"My goal," says Sergio Romero, "is to be on a wait as often as possible, to have people love our food and eat it up, and to provide an experience that's a little different from everything else in Denver." And the exec chef of Argyll Gastropub fiercely believes that the Cherry Creek hot spot (which will soon open a bar called Prohibition in the vacant space next door) that he oversees with owner Robert Thompson is well on its way to becoming one of the best restaurants not just in Cherry Creek, but in Denver.
"Look, we're never going to do molecular gastronomy here, but we have a great menu that's only getting better, and this whole gastropub thing? It's created a lot of excitement and buzz, and so far, the support we've gotten from our customers has been incredible," insists Romero. He sizes me up for a moment, wondering if he can divulge what's really on his mind. "Okay, so your former restaurant critic, Sheehan?" he begins. "He equated the gastropub movement with unicorns, and while it's pretty obvious that unicorns don't exist, all you have to do is look around to know that gastropubs aren't fiction."
But the 27-year-old chef, who started his cooking career in New Mexico, didn't always see things quite so clearly. He signed up for the restaurant and hotel management program at a college in Taos, then soon realized that he was far more interested in cooking than management. "I dropped out and got my first real cooking job as a bistro cook at a local restaurant doing contemporary American food," Romero remembers. He quickly moved up the totem pole, eventually snagging the sous job before hooking up with Joseph Wrede, a Food & Wine magazine Best New Chef, who was instrumental in jump-starting his culinary career. "I learned so much from him, and we rocked out some really great food together in Taos," says Romero.
But after four years working with Wrede, Romero split from the culinary scene altogether. "I needed a break, so I did something completely different from cooking: I cut down trees for the U.S. Forest Service," he says. That lasted until he got a call from Wrede asking if he'd be interesting in commanding the kitchen of a new restaurant in Highlands Ranch, Colorado, called the Old Blinking Light, where Romero cooked for two years before getting the ax -- and moving back to Taos to seek clarity. "I did some soul-searching, spent time with my family, worked on my dad's farm, and then, when the money ran out, I moved back to Denver to start fresh," he recalls.
He was working as a banquet chef at Lucy at Comedy Works South when he got another phone call from Wrede, who just happened to know Thompson. "Robert and I get along great, and both have similar goals," says Romero. "It's just a great fit, and I feel really good about Argyll and what we're doing here." He reveals a lot more about his vision for Argyll in the following interview.
Six words to describe your food: Savory, seasonal, balanced, studied and well-executed.
Ten words to describe you: Hardworking, dedicated, aspiring, patient, learner, teacher, humble, spontaneous and diligent.
Culinary inspirations: Joseph Wrede, the chef and owner of Joseph's Table in Taos. He made a national name for himself while cooking in a two-horse town in New Mexico, and then he took me -- this really naive rogue who didn't know anything -- under his wing when I was just twenty years old and spent the next four or five years teaching me everything he could about the business. I also get a lot of inspiration from other cooks, especially the guys who really aspire to become great chefs despite the fact that the odds are stacked against them.
Favorite ingredient: Lamb. We use it all over the menu at Argyll because it's an ode to the United Kingdom, as well as a great local product. We even have a dish on the menu that's lamb done three ways -- lamb tartare, Indian spice-rubbed sirloin and an olive oil-marinated lamb rack -- all of which use different techniques. I also just sourced out lamb belly from Niman Ranch, which I can't wait to get on the menu. That'll probably happen in a week or so.
Most overrated ingredient: Filet mignon. It does nothing for me, and it's such a pedestrian cut of beef. Eat a hanger steak, and you'll realize that it has great texture and flavor -- that it's definitely not a lesser cut of meat. A real challenge for a chef is to take a non-primal cut of beef and make it exciting, which we try to do as often as possible at Argyll. Our steak frites, for example, change from baseball sirloins to teres major, and every cut in between.
Most undervalued ingredient: Citrus. It accentuates other ingredients by making them pop. You have to be careful with it, though, because it becomes too overwhelming if you overuse it. I was at a restaurant recently and ordered a crab salad with grapefruit juice, which sounded great, but they ruined it by using way too much citrus. Citrus isn't the carriage; it's the horse, and when it's used correctly, it's wonderful.
Favorite local ingredient: Right now we're using Colorado striped bass on the menu. We're searing it and serving it with parsnip purée, citrus spinach and vanilla saffron sauce. It's not a native Colorado species, but it's a sustainable product being bred in Colorado, and it has a lot of versatility, so I can change it up a lot.
One food you detest: Ketchup. Why on earth so many people find that sugar-laced, watered-down tomato paste good, I'll never know. Instead, try dipping a French fry in a saffron aioli or a mushroom jus. We do a roasted chicken and frites at lunch, and people are actually finding out just how good jus is with fries. But ketchup? Ketchup is fucking gross.
One food you can't live without: Cheese. It's my version of fast food. Lots of people don't realize that chefs rarely make a meal for themselves, mostly because we're always doing fifteen things at once and don't have the time to cook. But you can eat cheese anywhere. I love MouCo ColoRouge, an artisanal cheese with a really creamy texture. It's definitely one of the best things you could ever put in your mouth.
Rules of conduct in your kitchen: Respect the ingredients. Remember that there was another guy slaving away just like us to create a great product. Don't waste their efforts with a lazy effort on our end. Farmers do their part, we do our part, and I also expect the front of the house to do its part by providing great service. It's a circle, and everyone has to do their part to complete it. Oh -- one more thing: Bring your own fucking knives.
What you'd like to see more of in Denver from a culinary standpoint: Better bakeries. I can't seem to find a great brioche bun for a slider or challah for my French toast. We spend way too much time doing our own baking. I'm not a baker -- that's not my expertise -- so I'd love to find a local bakery that we could outsource to, but it's been really tough.
What you'd like to see less of in Denver from a culinary standpoint: Shitty restaurants: the kind of restaurant that opens solely as a money-making venture rather than as an opportunity to improve Denver's culinary scene and introduce diners to great food. And I know it's been said time and time again, but support your local restaurant operations and let the chains make their money in Dallas. Do we really need another sports figure who knows nothing about food opening up a restaurant just because of his name? My celebrities are passionate chefs and operators.
Current Denver culinary genius: I really respect Teri Rippeto, the chef of Potager, and Patrick DuPays, from Z Cuisine. The fact that Teri's menu is so genuinely seasonal and local is really impressive, and Patrick has seamlessly brought a piece of France to Denver. If you blindfolded a French guy and dropped him off at Z Cuisine to eat Patrick's food, he'd never know he wasn't in France. And I've got to give mad props to Matt Selby for being so instrumental in putting Denver on the culinary map.
Best culinary tip for a home cook: Don't try to duplicate what you had for dinner last night at your favorite restaurant; take those ingredients and make a dish that's your own.
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Favorite celebrity chef: Rick Bayless. My first culinary love was modern Mexican food, and he does it as well as anyone.
Celebrity chef that should shut up: Gordon Ramsay. He's a horrible teacher and everything he does is for show and shock value.
What's next for you? I'm working with a restaurateur who believes in me, and we make a good team. We're going to grow a restaurant company here in Denver that we think will be really special. In the meantime, we're expanding Argyll and expanding the menu -- I want to get it to the point where we're making as much as we can in-house -- and we're looking at several other pieces of real estate all over the city. I'd ultimately love to open a brasserie.
To read the rest of Lori Midson's interview with Sergio Romero, click here.