This is part one of my interview with Enrique Socarras, executive chef of Cuba Cuba. Part two of that interview will run in this space tomorrow.
Enrique Socarras puffs on a cigar, intently studying the squiggles of smoke that swirl through the air. Cuban cigars are all they're cracked to be, he confirms, but Miami, where he grew up -- and where cigars are as ubiquitous as babes in bikinis -- is not. "Aside from partying and the beach, Miami really sucks," says Socarras, the executive chef/co-owner of Cuba Cuba who was born to Cuban exiles.
One of them, his mother, introduced him to the world of Cuban cuisine. "I come from a family of women, all of whom were great cooks -- my grandmother and great-grandmother, and especially my mother -- and I was exposed at a really early age to a variety of ethnic foods, especially Cuban, and I quickly developed a passion for food," recalls Socarras. But it wasn't until college that he actually considered becoming a chef. "I studied visual arts in middle school, high school and college, but in college, I was going out to eat a lot, taking girls on dates and seeing art as food on plates, and I realized that as much as I loved painting, you can't taste a painting." So, he says, "I decided to create food and get paid for it, because I didn't want to be a broke artist."
He worked the Miami restaurant circuit for several years, landing his first job as a prep cook and dishwasher at a neighborhood restaurant. "I was instantly intrigued by the organized confusion of a professional kitchen, and I knew this is where I belonged and wanted to be," says Socarras, who quickly moved up in the ranks, eventually landing a gig where he cooked for several high-profilers -- the royal family of Spain and the Dalai Lama among them.
But Miami eventually got the better of Socarras, and in 2000 he fled to Denver to help his sister open Cuba Cuba. "I knew I needed to get the hell out of Miami -- away from all the plastic, shallow, superficial closed-mindedness -- and my sister was already living in Colorado and wanted to either open a boutique or a Cuban restaurant and bar, and she decided on the restaurant, so I packed up and moved to Denver," remembers Socarras, who originally committed to a six-month stint to set up the staff, design the menu and get the restaurant up and running.
But it didn't exactly work out that way. "I ended up staying for a year because the restaurant was really busy and I was having a lot of fun," explains Socarras, who returned briefly to Miami to "shut doors" and then moved to Denver permanently in 2003. "I needed my sister, my sister needed me, the restaurant needed us both, and I wanted to be a part of an authentic dining scene, which is something that Miami doesn't have," he insists.
"I come from a city that's fickle -- hot today, cold tomorrow -- but Denver isn't like that," he muses. "Here, people want to get to know you, and people really seem to appreciate what I'm doing." Plus, says Socarras, "I walk through my dining room and see a lot of genuine, smiling faces, and experiencing that makes me even more certain that this is the career that I was made for."
In the following interview, Socarras reveals a new career move in Boulder and raps on Easy-Bake Oven recipes, the ingenuity of Frank Bonanno, the absence of rules in his kitchen, and how a drunken carousal led to stomaching raw bacon.
Six words to describe your food: Ever-evolving, authentic, bold, sexy, simple and fun.
Ten words to describe you: Spontaneous, creative, dedicated, humble, confident, passionate, complicated, extreme, easygoing and a dad.
Culinary inspirations: My culture and heritage -- the smells growing up, the flair of Cuba, the great food; there's just something about Cuban culture being so alive and in-your-face, and I'm inspired by the fact that I'm able to give people what I grew up eating. I'm also inspired by anyone who's a chef -- both here and abroad. Creativity breeds creativity. It's important to stay relevant in whatever you do -- to push boundaries -- and I think the competitive nature of what we do forces us to constantly evolve and keep things fresh. Everywhere I travel, I try something new, and whenever I go out to dinner, I look for new dishes; that inspires me.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef: Opening Cuba Cuba as a 23-year-old punk and creating something that, even after ten years, people still enjoy. I think the journey has been the best accomplishment -- doing whatever it took to avoid failure, usually learning from my mistakes, and just rolling with the punches. It was a humbling experience, to say the least. And helping my cooks and chefs move up the ranks has been another great accomplishment. I started as a dishwasher, shlepping trash out the back door, and being the head chef of a kitchen as well as a restaurant owner has given me the opportunity to help other young dishwashers move up in their careers.
Favorite ingredient: Pork. Forget duck fat; just give me some pork confit. Pork is so amazingly versatile and full of flavor, not to mention that without it, we wouldn't have prosciutto, Serrano ham or bacon. Did I say bacon?
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: It usually depends on the season, but Haystack Mountain goat cheese would have to be my favorite. I usually I just pick it up at Whole Foods, or from Shamrock, if I need it in bulk.
Favorite spice: Salt. It makes all flavors pop, and it's a key element for any recipe -- even pastry and dessert making. If you don't believe me, just ask your favorite pastry chef.
Best recent food discovery: The loroco flower. It's common in Salvadorean cuisine, most often in stews and pupusa fillings. The flavor reminds me of fiddlehead ferns meets epazote.
Most underrated ingredient: Integrity. Great food comes from more than great ingredients; you have to pour your heart and soul into it. It's no coincidence that the greatest chefs are all married to their job.
Most overrated ingredient: Smoked Spanish paprika is usually way overused, and it's worth remembering that just because it's in the dish, it doesn't make it Spanish.
One food you detest: Tofu. Is tofu even food? I find that it's usually not prepared correctly and that, more often than not, chefs use it as a copout when they're preparing a veggie dish.
One food you can't live without: My mom's home cooking -- everything she makes is incredible. But her fricase de pollo is the most comforting dish in the world. It takes her all day to make, and it really encapsulates what Cuban food is all about. When I was growing up, everyone on the block who smelled it would drop their basketballs and come running to our house for her chicken. She also taught me how to appreciate food and understand what it is to create -- not just heat food to edible temperatures.
Biggest kitchen disaster: My disher broke a stack of plates over the line on opening night, killing all our mise en place and morale. We had 150 people waiting to eat and had to improvise without looking like a bunch of hacks. Luckily we survived the night, and now we have a height requirement for our dishwashers.
What's never in your kitchen? Personal bullshit or drama. I also go through anti-ingredient stages periodically, but for the most part, I don't rule anything out.
What's always in your kitchen? Controlled chaos, rendered pork fat, jokes, pranks, beer, dedication, integrity and chicharrones.
Rules of conduct in your kitchen: Rules? What rules? I've had the luxury of having the same staff for ten years. We don't need rules. There's just a basic understanding and commitment to what we're doing. We pull pranks, tell jokes and crank up the music. All I ask is that you show up, have fun and cook your ass off. We're here to work, not play.
Favorite music to cook by: Salsa and old-school hip-hop.
Weirdest customer request: Once an elderly couple asked me to marry their daughter, and I think they were serious.
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Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: The food my friends prepare when we're drunk -- raw bacon in between tortillas, for example, popped in the toaster for half a second. Not to cook the bacon, but to make the tortilla warm. I'm not sure the raw bacon was as bad as the moldy feta that had been sitting on the floor for God knows how long, but, yeah, I was really drunk and decided that raw bacon was as good as anything else.
What's next for you? We're currently working on a contemporary-casual lunch version of Cuba Cuba that we're opening in Boulder. The goal is to offer the same authenticity and flair of Cuba Cuba Denver, and the menu will consist of traditional Cuban sandwiches and dishes that are prepared to order, affordable, fast, and competitive with the average lunch joints. The space is under construction, and we're in the process of finalizing the menu, the decor and our game plan. We hope to open in May, and we're super-excited to make the move to Boulder. I'm also taking part in the Denver FIVE group, a bunch of chefs dedicated to placing Denver's culinary scene on the map and holding charity events to raise funds for Colorado ProStart and Chefs Up Front. And in my spare time, I'm working on a Cuban cookbook featuring my renditions of all the staple Cuban dishes, as well as some Cuba Cuba favorites.