"I haven't had lunch yet," sighs Kyle Fitzgerald, plopping himself down on a stool. Soon a vase of flat tubers fried in duck fat arrives at the bar with three dipping sauces. "The duck-fat fries have always been popular," he says, but "we're always trying to make them better." He picks up a fry and hands it over. "What do you think?" he asks, leaning forward. I stick the fry in my mouth and nod my head in approval, which seems to make Fitzgerald happy.
"I'm happier than I've been in months," admits the executive chef of the Old Blinking Light, the Highlands Ranch outpost of the Taos restaurant owned by Joseph Wrede, a Food & Wine magazine Best New Chef winner. He pauses and downs a few more fries before continuing. "There was a point, though, not too many months ago, when I thought we were going to close," confesses Fitzgerald, who credits his kitchen crew for fighting "to save all of our asses, to fight for our jobs and to prove how much they wanted this restaurant to succeed."
Fitzgerald, who's only been cooking at the Old Blinking Light for eight months, got the kitchen itch eight years ago, when he took a job as a banquet kitchen cook at the Adam's Mark (now the Sheraton Downtown Denver). From there, he did time in the galleys at Ted's Montana Grill, Tony's Market, Thëorie and the Golf Club at Ravenna before landing the top spot at the Old Blinking Light. "I came on as sous and was kind of handed the exec position after the former executive chef was escorted out," he recalls. "It used to be fusion-crazy food here, and the prices were being jacked up, so when I took over, we analyzed ourselves and really started to care about what our customers thought. Things are beautiful now. We cleared our path, improved our food and deleted a lot of the obstacles in our way to success."
Between bites of those fries crisped in duck fat, Fitzgerald talks about egos and duck confit hot dogs, Ultra-Tex 3 and 8 and molecular gastronomy, and what he might do to you if you throw a fist in his kitchen.
Six words to describe your food: Seasonal, seasoned, balanced, comforting, clean and approachable.
Ten words to describe you: Leader, explorer, stuntman, dad, patient, conqueror, artist, fighter, student and passionate.
Favorite ingredient: I'm always looking outside of my comfort zone to discover new ingredients or cooking chemicals to make something classic new and interesting. I've got at least two new spices or two new chemicals to play with every month. But if I had to choose one, it would most likely be Ultra-Tex 3 or 8, a modified starch derived from tapioca. I haven't used too much of either, but we've made some crazy dishes with both. On the more natural side, I'd have to say pork. You can cover so many of the common tastes with a whole pig -- everything from salty bacon to a maple-glazed pork loin.
Most overrated ingredient: Asparagus. It's never in season when you want to use it, yet some restaurants still insist on using it year-round. I don't really think that people use it for its flavor so much as for presentation and to make sure there's some green on the plate. Please find a new dead horse to kick.
Most undervalued ingredient: Love. I know that sounds kind of cheesy, but way too many plates go out in high-end places that look and taste like they've been created by robots. Great chefs make their food with love. I took ribs that used to take us, at the most, three hours to make and turned it into a twelve-hour process, and now people say they're the best ribs around. I know they'd take a medal in the South at a competition, but they have a six-hour smoking process and then another four-hour braising process, plus a night in the liquid to let them rest. Love is what makes the whole process worth it. If you don't want your food to show love, go ahead and press the number-three button on the microwave, unwrap the plastic tray and place it on a plate. If there's love in the food, it'll show in the flavors and technique.
Favorite local ingredient: Palisade peaches. I get the baseball- to softball-sized ones about a month before anyone else, and they only charge me for the gas. I'm not giving up my sources.
Rules of conduct in your kitchen: Leave the drama behind and just cook. Work clean and never think that someone else will get your stuff for you. Respect your ingredients, because farmers and ranchers all work for pennies, and when all is said and done, it's the least we can do in return. My restaurant is a sanctuary -- sometimes people save up all year for the meal they get at my restaurant -- and we should never let customers leave angry or disappointed. I never allow cell phones, either.
One food you detest: The hot dogs with the cheese filling in them. I have a very graphic memory of my first Cheddarwurst. The day was like any other day in my ten-year-old life, when we attended a family barbecue at a friend's house. I was handed what seemed to be a normal lukewarm brat with all the fixings on it. I remember looking at the tip of one of the ends and seeing a little spitting hole and thinking that it was going to be a juicy and awesome brat. I bit down, only to feel the liquid hot magma flow free from the inside of the meat dragon's belly. Not only was my mouth burnt, but it was full of that crappy fake cheese taste. I was totally scorned by a hot dog. I have a great concept to counteract whosever horrible idea that was with my next food venture in LoDo.
One food you can't live without: Pizza. I like foods that are self-contained and need minimum silverware to eat, and I like foods that I can eat cold, and pizza is the best chef breakfast on the way out the door. I can't live without onions, either. I love how many things you can do with them just by playing off of their natural acids and sugars.
Culinarily speaking, Denver has the best: Opportunity for new chefs. I feel like Denver still has a lot of real estate open for great spots and concepts. I don't think we'll see anything crazy-big pop up soon, but give us another two to three years...
Culinarily speaking, Denver has the worst: Line cooks. Everyone wants twenty bucks an hour, but they'll only give you eight dollars' worth of effort. Good line cooks are few and far between. I can honestly say that line cooks in my end of town start an interview with some sort of insult to my business or by telling me how great the last kitchen they quit on was. They seem to be more interested in how quickly they can get their name on their coat and the title of "chef." I know that there are plenty of cooks that have good intentions, but I've only found four, and they work for me now. I have some of the most grateful line cooks, who always give me so much more than what I ask.
Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: Chicken feet. The weirdest thing is that I didn't think that they were going to be so good. Now I run down to Federal all the time to get chicken feet. And I once ate fermented soybean curd at this little place behind Sakura Square. It was really gooey and soupy, and I had a hell of a time trying to eat it with chopsticks. The whole time I was trying to eat it, as it was floating away from me, this little old lady sitting in the corner was laughing and pointing at me. Thanks for that.
Weirdest customer request: A quesadilla with no dairy. Are you kidding me? That and an order of crème brûlée to go. You want custard in a box with a burnt top? And you want it to go? It's not a Jell-O Pudding Pop.
Current Denver culinary genius: Deryk Schnepf, the former executive chef at Bravo! and Nine75 in Westminster, who's now with Biscuits and Berries catering company. He's a great chef, a walking encyclopedia of food who was schooling chefs twice his age before he was even 25, and even though he's four years younger than me, I still look up to him for recipes and ideas. He's doing catering right now, but when he's in a restaurant, you can tell that his energy shoots a little higher. His food is bold and clean, and I love the combos and creativity that he brings to his ingredients. He hasn't had his big break yet, but when he does, it's going to change a lot of what Colorado wants from chefs and their expectations of dining. He totally knows how to throw down.
You're making a pizza. What's on it? Jalapeños, white sauce, bacon powder, candied salmon, brie and fresh basil. Someone should just call me a cab to the nearest heart doctor.
You're making an omelet. What's in it? Duck confit, sweet onions, and good chile caribe served with brioche toast and orange marmalade.
Best culinary tip for a home cook: Stop using steak knives to cut everything and buy a set that costs more than $100. Trust me: Your fingers and food will look much better. Beyond that, make sure you prep ahead of time. There's nothing worse than having your hand stuck up the ass of a raw chicken while your kids are crying at your pant leg, and your guests are left to wander around your house. Do all your cuts and sauces two hours before or even the night before, and have it all placed together like the chefs on TV so when you go to create your dishes, all the prep is done and right at your finger tips.
Favorite knife: I'm going to go Plain Jane on this and say my WÜSTHOF chef's knife. It's a classic ten-inch chef's knife. It's hurt me, I've hurt it, and we're still together.
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Favorite Denver restaurant(s) other than your own: I love food too much to play the favorites game with a select group of restaurants. Essentially, I love the places that change their menu more than twice a year. I liked Beatrice & Woodsley a lot when I had dinner there during the summer, and really liked Simms Steakhouse for their salads and soufflé bread. Root Down has one of the best scallop dishes I've had in a while, and I'll be at TAG soon, because Troy Guard seems to be killing the dumpling scene.
What's next for you? I want to do an after-hours gourmet hot dog truck in LoDo. I hate the fact that most of my downtown friends get off work and can't find anywhere to eat except for Taco Hell. When my hot dog truck launches, I'll core the dog and shoot it up with macaroni and cheese, or do a fantastic duck-confit dog, and people will wonder why these flavors and combos have never been placed on a hot dog before. There's a market in the drunken appetites of LoDo after midnight, and just because the party at the bar has come to an end, it doesn't mean the food has to end, too. I want to keep the party going but serve gourmet food that doesn't leave people with heartburn and a headache. I'm looking for funding, if anyone has any money.
Click here to read part two of Midson's interview with Kyle Fitzgerald.