Chef Mark Fischer on treating knives badly, pussies and unicorns
The Pullman 330 7th Street, Glenwood Springs; 970-230-9234 www.thepullmangws.com
This is part one of my interview with Mark Fischer, exec chef-owner of Phat Thai, The Pullman and Six89. Part two of our chat will run tomorrow.
"I may have watched The Galloping Gourmet on TV, but we were the children of Clarence Birdseye -- the guy who invented frozen food," quips Mark Fischer. "My mom's cooking was marginal, and she was raising three boys, so it was frozen fish sticks on Friday, and Sunday was invariably pot roast." In fact, says Fischer, he didn't taste butter -- real butter -- until he was eighteen. "My mother embraced all of the conveniences of modern living; we were margarine people."
At the time, that was just fine with Fischer, the longtime exec chef/owner of Six89 in Carbondale, Phat Thai in Carbondale and Cherry Creek and the Pullman in Glenwood Springs. Growing up, he admits, "food was nutrition," and cooking, he says, "never really resonated with me."
The Pittsburgh native moved to Boulder to attend CU, dropped out, relocated to West Virginia to finish his degree in biochemistry, then moved back to Pittsburgh, where he got a job tending bar, which soon morphed into a line gig when a cook didn't show up for his shift. "Tending bar isn't a graceful way to age -- at least not for me -- so when a cook failed to appear, they asked me if I wanted to cook, and I was like, fuck it, how difficult can it be?" recalls Fischer. The change from bartender to cook, he says, was "engaging enough" for him to consider culinary school. "It never really occurred to me that cooking would be a suitable career; I was convinced that I was going to medical school." He enrolled in the Pennsylvania Institute of Culinary Arts...and graduated as valedictorian of his class.
When not immersed in the culinary classroom, Fischer cooked at a restaurant that, he maintains, "was arguably the best place to be at that time in my career." It was the late '80s, remembers Fischer, and the restaurant was bringing in whole animals that would hang from the walk-in. It was procuring its produce, too, from local farmers, and the menu changed weekly, sometimes daily, depending upon what it could source. And those philosophies, says Fischer, have been ingrained in him ever since.
After four years spent brushing up on his butchery skills -- and embodying the farm-to-table movement -- he headed to Aspen. "Every guy has that recessive gene that tells him that he wants to be a ski bum, so I went there to ski, as everyone should," Fischer jokes.
But he also went to cook. "I knocked on a few doors, hit the pavement and ended up getting a job at the Caribou Club as the sous chef," says Fischer, who eventually climbed the ranks to the exec-chef position. "It was a pretty bizarre experience," he recollects. "You were there to cook for members, and no request was ever too outrageous." But what Fischer remembers most fondly is the off-seasons, when the Caribou Club's owner would send its kitchen staff to stage at restaurants around the country. "It was pretty awesome," notes Fischer, who did time at Le Cirque and Mesa Grill in New York, Stars in San Francisco, and Table 29 in Napa, where "there was a ton of cool shit growing right outside our back door."
Fischer eventually left the Caribou Club, he explains, to "validate myself by cooking in a bigger city." And, as it turned out, in a much -- much -- larger restaurant. He was hired as the exec chef of the renowned Fog City Diner in San Francisco, where, he says, he was doing 600 to 700 covers a night, as opposed to eighty at the Caribou Club. "The learning curve was dramatic, but I was ambitious and motivated, and I learned more than I could have ever imagined," says Fischer.
Within just a month, though, he realized he wasn't a "city boy." His wife was living in Carbondale at the time, where she and Fischer had a house, so he packed up and scooted back to Colorado. "Spending time in San Francisco was great for my career, but the place you call home -- that was more important to me," Fischer says.
And after settling in, he was moseying down Main Street one afternoon and spotted a "For Rent" sign on a vacant bed-and-breakfast. He signed a lease and opened Six89 in 1998, which was followed by Phat Thai in 2003, and a second Phat Thai, in Denver, last year. And the rest, he says, "is history."
In the following interview, Fischer explains what happens to his knives on a bad kitchen day, claims that Americans are "pussies" compared to other cultures, and rolls out the red carpet for Julia Child.
Six words to describe your food: Simple, complex, subtle, loud, local and thoughtful.
Ten words to describe you: Driven, lucky, persistent, grateful, obsessive, peripatetic, simple, impatient, hungry and flawed.
What are your ingredient obsessions? Of late, bourbon barrel-aged fish sauce, fresh rice noodles, ramps, pork skin, eggs from our chickens, yuzu koshi, fava leaves, goat, pak bung and duck fat, though not necessarily on the same plate or even in the same kitchen.
What are your kitchen-tool obsessions? One good knife. This one obsession has driven me to purchase hundreds of knives of all ilks -- and I truly treat them badly. While I always stress that taking care of your shit and treating equipment well is paramount, I drop, bend, mutilate -- you name it -- more good knives than I'd ever care to recall. It's always a sad day when another knife is relegated to the "wine box." And then there's the "suspicion" element. I've convinced myself that if a particular bad day in the kitchen is due to a particular knife (like baseball players and their bats), that knife also gets relegated to "the box."
Most underrated ingredient: Common sense: a sound and prudent judgment based on a simple perception of the situation or facts. Common sense can carry a cook further than the greatest culinary education; common sense can carry a menu further than the greatest inventory of ingredients; and common sense can make the uneducated dishwasher the greatest employee any restaurant can ever have.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: Currently, chanterelles. They're like unicorns. Okay, so a little weird on the analogy, but it's my interview. I've found more chanterelles in the backcountry than unicorns; I think good directions for sourcing both are equally unreliable.
Favorite spice: Coriander, because it hasn't been taken by anyone else yet...and I love the mysterious and simple complexity of flavor that roasted coriander can add to everything from a curry paste to roasted pork.
One food you detest: Lavender is like eating (bad) perfume...or perhaps having your mouth washed out with soap, which I happen to know quite a bit about.
One food you can't live without: Coffee. I'd like to say something more "chef-like," such as butter or pork belly or foie gras, but the truth is, life is just about over without good coffee. It should really be its own food group.
Food trend you wish would disappear: Tweezers. I'm all for thoughtful presentation, but using tweezers to plate your food is that ultimate manifestation of food being touched and arranged and handled in unnatural ways.
What you'd like to see more of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: Elegant simplicity. It takes far more skill and thought to do more with less. Why use 2,000 words, when 1,196 will suffice?
What you'd like to see less of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: I sense a collective paranoia (or maybe it's a collective insecurity) about the food in this city. Denver's food certainly has been under the radar on a national level in years past, and I think that lack of recognition manifests itself in a weird collective lack of esteem. I will testify under oath that there are truly some badass cooks here -- and incredible restaurants, all equal to any other city's. We've got it pretty good here. Enjoy that relative anonymity before the secret gets out and reservations everywhere become impossible to attain.
Weirdest customer request: The guest who asked us to cook his pasta in Evian water.
Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: Pig uterus, or maybe sea cucumber belly...or maybe horse-tongue sashimi. We Americans think we've got this nose-to-tail thing dialed in, but relative to other cultures, we're pussies.
What's your dream restaurant? I've already had a few...those places where you look forward to spending all your time and see things come together in ways you might never have imagined possible.
What do you have in the pipeline? If you're not in a state of growth, you're in a state of attrition. I'm not quite ready to ponder the implications of my impending rot, but achieving some sense of balance would be nice. I think that we need to hold ourselves to a high accountability, don't believe the press, and realize that we're only as good as our last dish. We just need to keep pushing to get better every day and stay as humble as we can.
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