Chef Tom Coohill on food snobs, foie gras, fishy fish and food bloggers
This is part one of my interview with Tom Coohill, exec chef/owner of Coohills. Part two of my chat with Coohill will appear in this space tomorrow.
"This," confides Tom Coohill, "is too good to be on the menu. It's like buttah."
Coohill, whose eponymous French-influenced restaurant opened last November, is holding a plate propped with two house-baked slices of brioche smeared with his duck-liver pâté and Dijon and topped with cornichons and frisée. He takes a bite, moans and promises that if you want it -- and you do -- your server might convince the kitchen to oblige, but no amount of coaxing will convince him to add it to his menu. "I just can't," he reiterates. "We want it all for ourselves."
It sure as hell beats a Twinkie, which is what his friends' parents were feeding him in Pittsburgh, where Coohill spent the early part of his youth. "I grew up in the '70s and '80s, when there were a lot of processed foods, and while my mom always used fresh ingredients and cooked from scratch, the parents of all of my friends were giving us Twinkies and Stouffer's frozen macaroni and cheese," recalls Coohill, who started his cooking career several years later, in a small town in Kentucky. "I took a job in a steakhouse to make some extra money, but I really started to like it, and it wasn't long before I started studying cookbooks, reading Julia Child and learning how to use a knife."
The next logical move, he remembers, was culinary school, but the classroom of his choice -- the Culinary Institute of America -- had a six-year waiting list; his second choice, a cooking school in North Carolina, had a year-long wait. But it turned out that the wealthiest guy in Glasgow, Kentucky, was opening a French restaurant -- and needed a cook. "The guy has gone to France, eaten in all these three-star Michelin restaurants and brought back all these amazing chefs to work with him, and every single thing he served was flown in from France -- and I mean everything," says Coohill, who soaked it all in, until the executive chef exited for Los Angeles...and recommended that Coohill follow suit.
He did, and while he was in L.A., he cooked in some of the most illustrious kitchens in the country, including those of Le St. Germain and Ma Maison, where Wolfgang Puck eventually became the chef and part owner. "It was 1975, and no one in America had ever heard of Wolfgang Puck at the time, but he wanted to do pizzas, and then the celebrities started trickling in, and that was the beginning of the gourmet-pizza trend," declares Coohill.
An opening in the culinary curriculum, overseen by a French chef, at Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College, where Coohill had been waitlisted, eventually became available, so he left the fast lane of L.A. for North Carolina, where he immersed himself in culinary school -- and then an apprenticeship that inspired him to quit school. "I had to do an internship between year one and year two, and at the time, Playboy had just come out with its annual list of the top 25 restaurants in America, so I wrote to all 25 restaurants to see about getting a job," recalls Coohill. He got exactly one response: a rejection.
He congratulated himself by taking a trip to Chicago to visit his grandparents, and while he was there, he stopped in at Le Francais, a now-closed restaurant in Wheeling. "I walked in and asked if I could do an internship, and they said no, because I didn't speak French," remembers Coohill. Not one to take "no" for an answer, he committed to a four-month stage, offering to work for free.
Coohill never returned to culinary school. Instead, he cooked at Le Francais for three years -- by this time, he knew "kitchen French" -- and then left for France, where he took a stage, again working for free, at L'Oustau de Baumanière, a two-star Michelin restaurant. "They broke my balls the first month, and then I made hamburgers for the whole staff, and they loved them so much that the chef decided to let me work any station that I wanted to," says Coohill.
Two years later, he returned to the States -- specifically, Atlanta -- where he did time in numerous kitchens, including Ciboulette, a restaurant that Esquire magazine called one of the top 25 restaurants in the country. And then, after a corporate stint with Aramark, Coohill became the Western regional chef for Levy Restaurant Group, which brought him to Denver. "I came here to work with the Levy Restaurant Group, but I wanted to move to Denver anyway to open Coohills, and I'm really, really happy with my choice," asserts the chef, who, in the following interview, weighs in on food snobs and fishy fish, his new chef-apparel line and the certified Master Chef who didn't know his foie from his gras.
Six words to describe your food: Fresh, bold, seasonal, regional and French-influenced.
Ten words to describe you: Fun, driven, happy, creative, demanding, engaging, personable, active, social and a gourmand.
Favorite ingredient: I love the flavor profile of aged sherry vinegar -- it makes food sing, and it works so well in hot and cold preparations, which explains why it's a staple in my kitchen. A great combination that incorporates aged sherry vinegar is poaching artichokes in the sherry vinegar, olive oil and black pepper. The combination is mouth-watering.
Best recent food find: I stumbled upon padrón peppers last summer, right before we opened, and I simply can't wait to use them this summer. They're great because they can be used in a plethora of different ways. By simply blistering them in olive oil and sprinkling them with sea salt, you've created the perfect bar food, although I also like to use them as a garnish in dishes with tomato water. The flavor profile of the pepper really intrigues me, and I'm super-excited about using them as soon as they're available.
Most overrated ingredient: Almond extract, by a landslide. It tastes artificial and incredibly fake to me, almost like almond perfume. Far too many recipes have almond extract in them, but take my word for it: You'll never find almond extract in a three-star kitchen. There are too many processed foods out there already, so why add to the trend?
Most underrated ingredient: Sherry vinegar isn't used very much, and if you get an aged one, it's absolutely wonderful and can render great results. You see a great deal of balsamic use, but not much use of sherry, which is a shame, because it has such a fantastic malty flavor. I use it in vinaigrettes as well as hot preparations.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: Lamb, even though that's the easy answer since we live in Colorado. Still, Colorado lamb is some of the best there is, and there are great selections of local farms where you can get it. We wanted to use Fruition Farms, but we just have too much volume, so right now we're getting it from Superior Farms, near Fort Collins. I also really enjoy Haystack Aspen Ash goat cheese.
Favorite spice: Black pepper works with almost everything. I know it might be an obvious choice, but it's the one spice that's a must-have in my kitchen. I use other spices in the pâtés and terrines as well as the stocks, but most of the dishes we make at Coohills are seasoned with salt and pepper more than anything else.
One food you detest: Maraschino cherries are useless and a waste of a cherry. Talk about way too much sugar and processed foods. They don't even taste like cherries. Cherries are so naturally wonderful, and I don't like masking their flavor with tons of syrup.
One food you can't live without: Really good bread is an art form, and I crave it all the time. It's unfortunate, though, that bread is such an important component of a meal, yet it's so difficult to find someone who can make it really well. It's such a pleasure when you find someone who can. We make our own bread here: We used fresh-squeezed orange juice for our levain, so it's technically a sourdough recipe that doesn't taste like sourdough. The orange juice changes the structure of the bread...for the better, making it lighter and less dense than traditional sourdough. Our pastry chef comes in at 5 a.m. every day. We also make the brioche for our bread pudding and another sourdough for our croutons and crostinis.
Weirdest customer request: A customer once ordered a lobster dish -- half lobster with monkfish roe -- and then he ate the entire lobster shell. No, I mean, he ate everything -- all of it! I had another customer who ordered nage, which is like a bouillabaisse -- and he ate the whole thing and then went into seizures. He was allergic to shellfish. He tried to sue me for $150,000 because he said he ordered the vegetable plate, and yet there he was plucking the mussels from the shell. He actually thought they were vegetables. And just a few weeks ago, a party came in and ordered a tuna tartare...and then a second one...and then a third one. They left one piece on the plate and sent it back, claiming that they said they were food snobs and knew it was fishy, which was weird because it all came from the same batch.
Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: Live termites in the Peruvian rainforest. We were walking through the rainforest, and the biologist pointed out a termite nest in a tree. He asked us if we wanted to taste them, and I said yes, but Diane, the vegetarian wife, said no. They tasted like mint.
Biggest compliment you've ever received: "Your foie gras is excellent," a compliment that came from a certified Master Chef. Unfortunately, It was chicken-liver pâté -- not foie gras -- and when I told him it was chicken liver, he was a little embarrassed.
Are you affected by reviews at all? What's your opinion on food writers and social review sites like Yelp, OpenTable and Urbanspoon? It's hard not to be affected by them. It's true that we always want nice things to be written about us, but that's not always going to happen. As far as social review sites go, it's a mixed bag. Some people go over the top with their complaints and take it all too personally. We had a table of six come in last week for lunch and announce they were food bloggers. Like, oh, watch out for us.
Hardest lesson you've learned: Watching apprentices getting screamed at all day long made me realize that treating people with respect will motivate them to perform much better than being an ass.
What's next for you? Finishing my new, high-performance, single-breasted chef coat design and getting it into production. It's water-wicking material on the inside and stain-resistant on the outside. It also has a stink-proofing resistance. Aside from that, beginning in February, we're going to start doing breakfast pastries and breads. We'll open early, around 7 a.m.
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