Chef and Tell with Michael Long of Opus
"I'm always trying to get away with as much creativity as possible, to push the boundaries and reel in my impulses," explains Michael Long. "I don't want to lose my audience, but for me, personally, food has to both taste good and entertain you in some way, whether it's because of artistic presentation or an unusual flavor pairing."
Long is like the Energizer Bunny: manic, animated, tireless. "It's been like that ever since I was a kid and going to school and working twenty hours a week at an Italian restaurant in Florida," says Long, whose first job was washing dishes at the age of twelve. But like most aspiring chefs, he wasn't really into dirty plates and detergent, so he starting hanging around the kitchen, helping out on the line, doing whatever he could to get a promotion. "My first moment of triumph came when they hired another kid to wash the dishes," jokes Long.
Still, that dishwashing gig led to much bigger and better things, including cooking stints in Florida, New York, South Carolina and Canada, at the 1999 Masters Golf tournament and at the 2002 Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City. And then, finally, Opus, the restaurant he opened in 2002 in Littleton. "I've had a great career so far -- my dad says I've had more jobs than a fugitive," says Long, laughing. "But I've changed a lot, too. I used to cook for myself; now I cook for diners."
Diners who he wishes were more adventurous. "We're not nearly as creative at Opus as we were when we first opened," Long says, "but we have to gear ourselves toward our customers, you know?"
He talked more candidly about that topic during a recent interview, when he also discussed the political correctness of veal, his views on temper tantrums in the kitchen and his desire for a rebound of fine-dining restaurants.
Six words to describe your food: Whimsical, customer-friendly and creative but familiar. (Some people would also say expensive, but you get what you pay for.)
Ten words to describe you: Humorous, cynical, analytical, temperamental, urgent, impulsive, generous, frugal, reflective and iconoclastic.
Favorite ingredient: Foie gras. There, I said it. Some people think it's a crime. To me, it's merely a sin. It's so extraordinarily removed from the things we eat on an everyday basis, so that when you see foie gras on a menu, provided it's done right, you know you're in a place that's about more than just feeding people; it'll be a restaurant that's into the culinary spirit. It sounds weird, but I love to do Asian dishes with foie gras.
Favorite New York restaurant: Umberto's Clam House on Mulberry Street. They serve great mussels, they're open until 5 a.m., and you can see where Joey Gallo was shot by the Colombo family. Also, I love La Bernardin for the service and impeccable seafood. It's the best service I've ever had, except maybe Joël Robuchon.
Most overrated ingredient: Chicken breasts. They're dull, safe food for scared people. Eat something else, will ya?
Most underrated ingredient: Veal. I know it's not politically correct, but it's just so versatile. Veal is the only "red" meat that should ever be put on the same plate as shellfish. Red, bloody meat juices should never be on the same plate as shellfish. Veal grills well, sautés well, stuffs well, braises well, and it can be sauced over-under-sideways down. The organs are the best.
Favorite local ingredient: Bone marrow from Colorado steers. I cut the bones myself at the butcher -- but I'm not telling you which butcher or where I get the marrow.
Rules of conduct in your kitchen: There are a lot -- too many to count. You can't look like a bum, you can't act like a fool and you can't have special little rules just for you and your special little self. I don't allow visible piercings, and everyone has to wear the same uniform and hat. I once fired a guy for not having the right hat. I warned him about it the day before, but he didn't listen.
What's never in your kitchen? Chicken base. Or any base. You'd be surprised at how many restaurants that call themselves "upscale" have that awful stuff in their kitchens. We once had some Asian mushroom powder "base" by accident, which I used in a big batch of soup for an event that I had to do. It made me shudder.
What you'd like to see more of in Denver from a culinary standpoint: We have creative chefs and great food, but we don't have enough fine-dining restaurants. There aren't enough places in Denver where the food entertains guests in an artistic fashion. Food is the only medium of artistic expression that covers all five senses, plus umami -- the sixth sense. I know that fine dining isn't popular, but I didn't go to CIA to learn how to make fried chicken; I went to learn how to make American food in the French tradition.
What you'd like to see less of in Denver from a culinary standpoint: Small-plate concepts. I just don't get it. Table 6 is about the only restaurant that does it right, because they still make the dishes about presentation and with a "dinner" aspect...you know, with a vegetable, starch and sauce. But by and large, small plates are for bars and drinkeries.
Culinarily speaking, Denver has the best: Lamb. It's the best in the world because we feed our lambs grain and corn rather than grass. It's fattier and richer, and it's much lambier than Australian or New Zealand lamb.
Culinarily speaking, Denver has the worst: Lack of adventurous diners. That's a straight answer. In many ways, Denver is such a ranch-dressing city, insomuch that people are so afraid to take chances when it comes to trying new dishes. If I ever wrote a book, I'd call it Food and Loathing, for the people who won't eat anything unfamiliar. The pizza isn't great in this city, either, except maybe at Marco's Coal-Fired Pizzeria.
Weirdest customer request: A woman who insisted that she couldn't have any food that started with the letter S.
Best tip for a home cook: Get the pan really hot. Home cooks are scared of a smoking-hot pan. Use a sharp knife. Oh, and that flat pebbled glass thingy isn't a cutting board.
Favorite celebrity chef: I like Tony Bourdain -- not for his cooking, but for his writing. My true hero, though, was always Hunter S. Thompson, and Bourdain is the gonzo food writer. That said, the notion of celebrity chefs is ridiculous to me. It's cooking. Chefs shouldn't be on the same pantheon as literary giants or superstar athletes. The only justification for me would be money.
Celebrity chef who should shut up: Michael Chiarello just seems phony; Morimoto is the man.
Hardest lesson you've learned: When you scream and holler, no one hears what you're saying -- just how you say it. There are times, obviously, where you need to scream and holler, but only when everything else has failed and you're about to give up. I was trained by screaming and belligerent chefs, but that time has passed. No one misses it -- least of all me.
What's next for you? A cookbook and maybe a move closer to downtown Denver, so I can attract out-of-town guests. I'm really proud of what we do here, and I like Littleton for many, many reasons, but we want to cook for everyone, and in order to do that, I think we need to be more central.
This is part one of my interview with Michael Long. To read part two, check back here tomorrow.
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