This is part one of my interview with Chris Cina, executive chef of Hideaway Steakhouse. Part two of that interview will run in this space tomorrow.
Chris Cina wasn't born with a silver spoon in his mouth, didn't have a career handed to him on a silver platter -- and the first hat that graced his little head certainly wasn't a toque. "My sister and I were latchkey kids growing up in Philadelphia, and we were always hungry, so we messed around in the kitchen, but we made simple stuff like eggs, sandwiches and boxes of Stove Top, only because I could read the directions," jokes Cina. His cooking training was limited to watching Jack Tripper on Three's Company. "I thought that the coolest thing about being a chef was the fact that Jack lived with two female roommates," he recalls.
But it wasn't long before Cina, now the executive chef of Hideaway Steakhouse, found himself in a professional kitchen. "My dad bought me a car when I was fifteen, but I had to pay the insurance, which meant that I had to get a job, and, as luck would have it, my best friend's uncle had a restaurant, so my first restaurant gig was as a dishwasher," remembers Cina, who quickly moved up to pantry and, eventually, the grill station.
Cina had aspirations of going to college and becoming a writer, but he admits that he "didn't give a shit about school" and had the grades to prove it, graduating near the bottom of his high school class. "I was having a lot more fun in the kitchen than in school," he says, "and even though I did well on my SATs and went ahead and applied to college anyway, they all said I had the aptitude but not the attitude."
But he had both the aptitude and the attitude to get into the Culinary Institute of America, as well as the fortitude to graduate. It was 1992, and "San Francisco was the place to be at the time, what with Alice Waters, the whole farm-to-table movement, fresh produce and restaurants that were revered," he says. So he jumped in the car, put the pedal to the metal and sped down the freeway toward the City by the Bay -- but he only got as far as Denver before he ran out of gas and money.
Cina ended up spending several years in the Mile High City, working everywhere from the Wellshire Inn -- where "plates were chicken at six o'clock, rice at ten o'clock and veg at two o'clock, always zucchini," he remembers -- to the now-defunct Bistro 100, Zenith, Aubergine Cafe and the Fourth Story. But eventually he made his way to San Francisco, cooking at Stars restaurant in Palo Alto, and then to Europe. Finally, he returned to Colorado, where he was the executive chef at the Ameristar Casino in Black Hawk before opening his own space, Hideaway Steakhouse, in late March.
"We've had some issues here with the opening, very common issues that every restaurant experiences when they open," admits Cina. "Guests have left here less than impressed, vowing never to return, whether due to service or food quality or expectations, but we've also had people who were blown away that a restaurant like this could exist up north and deliver the goods. It's a work in progress and takes time."
While stretching out in the bar of his new temple to the steer, Cina chats about opening the restaurant, being a goof in the kitchen and the wedding where he made the bride cry.
Six words to describe your food: Eclectic, thoughtful, clean, bright, simple and approachable.
Ten words to describe you: Calm, thoughtful, loyal, thick-skinned, inquisitive, soft-spoken, nurturing and experimental.
Culinary inspirations: The whole World Wide Web. I spend a lot of time on the Internet, Twitter and various social media sites. I'm interested in what's going on around the globe, and virtually everything happening out there is delivered right to my computer. Menus, blogs, photos and discussions -- they all get me to thinking about what I would do given the same ingredients or the same situation. I take inspiration from everyone from food bloggers to guys like Grant Achatz and Thomas Keller.
Favorite ingredient: I love working with fresh ginger. It works well in both sweet and savory dishes, and it adds spice, heat, citrusy notes and brightness to everything.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: Right now we're using asparagus from Fort Lupton. Asparagus is one of the cool-weather vegetables that grows really well in Colorado. I have an asparagus salad on the menu, and I'm using the stems for an asparagus lemon puree.
Best recent food find: Red Mountain Bakery, a commercial bakery we use for all our breads. An Italian guy and a French guy own it, and they bake beautiful baguettes, and their ficelle and the ciabatta are amazing. We use a smaller version of the ciabatta for our table breads. They also use all Colorado flours for their baking. I'm not sure where or if you can get their stuff retail, but it's so much better than most of the breads in Denver.
Favorite spice: Star anise. It's very similar in flavor to anise, but it's richer and rounder, and it doesn't give off too much of a licorice flavor. We infuse honey and lime juice with star anise to glaze our free-range roast chicken.
Most overrated ingredient: Bacon. I love bacon as much as the next guy -- and we even cure our own bacon here at the restaurant, but come on. Bacon has been around for a while, no? All of a sudden, people are shoehorning bacon into every possible concoction they can dream up. Bacon-flavored vodka? Bacon ice cream? Yeah, I'm over bacon.
Most underrated ingredient: Any form of acid, really, but mostly lemon juice. We use it to season dishes, just as we do with salt, and when it's used properly, it really brightens and enhances flavors. There are quarts of freshly squeezed lemon juice in speed pourers and squirt bottles on every station. It also helps food pair better with wine, and if you don't believe me, come on up, and I'll prove it to you.
One food you detest: I love tomatoes in every form except for raw. It's a combination of texture and flavor that I can't force myself to like. If you put tomatoes on a sandwich, I'll pick them out; if you put them in a salad, I'll pick them out; but if you roast them, dry them, purée them or caramelize them, then I'm all over it.
One food you can't live without: Bread, when it's warm and fresh, is the perfect accompaniment to any meal -- or even as a meal on its own. There isn't anything that doesn't go with bread. When I lived in Saudi Arabia, my father and I would walk through town at dusk and buy two bags of fresh pitas, one for the walk back and one for dinner.
Rules of conduct in your kitchen: At forty years old, I'm just as big of a goof as the twenty-year-olds in my kitchen. I like to keep the kitchen light and fun, as long as you know when it's time to bear down. I don't want to hear you -- or see you -- doing something that isn't related to what you're putting on each plate. Also, I don't want excuses; I don't want to hear "It wasn't me." Chances are I know who it was, and the only reason I'm asking you about it is because I want to see what you're going to do about it. Lastly, take ownership of the food you're cooking.
Favorite music to cook by: It's pretty varied, and now that I've given in to the dark side and bought an iPhone, I always have my whole music library with me. It's not uncommon for me to skip to a block of U2 or the Cure, and sometimes I'll torture my staff with some Andrea Bocelli -- especially if they aren't keeping up with me.
Biggest kitchen disaster: In 2005, I was doing a wedding at a golf club. We had really been pushing banquets and trying to build up that business in Parker, but 95 percent of the events we did were hamburger and hot dog barbecues for golf events. It was frustrating that the golf events were the bulk of my business, so the catering manager and I set about trying to create this great banquet menu so we could start doing some fun, upscale events. It took a while, but we finally reeled in a plated wedding for 150 guests. They had a huge budget and weren't afraid to spend it to have a great evening. They wanted four courses, finishing with a choice of New York strip steak or roasted salmon. When we got the order, it was 75 percent New York strips, and we all agreed that the steaks would be served medium-rare to make it easier for the staff to cook and serve. Once the third course had finished, we waited for the staff to clear plates and we fired the steaks. At the same time, the wedding party started several amusing toasts, and we could hear the laughter in the kitchen. It felt good that things were going so well...until about 45 minutes later, once the speeches and toasts were done and we went to plate. The steaks were still in the oven -- dead, dead, dead -- and there was nothing I could do. I had no more steaks left in the kitchen, so 115 people didn't get to eat, the bride cried, the mother cried because the bride was crying, and I couldn't apologize enough. I had drained the entire life out of a wedding that only minutes earlier was full of joy. I didn't sleep that night, and I don't think I ate the next day. It was the worst night of my career.
What's never in your kitchen? As much as I love it, I never keep yellow mustard in my professional kitchen. It's cheap, and it tastes cheap, too. There's nothing at all wrong with it; it just doesn't fit my food.
What's always in your kitchen? I use a good amount of pancetta all over the kitchen. It differs from bacon in that it isn't smoked and the main flavoring ingredient during curing is black pepper. It's richer than bacon, the flavor is a lot more neutral, and it's great when I want to add depth to a sauce or dish. Il Mondo Vecchio makes a killer pancetta, but I'm having a hard time breaking away from my Molinari.
Favorite dish to cook at home: We rarely make plans for cooking at home. Most of the time it's like, "Well, what should we eat tonight?" The one night that we do plan for is taco night. Everything is done fresh, and the best part is you get to eat with your hands. There's nothing more visceral than eating with your hands, sans silver. I think that's why the girls like it, too.
Favorite dish on your menu: The pan-seared scallops with crispy short ribs, sweet potato hash and foie gras butter sauce has been a huge hit. I'm really happy I was able to do so well with a non-steak item in a steakhouse. It's a great combination of textures and sweet and salty flavors.
If you could put any dish on your menu, even though it might not sell, what would it be? Shad and roe with bacon and shallots. It's old-school and very popular on the East Coast, although I don't think I've ever seen it in Denver. It's one of those delicacies that most people scrunch their noses at.
Weirdest customer request: I had a guest ask for medium-rare braised lamb shanks because well-done lamb is just too tough. I couldn't get him to understand that the cooking process was so long and involved that I couldn't possibly take a temperature on a lamb shank. He ordered something else, but he left unhappy.
Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: It used to be kangaroo, but I guess that's not so weird anymore.
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Hardest lesson you've learned, and how you've changed because of it: When I took over as the exec chef at the Fourth Story, it was the first time that a menu -- and every dish on it -- was my responsibility. Every complaint or returned dish was like a punch in the stomach. I could sell twenty salmon specials that all received rave reviews, but if there was one guy who ate the salmon and didn't like it, that would haunt me for the rest of the night. I've come to learn and understand that I won't make everyone happy; it's just not possible. Food and the ability to taste is a very subjective thing, and I have to learn to accept that, to learn that 100 percent of the diners are not going to leave happy. On the one hand, it's very frustrating that someone would come in on the second day we're open and then trash us on every website they can find. On the other hand, I understand that people are paying hard-earned money and they're frustrated and upset when they don't feel like they're getting what they paid for. To those people, I would just like to say, give us a chance to make it up to you. I know we don't suck.