Chris Canales, chef of Volta: "Don't think that being a chef is glamorous"
This is part two of my interview with Chris Canales, exec chef of Volta; part one of my chat with Canales ran yesterday.
Most memorable meal you've ever had: I can't remember a single most memorable meal, but all my memories are associated with food in one way or another. When I was growing up we didn't have much, but we always had good food, whether it was for a birthday or a funeral. No matter what, my mom and my aunts were always making something delicious.
Most underrated restaurant in Denver/Boulder: Lee Yuan. The owners, Nancy and Kenny, are the raddest people ever, and eating there is like going home; it stokes my heart space. Kenny works in back and Nancy works up front, and they make the best Chinese food I've eaten in Colorado, plus they're just really good people.
Who is Denver's next rising-star chef? I don't really know about rising stars, but I do know about shooting stars. One time after I got home from a late night at work, I stood outside my house and saw nine shooting stars in about twenty minutes. That's my record.
Which living chef do you most admire? I admire anyone who wakes up early and works hard all day, putting their heart and soul on a plate for much less money than they deserve. Everyone knows that being a chef is hard work, but what people don't realize is that being a chef is a hard life. Most chefs are underpaid, underappreciated and overworked, not to mention the number of sacrifices they make when it comes to family life. Most working chefs die younger than they should because of something related to working in kitchens for too many years. When you dedicate your life to honing your technique and developing your craft, it doesn't leave a whole lot of time for anything else, which is why I respect all chefs and don't idolize the "celebrity" culture that creates personas rather than great chefs.
What do you enjoy most about your craft? Mastering various types of technique. Technique allows you to make whatever you want without recipes. Recipes were cool back in the 1950s, but let's see what a chef can do with whatever ingredients are in front of him or her right now. When you have technique, anything is possible, and you can create from scratch, which is what I like best about working at Volta. I can take raw and seasonal ingredients and create some deliciousness from them, but without technique, this would be impossible.
What are the most challenging aspects of being a chef? Owners. Anyone who's ever been a chef knows that the owners want to make money -- and you want to make money for them, but there are always compromises involved.
What do you expect from a restaurant critic? I expect the critic to know what he or she is writing about. If you're going to critique a dish, make sure you know that dish. On many occasions, I've read reviews where a dish is described, and it's not what they ate. Restaurant critics have a lot of power and can influence the fate of a lot of people's paychecks. Get it right, and it's okay to stay anonymous.
Would you ever send a dish back if you were dining in a friend's restaurant? No. If it were at a friend's restaurant, I probably wouldn't be paying. Sending a dish back is like getting a gift from somebody, and instead of being thankful, you ask, "Where's the bow?" No bueno.
If you could make one request of diners, what would it be? Be happy when you go to a restaurant, and really try to get the most from the experience. And if you're going to bring your kids along, make sure they're happy, too. Also, trust your chef. Making food is what they do, and chances are they've been doing it for a while, so if you see a dish on the menu, try it as it is on the plate before you ask for something on the side, or for a substitution. All of the components are there for a reason, so be willing to trust the chef and experiment.
If you could dress any way you want, what would you wear in the kitchen? I do dress the way I want. I wear the clothes of a chef because that's what I am. I'm not trying to be a movie star or an architect; I'm a chef.
If you could have dinner, all expenses paid, at any restaurant in the world, where would you go? I would order takeout from Lee Yuan, but then have them deliver the food to me on a beach in Bali. I could use a tropical vacation, and I would eat that food so slow that it would probably be the longest meal of my life.
What piece of advice would you give to an aspiring chef? Don't think that being a chef is glamorous. That lifestyle is for celebrities. Real chefs pay their dues, and it's a long, hard road before you're good enough to be worth anything, and the road is even longer until you start receiving any kind of recognition for all the work you've put in.
If you could train under any chef in the world, who would it be? Dario Cecchini, who's a butcher rather than a chef. I'd love for him to teach me all the ways he honors the animals in death. His family has been working as butchers in Italy for 250 years, and if anybody knows the way of death and how to honor the animals during that process, it's him.
What skills and attributes do you look for when hiring kitchen staff? They have to be good. I don't care who you are or where you came from: Come and work with me for an hour, and I'll know whether you're a good fit for my team. I want mercenaries and pirates, and every one of them will prep their fingers raw and work as many hours as I need them to, all to achieve deliciousness -- and all for the benefit of the guests who keep coming back for more.
Favorite dish on your menu: My menu changes daily, so what's my favorite today probably won't be tomorrow. I don't think I could ever work someplace that doesn't allow me to change my menu daily, which is something I get to do at Volta. We tweak our menu every day because our ingredients change daily. Do you wear the same clothes every day? Do you eat the same thing every day? Do you do the exact same thing at work every day? I hope not. So why should my team and I have to execute the same menu? It's not natural. When you come to Volta, you might have a dish on any given night that was amazing, so you tell three of your friends about it, and then they come in to try it, only to realize that the dish isn't there anymore. Your friends heard that the chef there was kind of crazy but really talented, so they try something else, and guess what? That was amazing, too. At Volta, I aspire to create dishes every night that give people a sense of goodness and deep satisfaction. What dish would you love to put on your menu, regardless of how well it would sell? Bean burritos. I love beans, so if I had bean burritos on the menu, I would always have something good to eat.
Weirdest customer request: I'm in Boulder, so anything weird is possible. We love everybody here, don't you know?
What's your biggest pet peeve? The health-care system. We created a huge fuss about health-care reform, but all that's been accomplished is making people pay into an insurance system, and those who don't get fined. That makes no sense. Too many people are sick, in pain and on a downward spiral as far as their health is concerned, but they still can't afford to go to the doctor. How about a system where, if you're in need of health care, it's there for you, for free? People shouldn't become doctors so they can have a mansion with a German sports car in the driveway, just like people shouldn't become chefs for the celebrity status. There are too many people trying to get rich instead of trying to help people.
Your best traits: My singing.
Your worst traits: My singing.
Which talent do you most wish you had? Milking cobras was always something I wished I could do, but I just don't have the hands for it.
Biggest mistake a chef can make on the line: Making food that isn't delicious, or getting too wasted before work and falling asleep in the lowboy during service.
What's been your worst disaster in the kitchen? There are quite a few, but when I was cooking in Beaver Creek, a grill cook put a large bottle of oil on top of the grill, and flames shot up everywhere, bouncing off the top of the hoods and then bouncing on the ground. The whole restaurant, including the dining room, lit up with sparks and flames. We had to throw everything away and start over.
Craziest night in the kitchen: I plead the Fifth.
Biggest moment of euphoria in the kitchen: Whenever someone says thank you. A good meal gives people joy, and they remember that. Being part of that experience -- a memorable food memory -- is a huge compliment.
Best recipe tip for a home cook: You don't have to follow recipes to a T. The most important thing is that the dish tastes good. You shouldn't feel stressed because you can't execute a recipe. Throw away the recipe and make something that stokes your heart space. If you've mastered technique, you can do this effortlessly.
Kitchen rule you always adhere to: No sharing.
Kitchen rule you're not afraid to break: No sharing.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef: Knowing that my staff of pirates and mercenaries would break their necks for me any day. It's not easy. There are a lot of chefs who wouldn't trust their staff, or even turn their backs for fear of being stabbed. And there are lots of chefs who can't rely on someone to fill in for them if something comes up and they need a day off for an emergency. I don't have that problem. I lay it on the line every day for my team, and they lay it down for me, too. A well-run kitchen operates with lots of trust and backup, and if it doesn't, then it will all break down the second you get hit with that first crisis.
What's one thing that people would be surprised to know about you? My favorite color is rainbow.
What's next for the Denver/Boulder dining scene? Twenty-four-hour all-you-can-eat pizza and root beer. It's like the '70s, when disco was big. Everybody was partying and discoing it up everywhere. It's going to be like that, only instead of disco parties and clubs, it's going to be pizza parties. Sign me up for that.
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