executive chef position and later bought the restaurant," Sorensen say of a decision that has caused him years of heartache. He discusses the business partner that nearly drowned him financially, as well as his opinion on chefs named "Frank" and his propensity for parsnips, in the following interview.
Six words to describe your food: Bold, big, flavorful, clean, true and mine.
Ten words (or however many it takes) to describe you: Outdoorsy, adventurous, witty, hardworking, dedicated, funny, passionate, big-hearted, sporty, fun, partier and loving.
Favorite ingredient: Pork. I love cured meats, including sausages of all different kinds and salumi meats like jamón serrano and prosciutto. Bacon is a given, and chorizo is at the top of the list, too. I really love cooking pork for myself at home, because you can do so many great things with it.
Most overrated ingredient: Truffle oil. Chefs abuse it and it's so pungent. If you just use just a little, it's great, but if you abuse it, it'll taste like your brother's gym socks and totally ruin your dish.
Most undervalued ingredient: Parsnips. They're grassy, earthy, almost clove-like and mouth-friendly, and they lend such an amazing flavor and texture to dishes. They're hard for people to pick out as an ingredient in a dish, and you don't see chefs using them very frequently. At Solera, we make a parsnip-and-pear soup with a little blue-cheese crouton that people totally flip over. We even have recipe cards for it. It's very sneaky, the mighty parsnip.
Favorite local ingredient: Spring mushrooms. It's awesome when the hippies show up at the back door of Solera with massive amounts of porcinis, lobster mushrooms, chanterelles and morels. They're always all, dude, can you pay me cash?
Rules of conduct in your kitchen: When the servers come into the kitchen and address the line, I ask them to say, "Chef, can I speak?," especially when we're busy. I also ask that everything in the kitchen is marked and wrapped at the end of the night. I ain't your mama, so clean your shit up and keep it clean.
What's never in your kitchen? Chefs named Frank.
What you'd like to see more of in Denver from a culinary standpoint: Better food execution. I think that when chefs put what they think are rock-star dishes on their menus, they can at least execute them well. The plates shouldn't look like '80s tower-crazy food.
What you'd like to see less of in Denver from a culinary standpoint: Chefs stealing dishes from other chefs and putting them on their own menu exactly as they're written on the menus they stole from. You're a chef: What happened to originality?
What show would you pitch to the Food Network, and what would it be about? Useless kitchen gadgets and putting them through rigorous testing to see if they're actually worth a shit or not. If they suck, then we'd throw them in a huge blender to be crushed and never heard from again.
You're at the market. What do you buy two of? Pigs and cases of beer, and when I go to Marczyk Fine Foods, I always come home with a lot of cheese.
Weirdest customer request: A couple who are regulars at Solera once asked if I would marry their daughter. I told them I'd need to see a picture before I committed. She was cute...but lacto-intolerant. And she was way too young.
Best culinary tip for a home cook: Don't fuck with your food. Don't shake it, don't prod it, don't poke it, don't wiggle it, don't breathe on it -- just let the food do its damn thing. Once you start cooking something and then stop it, it's not going to cook right. And flipping anything more than once? That's the ultimate sin.
Favorite celebrity chef: Jamie Oliver. He's not a dick and truly loves food.
Celebrity chef who should shut up: Rachael Ray. She looks like the Joker.
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Hardest lesson you've learned: I had a business partner that I trusted who really screwed me over and made my life hell for five years. I learned all sorts of lessons from that experience: I've grown as a businessman, I've learned the value of not being the trusting guy, and I've learned to not let mean people take advantage of me. But on the positive side, that experience forced me to learn all of the aspects of running a restaurant, including picking the wines and dealing with scumbag lawyers who want to suck you dry, and working on improving relationships with purveyors who were there for me when the chips were down.
What's next for you? Everyone always asks me when I am going to open another place, but right now I'm happy with Solera and the way that our neighborhood is growing up. We booted all of the hookers out, and now there's a huge interest in rejuvenating East Colfax, so I'm keeping my ears and eyes open for spaces in my own neck of the woods. I'm curious to see what happens after the first of the year in Denver with a lot of restaurants. So many people are hurting, which sucks, but a guy could probably slide into some really good deals on restaurant spaces. Maybe me. We'll see.
To read the rest of Lori Midson's interview with Goose Sorensen, click here.