This is part two of my interview with Colin Mallet, chef of Sassafras; part one of our chat ran yesterday..
Describe the biggest challenges facing Denver chefs: The amount of competition is enormous. There are so many new restaurants opening each year, and the challenge to set yourself apart from everyone else is a difficult task.
What do you enjoy most about your craft? Providing happiness through food makes me feel good.
Most underrated Denver restaurant: Sunny Gardens, which a friend turned me on to. It's hands-down the best traditional Chinese food in Denver and my go-to place for delicious takeout when I'm just too tired to cook. I usually get the pork fried rice; I can't live without it.
Who's the most underrated chef in Denver? A chef's name we don't hear enough: Pete List, the executive chef of Beatrice & Woodsley. He has a vast knowledge of so many cuisines and the cojones to put ingredients together that you wouldn't typically see on the same plate. He's a contemporary chef but truly cooks from his heart and for the love of food.
What recent innovation has most influenced the restaurant industry in a significant way? The use of thermal immersion circulators, which protect the integrity of an ingredient by cooking it slowly -- eggs or a duck breast, for example.
Favorite culinary-related gift you've been given: My Misono UX10 Gyoto knife. The owners of Sassafras gave it to me, and it's the best chef's knife that you can get. I can't even begin to tell you how much I love it.
Favorite culinary-related item to give as a gift: Wine. Good wine is just as important to me as good food. I like to give people something slightly obscure; I'm partial to Rhônes.
What's your fantasy splurge? Food-wise, Wagyu beef tartare with seared foie gras, a sunny-side-up duck egg, crispy duck skin and shaved Aiba white truffles. And for the kitchen, I'd love to have a thermal immersion circulator, an anti-griddle and a blast chiller -- in that order.
What was the last cookbook you bought, and what recipes are you cooking from it? I've received cookbooks as gifts, but I don't buy them myself, and I don't use recipes from cookbooks, but I do enjoy reading them as a source of inspiration and new ideas.
Best recipe tip for a home cook: Life is all about your mise en place. The more prepared and organized you are, the better you'll be at executing the recipe you're working on.
What advice would you give to a young chef? Develop your palate, without which you have nothing; embrace your mistakes, because it's the only way to learn and grow; learn how to take constructive criticism; and stay humble and always try to improve.
What skills and attributes do you look for when hiring kitchen staff? They must have integrity, a good palate and the ability to take direction and constructive criticism well.
Biggest mistake a chef can make on the line: The failure to communicate. Communication with my staff is just as important as the food that comes out of my kitchen.
If you could cook in another chef's kitchen, whose would it be? Wylie Dufresne. He's at the forefront of the molecular-gastronomy movement, which I have a great interest in learning more about. I'd just love to pick his brain on the subject.
What would you cook for him if he came to your restaurant? A dish I have been dying to make: tortoise in the hare, a pan-roasted snapping-turtle-sausage-stuffed rabbit saddle with a collard-green-and-goat-cheese mille feuille accompanied by sweet potato jus and house-pickled cayenne-pepper jam.
If you had the opportunity to open your own restaurant with no budget constraints, what kind of restaurant would you open? I'd open a contemporary French restaurant with Louisiana influences, using the freshest local ingredients available, with an emphasis on fresh seafood from around the world, all at their seasonal peak.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef: Creating a menu of comfort food from my upbringing that's so near and dear to my heart. It humbles me that we've managed to put together a menu that's been so well received by Denver locals, especially considering how far from the South we are.
What's your biggest pet peeve? Under-seasoned food. It amazes me how many dishes could benefit greatly from just a tiny bit of salt.
Your best traits: My deep adoration of food, plus I have a ridiculously good, strangely sensitive palate and sense of smell, and I'm a really strong leader -- I'm a dominator -- and I'm really good at delegating.
Your worst traits: I am a notorious towel bandit, I drink the last of the coffee, and I burn myself every single day -- sometimes more than once. And I've been known to be late every once a while, but it's usually because of a good reason, like stopping on my way here to pick up coffee.
When guests want to thank you for a meal that really wows them, what do you wish they'd send to the kitchen? A simple compliment is plenty enough for me. Knowing my guests are happy makes me happy, although I guess they could send me a six-shot espresso, because I need my fix every half-hour to keep going.
Biggest moment of euphoria in the kitchen: When the dining room is completely full and we manage to complete every order in a timely manner.
Craziest night in the kitchen: One night while I was working the graveyard shift as a short-order cook, when I was eighteen years old, on Bourbon Street, the only waitress who was working angered a group of customers, who then retaliated by dousing her with mustard.
What's your idea of an unparalleled dining experience? One that starts from the moment I walk in the door, beginning with the host or hostess. Beyond that, I expect stellar service from a waitstaff that truly understands their chef's menu, perfectly executed food from the kitchen, and a wine list that complements the menu.
What's always lurking in your refrigerator? A variety of hot sauces. At any given time, I have about ten to fifteen different hot sauces in my fridge, as well as an array of cheeses.
Last meal before you die: Smothered pork chops, rice and gravy, field peas, cream-style corn, and a warm Hawaiian roll with salted butter. My grandmother often made this dish for me as a child, and I'm still enamored with it.
If you hadn't become a chef, what would you be doing right now? I'm not sure what I'd be doing. All I've ever known is food, and everything I've done in my life has involved food in some way or another.
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What's one thing that people would be surprised to know about you? I never had a salad until I was twenty years old.
What's in the pipeline? Learning and growing as much as I can in order to be the best chef that I can possibly be. And we want to open more Sassafras locations around Denver. In fact, we're really close to inking a deal on a second location. The freedom I have there is unheard of, and it's a company that I want to grow with. There will be more news coming soon about the new restaurant.
What's next for Denver's culinary scene? I think we're going to see a surge of meat markets and charcuterie and salumeria shops.