"It wasn't supposed to happen this fast," says Lance Barto, shaking his head. The 27-year-old chef, who was promoted back in February to the chief kitchen post at Strings following the departure of Aaron Whitcomb (who's now at Yia-Yia's Euro Bistro), still seems shocked by the news. "A lot of people with way more experience than I have aren't where I'm at, so I feel really lucky and blessed by the opportunity," he confesses.
Barto was born and raised in Arvada before eventually taking off for Oklahoma, where he studied architecture at Oklahoma State University. He chucked that program after a year and moved back to Denver, where he started to cook professionally to put himself through college at Metro. "I worked at the Wynkoop as a prep cook, and within six months, I was running the line at night," he remembers. "I left to work as a line cook at Zengo and then went to Palomino as a line cook, where I became more and more successful." In fact, says Barto, he had just become eligible for Palomino's corporate sous chef training program when the restaurant announced it was closing. (PrimeBar now occupies its former home on the 16th Street Mall.)
His Palomino gig reinforced Barto's passion for cooking. "My aha moment initially came when I got a Thomas Keller cookbook two years ago for Christmas, but while I was cooking at Palomino, I realized that I was really in love with cooking, that I wanted this as my career -- and, to be honest, I really couldn't afford college any longer, so I let it go," he says.
And then he found himself in the kitchen of Noel Cunningham's iconic restaurant. "We're on the right path," Barto says of Strings. "I want to take it back to where it was in its heyday. We're not trying to push the envelope any longer. I've brought simplicity back to the kitchen by getting rid of some of the overwrought experimentation," he adds, before expanding on the less-is-more approach in the interview below. But that's not all that gets him talking: Bartow also speaks about the virtues of lemon (and citrus in general), his opposition to steak (and how much money we spend on a slab of steer), his appreciation of Denver's burger joints, and how he can't get enough of Alex Seidel's cooking.
Six words to describe your food: Simple, well-seasoned, straightforward and balanced.
Ten words to describe you: Geeky, laid-back, intelligent, lucky, unorganized, scatterbrained, honest, willing and able.
Culinary inspirations: I find inspiration for food constantly. Oftentimes, I'll spend time in the walk-in and try to listen to how the food wants me to cook it. It sounds silly, I know, but it works. I always have my nose in a cookbook, and nine times out of ten, that book is filled with recipes and pictures of foods that inspire me. I visit foodgawker.com and ideasinfood.com daily for more inspiration. And Thomas Keller is a huge idol of mine. He didn't necessarily find success right off the bat, but he was persistent and worked really hard -- and he eventually became great. He had to keep reaching and reaching and reaching for the next step, and look where he is now. That's inspiring.
Proudest moment as a chef: The moment Noel Cunningham gave me the promotion to executive chef upon Aaron Whitcomb's departure from Strings. I remember that Aaron sat me down and asked me what I thought I needed to do to become a better chef, and I told him that I needed to work on my organizational and managerial skills. He resigned that day, and Noel asked if I'd be interested in the job. I was thrilled. Realistically, it had only been two years since I'd made a real commitment to cook, and even though I'd been working really hard for those two years, Noel definitely took a chance on me. To have someone be willing to put that kind of faith in me -- it was something I'd never experienced before. The fact that Noel is a philanthropist, a great chef and business owner made the moment even more special.
Favorite ingredients: Vinegars, citrus juices and other acidic ingredients. I love acidity in food. It's an integral part of properly seasoning food -- just like salt.
Most overrated ingredient: Steak. Maybe I'm just a little jaded by Denver being such a "cowtown" insomuch that it seems like everyone here prefers to have a steak when they're celebrating a special occasion or night out on the town. People are willing to go out to Morton's, Capital Grille, Elway's or the Palm and pay 50 bucks for a steak, which is just crazy to me. It's not that I don't enjoy a tasty rib-eye cooked rare, but I'd be much more satisfied with a beautifully made burger.
Most undervalued ingredient: Lemon. A squeeze of lemon goes a long way in my book, because the aromatics and acidity of lemon help to awaken your palate. It's also great to use for lightening up a dish.
Favorite local ingredient: It's unfortunate that our growing season is so short here in Colorado, because my most-often-used local ingredients are the fresh herbs from our garden right outside the front of the restaurant. The sage was particularly pleasant this season.
Current Denver culinary genius: Alex Seidel at Fruition. He knows exactly when to stop. His dishes are always well-balanced, and there are never too many ingredients on a plate. The level of execution in his kitchen is a beautiful thing, and I love the fact that when Alex thought about expansion, it didn't include another restaurant location, but instead a new farm, which I'm really excited about: goat's milk, cheese and beautiful produce. I want whatever he's growing, because I know I can find a way to use it.
You're making a pizza. What's on it? Right now? Maytag bleu, pear, prosciutto, arugula and extra virgin olive oil.
You're making an omelet. What's in it? Fresh chives, parsley, salt and pepper and just the slightest touch of cream if I'm feeling saucy.
You're at the market. What do you buy two of? Chicken thighs. Ninety percent of the time if I'm cooking at home, I'll make roasted chicken thighs topped with a sunnyside-up egg.
Weirdest customer request: We had a request for plain baked half chickens the other day with no salt, no oil, no butter -- no fun. Also, a lunch regular at the bar always has his burger with "Joe Sauce," which is a mix of sambal and blue cheese dressing. It's an odd combination, but delicious.
Best culinary tip for a home cook: Use recipes only as guidelines -- and taste, taste, taste your food.
After-work hangout: You can often find me at Parallel 17 or Il Posto, both of which are on my way home from work. They have some decent wines, and both serve food about an hour later than we do at Strings.
Favorite Denver restaurant other than your own: Fruition. It's the only restaurant in this town where I know that what I'm getting every time is going to be beautifully executed food.
Favorite celebrity chef: Gordon Ramsay. He gets a bad rap for Hell's Kitchen, but the man's a genius behind a stove.
Celebrity chef that should shut up: Each celebrity chef has become a celebrity because of their talent and hard work. As much as I dislike some of these chefs, I am in no position to tell any of them to shut up.
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Hardest lesson you've learned: Every day presents new challenges, and I've learned more than my fair share of life lessons since I've taken over the kitchen at Strings. And I've come to realize that hard work, mixed with a passion for education, can overcome any of those challenges presented to me. I've learned that it's important to face your challenges, whether it's hiring or firing people or accepting criticism from a staff member, and to move on.
What's next for you? I don't foresee myself leaving Strings any time soon. Though if the opportunity presented itself, I'd love to work in a small -- think tiny, like thirty seats -- restaurant where I could do most of the cooking, night in and night out. But right now, I've got to worry about dinner service.
To read part two of the Chef and Tell interview with Lance Barto, check back here tomorrow.