"After all that nonsense at Primebar -- those guys are the biggest scumbags ever -- it was unbelievably refreshing to get a job at a restaurant that's owned by one of the nicest guys I've ever met," Max Mackissock says during our interview at Cafe Europa. Mackissock, who was the commander-in-chief of Primebar (and before that, Vita) for less than a month before he hurled that gig to the curb, is now the executive chef of Squeaky Bean, the Highland restaurant he oversees with proprietor Johnny Ballen.
"We seriously miracle it every day," reveals Mackissock, who turns out breakfast, brunch, lunch and dinner from a tiny kitchen that has exactly one electric convention oven. "We call the oven 'Chuck Norris' because it's the worst oven on the planet. We literally cook everything in that oven, and there's not one minute of the day that it's not full."
But that could be changing soon. Ballen and Mackissock are talking with their landlords, the Aguirre family -- owners of Rosa Linda's Mexican Cafe, directly next door to the Bean -- about putting in a new kitchen, which would allow Mackissock and his crew to develop a more ambitious menu. "They're fantastic people, and they understand that our kitchen is so limited right now in terms of what we can do, so we're all working together to hopefully make it happen," he explains.
In the meantime, Mackissock and Ballen have made other inroads since opening the restaurant back in May. They've built a vegetable and herb garden behind Squeaky Bean; joined forces with Jason Griffith, a Longmont farmer who grows the rest of their produce; and even introduced their own micro farmers' market on the patio. "I get to create freely and have fun, and with the garden and the farm and all the other great things that have happened to us since we opened, everything has fallen into place and worked out," Mackissock says. "I work more now than I ever have in my life, because now I have to do all the little things, but I've never been happier."
What else makes Mackissock happy? Music (all kinds), kale, late-night noodles from JJ Chinese, pickles, and pizza from Virgilio's.
Seven words to describe your food: Seasonal, playful, layered, well-seasoned, balanced and sexy.
Ten words to describe you: Honest, direct, dedicated, daring, leader, fortunate, fun, even-tempered, foodie and a gentleman.
Culinary inspirations: My mother always pushed the culinary limits, and my grandmother was always at the stove with a pot of chicken stock, or she was busy making cassoulet or toutiere, so I always had exposure to food when I was growing up. I think it was their genuine love of food that first inspired me, because food was always at the center of everything. My grandmother even made thirty different kinds of candy for Christmas. Who does that? I also spent some time in Italy -- nine months, off and on -- and that experience was so influential. It was amazing to me there was virtually no importation, even from different parts of the country. It was this whole "mine is better than yours" concept, but that resonated with me because people took so much pride in their regional cuisines and traditions. The beans in the next town, for example, were never as good as the beans in my town.
Favorite ingredient: I don't necessarily have one favorite ingredient because I'm always going through phases. Right now I'm really into Colatura di alici, a salted anchovy sauce from Italy. I love using it instead of salt; it's almost like using soy in an Asian dish. It adds a very distinct and unique savory/salty aspect to a dish.
Most overrated ingredient: I hate truffle oil. Just the smell of it will nearly induce vomiting.
Most undervalued ingredient: I love kale. Unfortunately, most people think of that ubiquitous garnish, along with an orange wedge, that's adorned plates for so long. But kale has such a wide range of flavors, from young and sweet to older, earthy and bitter. There are so many cool varieties -- Chinese, red, cavolo nero -- that we get from our farm and grow in the garden. We like to cut it young and serve it raw on salads, but people would freak out because they couldn't believe that they were eating kale. Trust me: It's delicious.
Favorite local ingredient: I'm so fortunate that I have a veggie freak -- Jason Griffith -- who grows all my produce locally at Aspen Moon Farm in Longmont. He's the kind of guy who picks squash with socks on his hands so he doesn't bruise them. I truly believe that anything that comes out of his farm is as good as anything you'll find elsewhere in Colorado.
Favorite music to cook by: Now you're talking. If you know me at all, you know that I love music. I'm not one of those chefs who needs to have silence in the kitchen; in fact, I hate it. We listen to music all the time, even during service. Here's the breakdown of an average set list at the Bean:
11 a.m. to 1 p.m.: Arrive at work early in the day and put on something mellow like bluegrass or reggae. I like Yonder Mountain String Band.
1 p.m. to 4 p.m.: The severity of the prep list determines what we play. On a chill day, it might be some Neil Diamond or Talking Heads. If there's heavy prep involved, it means heavy beats -- bands like Talib Kweli, Wu-Tang Clan or Heiruspecs.
During service: Things get a little louder and a little faster. We listen to people like the Glitch Mob or Sound Tribe Sector 9.
Closing: Jay-Z and DJ Z-Trip. Yo.
What's never in your kitchen? Bad attitudes, pretension or cocky cooks.
What you'd like to see more of in Denver from a culinary standpoint: I'd love to have a large community market downtown that would create a foodie environment with cool products that would get people excited about food. I'd love to have something like Pike Place Market in Seattle or the Plaza Farmers Market in San Francisco. I need to call Mayor Hick and get this thing rolling. I love that stuff, and it's something that's sorely, sorely lacking in Denver. We need to take the best things from our farmers' markets and turn them into one great central culture and food market.
What you'd like to see less of in Denver from a culinary standpoint: Shit-talkers. Too many chefs in this town are insecure and feel the need to talk shit about other chefs just to make themselves feel better. Chefs here get jealous when someone else gets press, which is just ridiculous, since the more publicity Denver gets, the better it is for all of us. I love it when I see a Denver restaurant making some national noise, because it reiterates to people that we're not a cow town. The shit-talking really bothers me, and it's bothered me since I moved here. And it needs to go away, because it's detrimental to our food scene.
Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: I went on this culinary tour in Japan last year where we ate a lot of weird, really funky stuff. But the worst -- and the weirdest -- was definitely the squid guts we had for breakfast. They were slimy and boogery, and raw and gross - and not something you want for breakfast when you've been drinking sake until three in the morning.
Weirdest customer request: At this French place, Provence, in upstate New York, someone wanted to ceremoniously kill a goat in our kitchen, and then they wanted us to cook it for their party. It didn't happen, but it would have been crazy and the owner would have loved it. He was really eccentric.
Best culinary tip for a home cook: Stay out of the hot sun and don't take any wooden nickels. In other words, don't cook at home: Just come to my restaurant.
Current Denver culinary genius: My special lady, Jen Jasinski, is a walking encyclopedia of food. Whether we're talking about the proper way to break down a tuna or how to make the proper emulsion in a sausage, she always knows exactly what to do. Her knowledge of food is insane. She absorbs as much as possible and knows more about technique than just about anyone I know. I argue with her sometimes, but I usually lose. I also think John Broening is freakishly smart in the kitchen -- and with the pen.
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Favorite celebrity chef: Tom Colicchio is the man. His food at Gramercy Tavern was some of the most ridiculously good food I've ever had in my life, and on TV, he totally personifies coolness. He's got the best "Are you fucking kidding me?" look of any chef out there.
Celebrity chef who should shut up: I don't have a problem with any of the chefs, per se, but I can't stand the supposed "food personalities" on the Food Network. They bother the hell out of me. Most of the time, they're talking about things that are so mundane and trivial. By and large, what used to be the food education channel is now just awful. Rachael Ray's voice, in particular, makes me want to cut my ears off.
What's next for you? I want to open an Italian restaurant -- not a red-sauce-and-noodles kind of place, but something really cool and different. Right now, it's very conceptual, but that's definitely the next move for me.
This is part one of my interview with Max Mackissock. To read part two of the interview, click here..