Chef Andrew Selvaggio on being an answer to a question on Jeopardy
This is part two of my interview with Andrew Selvaggio, chef of Smashburger, Live Basil and Tom's Urban; part one of my chat with Selvaggio ran yesterday.
Most memorable meal you've ever had: It was in 1983, at Michael's in Santa Monica. The general manager of the restaurant where I was the executive chef took me on an immersive culinary tour around Los Angeles to experience what was then known as California cuisine. We went to Spago, La Toque, 72 Market Street, West Beach Cafe in Venice and Michael's in Santa Monica, where Jonathan Waxman was the chef. He amazed me with his frisée salad with lardon, poached egg and glace de viande; mosaic of melon with a chile-lime dressing and cotija cheese; and the grilled Muscovy duck breast served fanned, its pink flesh seared and sliced on top of a raspberry glace du canard and then surrounded with fanned and turned baby vegetables. The meal finished with raspberry, lemon and mango sorbets with fresh baked cookies and berries. Oh, and then there was the Bonny Doon ice wine. The experience was illuminating.
Your three favorite Denver restaurants other than your own: As a single parent, I need to find places that the kids and I can enjoy together, and one of the most satisfying experiences as a chef-parent is exposing your children to new foods, which is why we go to Peking Tokyo Express. I love the stuffed chicken wings, and they also do a great pad Thai. We do a bunch of apps, which is fun, and the food is fast and fresh from the kitchen. We also love the Yabby Hut. What's not to like? We all have bibs, eat with our hands -- and the kids like spicy food, so they're totally into it. We order the king crab with the Cajun hot sauce and the whole shrimp with medium-hot garlic butter. They dump all the seafood on butcher paper and give you paper towels, so it's one of those places where the kids can get messy -- and get some great food. We live really close to Belmar, so we also go to Wasabi Sushi Bar for its traditional and signature sushi rolls, gyoza and seaweed salad.
Most underrated restaurant in Denver: The Evil Bean, which is in the Park Central building downtown. They're a great team that bakes all the croissants, bagels and bread for their sandwiches, plus they do roast chicken breast throughout the day that's cooked to order on the flat grill. They have daily specials, too -- everything from a Sloppy Joe melt to a grilled Buffalo chicken sandwich, and everything is a great value.
Who is Denver's next rising-star chef? The sous-chefs, or number twos, working under the chef that's receiving all the accolades from the media, public and his peers. It's that person who's behind the scenes running the kitchen when the chef isn't there, executing his or her vision while submitting their own creations to the chef for approval and refinement. It's the person who, when given the right opportunity, will pour out their soul on the plate. Look at some of the top-rated Denver restaurants and you'll find those people. I would keep my eye on those who are proving themselves in the kitchens of Frank Bonanno and Jennifer Jasinski, who have already contributed greatly to the Denver culinary scene.
Which living chef do you most admire? Giuliano Bugialli. His book, The Fine Art of Italian Cooking, is one I turn to often for inspiration and to refresh my memory about what I value most about Italian cuisine. He's been writing books for twenty years and began his cooking career in Florence in the '70s -- and I'd love to attend one of his cooking classes.
What do you enjoy most about your craft? Creating something from nothing. Remember the saying "Thoughts are things"? That's the true essence of what I do for our team. A vision is created, and I work on making that vision a reality, together with Tom Ryan. It's extremely satisfying seeing a menu grow through prototype, refinement and execution phases. I found myself recently reflecting on and remembering the first day I worked on the dough for Live Basil Pizza, and here we are with our third restaurant. But most of all, it's that feeling you get when you walk through the dining room and there's a sense of electricity and excitement in the air. It's when I ask the most important question: "How is everything?" -- and the response is a huge smile from the guest, who says "Wonderful" without breaking focus from their plate.
What are the most challenging aspects of being a chef? In the past, before I became a product-development chef, it was finding -- and retaining -- great people to work in my kitchen, the ones who have a whatever-it-takes attitude along with a burning desire to listen, learn and succeed. I also found it difficult to get out of the kitchen and explore what other chefs were doing. I also found it challenging to find the balance between ingredient and recipe innovation while still maintaining profitability. Now, as a product-development chef, the biggest challenge is when we work under an accelerated development timeline and we need to go from ideation to prototype to refinement to implementation in a short time period. Sourcing ingredients is a challenge, as well. Ironically, it's the chaos that makes me feel the most alive, because it's such an immersive experience. It's extremely gratifying.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef: When I was 26, I was recognized as one of the top young chefs in the country; that same year, I was awarded best chef of Phoenix. I was cooking Franco-Japanese cuisine with Southwestern influences, and it was a time of experimentation and discovery for me. I have to say, though, that it's the synergistic relationship I have with Tom Ryan that shadows my individual accomplishments. It's through the combined efforts and his vision that we ended up with the creation of Smashburger, Tom's Urban and Live Basil Pizza.
Biggest moment of euphoria in the kitchen: When we finished development for Smashburger. We had just finished four days of focus groups where we served food to consumers, and it was at the recap when we all realized what great work we did. It was a very proud moment.
Biggest mistake a chef can make on the line: Not tasting the food or doing a line check. Chefs should always touch every ingredient on the line before a shift to ensure it's up to standard. You can't go into the shift blind. As Ronald Reagan said, "Trust and verify."
What's been your worst disaster in the kitchen? We were opening the first Smashburger, and the fire-suppression system went off in the hood. The weights in the exhaust hood were at the wrong melting point, which caused all the tanks of the fire-suppression system to discharge over the food, tables and kitchen. Needless to say, we had to apologize to the customers, close down, clean up and prep all the ingredients over. Not fun at all.
Craziest night in the kitchen: I was in Arizona, cooking on the line of Seven as the broil-chef coordinator. We were in the weeds, and one of the servers kept coming in and asking if his damn liver was ready. He must have come back at least ten times in what seemed like five minutes. He finally shouted, "Where's my liver?!" so I lifted my chef coat up, pointed to my stomach and said, "Right about here." He didn't think it was very funny.
Would you ever send a dish back if you were dining in a friend's restaurant? No. The only exception would be if that friend told me up front to tell him if I saw anything wrong or if my experience wasn't optimal. I would expect friends of mine to feel comfortable telling me if they had issues in one of our restaurants, and while there are some things I don't control, l can cascade the feedback to those who can take corrective measures. When things go wrong at a restaurant, it's always best to contact the manager. We cherish our guests, and we want you to be happy.
If you could make one request of Denver diners, what would it be? If something isn't right in our restaurants, no matter what it is, please let the manager know. If you leave less than delighted, then we fail. I want guests to know that we value and cherish their visit -- and we know, too, that there are many choices out there. Diners expect us to get it right every time and deserve no less.
What do you expect from a restaurant critic? To be a critic, or to critique? That is the question. I expect blatant honesty without unnecessary amplification of opportunities for improvement: Tell it how it is, and tell readers what type of experience they can expect -- what they see through their lens based on their personal knowledge and experience. Announced visits allow us to present a pristine experience -- and it's how we desire our customers to view us and enjoy our restaurants. Anonymous visits are a pure, organic experience, which gives the reader a true representation of how one visit went at a moment in time. Reviews are very important to us; we read reviews, take the criticisms to heart and then take action by providing feedback or direction to our restaurants. We listen to the voice of social media and value the feedback of that, as well.
Best recipe tip for a home cook: Many people who cook from cookbooks just find a recipe they like and delve right into it, only to realize halfway in that they measured wrong or forgot a crucial step, which leads to disaster. It sounds obvious, but it's important to read and understand the recipe first. Prep and measure all the ingredients first, make sure you have enough space to work, and always stay organized. The chefs on the cooking shows make it look easy, but keep in mind that they have a whole team doing all the prep and setup.
If you could dress any way you wanted, what would you wear in the kitchen? I once worked solo in a remote test kitchen, and whenever Tom Ryan would call and ask how I was, I'd say, "I'm doing great. It's naked Tuesday!" It's an inside joke around here. Seriously, though, I'd wear a comfortable pair of jeans and a pullover shirt, just like at home.
It's your night off and you're starving. What's your go-to quick fix? I always have a batch of meatballs and sausage cooked in marinara in the freezer. It's something I can make for me and the kids in a jiff.
Favorite dish on your menu: At Live Basil Pizza, it's "The Hot One," with red sauce, a blend of Italian cheeses, pepperoni, spicy giardiniera, fresh jalapeños, red-pepper flakes and spicy oil. At Tom's Urban, I love the carnitas burrito with pork green chile, and at Smashburger, I always go for the burger with truffled mayo, portabello mushrooms and aged Swiss. And I always get the Smashfries.
What dish would you love to put on your menu, regardless of how well it would sell? Brown-butter-sautéed sweetbreads with wild mushrooms and demi-glace mounted with butter over fresh-cut and fried potato frites with fresh thyme and cracked black pepper.
Weirdest customer request: In 1986, when I was cooking at Steven restaurant in Scottsdale, Arizona, Red Buttons came in for a late dinner with his wife...and his own can of stewed tomatoes, which he requested we use to make an omelet.
What's your biggest pet peeve? When a cook has his tongs in his back pocket or a towel on his shoulder. It drives me crazy.
Your best traits: Hardworking, loyal, committed, trustworthy and humorous.
Your worst traits: Unorganized, procrastinator and isolative.
Kitchen rule you always adhere to: Checking ingredients from the time they're received through the back door through preparation and finally before service to make sure the customer is receiving the experience we desire.
Kitchen rule you're not afraid to break: I don't let existing operations, recipes, ingredients or skill sets in the kitchen restrain innovation and creativity. We work to discover what's most important for the consumer and then collaborate on making it a reality.
What's one thing that people would be surprised to know about you? I was the answer to a question on Jeopardy: Head chef since 1993, Andrew Selvaggio has served billions and billions for this restaurant. Answer: McDonald's. It aired on Monday, September 24, 2001, and was a Double Jeopardy-round question in the category of Fast Food for $400.
Last meal before you die: A bottle of Grgich Hills Estate chardonnay with a warm baguette and sweet butter; seared diver scallops with uni beurre blanc; frisée salad with warm sherry vinaigrette, bacon-fat duck cracklings and a poached egg; peppercorn-studded strip steak with a cognac-mushroom glace de viande with heavy cream and lemon; Anna potatoes; pistachio gelato and panna cotta; and a glass of ice wine.
What's in the pipeline? You can look forward to seeing featured chef-inspired pizzas at Live Basil. We also have some exciting menu offerings on the way at Tom's, but I don't want to show my hand as of yet, and at Smashburger, we'll keep turning out great-tasting burgers while we continue to expand and grow.
What's next for the Denver dining scene? Familiar, straightforward, unpretentious food, along with dishes that can be shared as well as individually enjoyed. For those on the go, we'll see one-handed meals, because a mobile device always occupies the other hand. I think we'll also see increased awareness of ingredient quality, while product origin will continue to be front and center on menus. Mixology will be fractionated to high-end executions on one end, and quality, more "bang for your buck" drinks on the other. And upscale accessibility, as well as value, will continue to be in demand.
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