This is part one of my interview with Colin Mallet, chef of Sassafras; part two of our chat will run tomorrow.
"Hey, I'll be back in a sec. I've got a fire to put out," says Colin Mallet, who utters the words with remarkable nonchalance. In ten minutes, he's back in the dining room at Sassafras, sheepishly asking if he stinks of grease. Turns out one of the cooks had spilled some of the slick lubricant, sparking a fire -- with flames -- in the bay of the grease trap underneath the flat-top. "I filled a squeeze bottle with milk and sprayed it in there and then had the guys clean up the mess," Mallet reports with the same degree of reserve.
It's just another day on the line for the Sassafras chef, who's extinguished quite a few fires during his 33 years. Despite his relatively young age, he's already had 27 jobs, most of them in restaurants.
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Born and raised in Morgan City, Louisiana, home of the Shrimp and Petroleum Festival and located "right in the middle of everywhere," according to the town's website, Mallet, who still speaks with a mellow drawl, grew up surrounded by the same Southern-style food that's made Sassafras an insanely popular breakfast-and-lunch destination. "In Louisiana, food is the center of all socializing. You wake up and eat breakfast and talk about what you're having for lunch, and then at lunch, we talk about what we're having for dinner, and at dinner, we talk about what's for breakfast. It's always about what we're going to eat next," laughs Mallet, who, despite his impressive list of restaurant gigs, insists that Sassafras is his home away from home.
But the chef, whose food focuses on biscuits and gravy, beignets, Benedicts and barbecued shrimp, took the long road to get there, going to college to study psychology before dropping out to cook full-time at a 24/7 breakfast joint on Bourbon Street, in the heart of New Orleans, where he attended college. "I was super-passionate about cooking, but I knew that cooks didn't make much money," explains Mallet, "so I went to school to study psychology, thinking I'd graduate and have a career, but I got a job as a short-order cook in the French Quarter, and my boss said that I had some serious cooking potential and should stick with it, so that was that."
He bounced around restaurants in the Big Easy -- fourteen, to be exact -- cooking, bartending and working the front of the house. "I've been a cook, a bartender, a server and a busboy -- I've pretty much done it all except being a dishwasher; I was lucky enough to avoid that. I always thought the grass was greener on the other side," explains Mallet, admitting now that "the grass was never greener" -- except at Sassafras. "It's not that I didn't like my jobs; I did, but there's always high turnover in the restaurant industry, and there's not a lot of money, and I needed money to survive, so I kept moving from job to job, especially server jobs, hoping that I could make enough money to make a life for myself," he admits.
But Louisiana, he discovered, wasn't the place to strike it rich. "I was just over it," acknowledges Mallet, who moved to California because of -- what else? -- a girl. The courtship lasted a mere three weeks, but while he was there, he met another woman who happened to have ties to Colorado, and nine years ago, he -- and she -- moved to Denver. She eventually left for Seattle, but Mallet stayed put, raking in tips as a server at, among other places, Rialto Cafe, Cucina Colore, the long-gone Cafe Star, Mirepoix, Il Fornaio and Restaurant 1515, where he met the woman who became his wife, who was also waiting tables.
When she left to start her own career in the fashion industry, Mallet figured it was time to get back to doing what he loved most: cooking. He got a gig as an egg cook at Breakfast on Broadway, and within six months was promoted to the chef job. He left because of a "personality conflict" with the owner, he says, and wound up at Beatrice & Woodsley, where he was brought on as a grill cook and eventually promoted to sous chef, doing time alongside exec chef Pete List, for whom Mallet has nothing but praise. "That guy doesn't get enough credit," insists Mallet. "He's so nice and down-to-earth, and he has such an amazing knowledge of world cuisine, plus he's incredibly giddy about food, which is what a chef should be."
There were more jobs, too, at Citron Bistro and the Cork House, but those, says Mallet, were simply cash flow. It wasn't until he heard about a soon-to-open restaurant touting the magic words "Southern breakfast" that he became giddy, too. "I found an ad for Sassafras, and that was a wrap," declares Mallet, who applied for the exec-chef job and, as part of his interview, whipped up batches of biscuits, peanut-butter fudge, pork-belly chorizo and cornbread. "I knew I wanted this job -- it sang to me -- and after 27 jobs and fifteen years in the business, I've finally found what I'd been looking for," says Mallet, who in the following interview compares white pepper to the stench of a gas-station bathroom, explains why fried chicken and waffles shouldn't appear on Southern menus, and admits that the squirrels on Colfax make for a decent dinner.
Describe your approach to cooking: I do contemporary versions of classic Southern-style dishes that I grew up eating, but more important, I like to think outside of the box without losing focus of the most significant thing, which is putting a delicious plate of food in front of my guests.
Who, or what, inspires you? Fresh ingredients and farmers' markets; my grandma and my mom, both of whom taught me how to cook; Justin Wilson, one of the first chef personalities on TV who cooked Cajun food and was always quirky and a had a story to tell; and my desire to eat delicious food and share it with others.
What are your ingredient obsessions? Chiles and pork fat. The depth of flavor that each of these ingredients brings to a dish is unparalleled.
What are your kitchen-gadget obsessions? I have an extra-quiet, very fast meat grinder that makes my life easier, and like many other chefs I know, I can't live without my Robot Coupe.
Favorite local ingredients and purveyors: When it comes to fresh, locally sourced produce, I use Fresh Guys. They grow the most beautiful green hothouse tomatoes and chiles, and I can't get them anywhere else. The chicken I use is locally raised, antibiotic-free, organically fed and free-range, courtesy of Tonali's.
One ingredient you won't touch: I hate white pepper. It has no place in any cooking, and it tastes really gross. In fact, it tastes like the stench of a gas-station restroom.
One ingredient you can't live without: Aromatics, especially onions and chiles, both of which are simple ingredients that I use in almost everything I make. Aromatics give everything you make a strong depth of flavor.
Food trend you'd like to see in 2013: A return to the classics. I love the modern growth of the restaurant industry, but nothing is more comforting than old-school recipes like a classic Italian meatball, veal piccata, or a great cassoulet.
Food trend you'd like to see disappear in 2013: I say to each their own, and if I try something at a restaurant that isn't my taste, then I just don't eat there again. Food trends keep the industry moving forward, and I embrace the diversity the restaurant industry offers, especially here in Denver. That said, I will say that I'm getting a little tired of seeing chicken and waffles on menus, especially at Southern-style restaurants. It was cool for a second, like ten years ago, but now every Southern restaurant has it on its menu -- and it's not even a Southern dish. It originated in the 1930s in Harlem, to feed club-goers who couldn't decide between breakfast and lunch. If I ever suggested making chicken and waffles for my mom -- she's from Louisiana -- she'd think I was absolutely crazy, and she'd be right.
Favorite dish on your menu right now: My personal favorites are the gumbo and the oyster po' boy, because they're two of the most traditional dishes from Louisiana and remind me the most of home.
What dish would you love to put on your menu, regardless of how well it would sell? Turtle sauce piquante, which is a traditional Cajun dish made by stewing alligator and snapping-turtle meat in a spicy tomato ragu, served over steamed long-grain rice.
Is there a special request you really dislike or refuse to accommodate? I've spent a lot of time designing my menu, so making modifications isn't something I'm fond of doing, but I'll always accommodate my guests' special requests whenever possible.
Weirdest customer request: Where do I begin? Egg whites on an eggs Benedict, blue cheese with salmon, and over-medium-hard eggs...but to each their own.
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Weirdest thing you've ever put in your mouth: Brunswick stew made from the squirrels making rounds around East Colfax. A friend and co-worker of mine had a problem with squirrels eating his dog's food, so he took it upon himself to lower the squirrel population in his neighborhood. As strange as it sounds, it was delicious.