Darren Pusateri, chef of Gallo Di Nero: "John Wilson, the chef of Udi's on Colfax, is probably the best cook in town"
1135 Bannock Street
This is part two of my interview with Darren Pusateri, exec chef of Gallo Di Nero; part one of our chat ran yesterday.
What specific requests would you ask of Denver diners?
I'd ask Denver diners to eat out, eat local, support small business and be conscientious of their community. There are so many locally owned restaurants that are killing it right now, and we all have to keep going out and patronizing these places so they can make it.
What do you expect from a restaurant critic?
I expect a restaurant critic to base their opinion on several visits, not just one, and I think that in order to get a real, genuine feel for a place, anonymity is important. Having said that, if my GM doesn't recognize a critic that's in the house, I would fire him. Just kidding...ish.
Most underrated Denver restaurant:
Bluefin Sushi in Stapleton. I live nearby, and I've been going there for a while, and believe me, these guys can cut fish. I've ever had a bad experience there.
Who's the most underrated chef in Denver?
That's easy: John Wilson, the chef of Udi's on Colfax, is probably the best cook in town. I've been lucky enough to work with John, and he's definitely on his game, all the time. We've been on the line together looking at so many tickets that it makes our eyes bulge, but when he's on the line, he just crushes it.
Would you ever send a dish back if you were dining in a friend's restaurant?
Not unless it was an egregious error, like something rotten. I would, however, tell him at a later time. If we were friends, he or she would want to know, and so would I. It's like another opinion from somebody you trust and whose palate you trust.
Favorite culinary-related gift you've been given:
My first sushi knife that my wife, Kristina, gave to me twelve years ago. It's a badass piece of steel -- plus, every time I look at it, it reminds me of her.
Favorite culinary-related item to give as a gift:
I love to give people a copy of Letters to a Young Chef, by Daniel Boulud. It talks about what the elite chefs of the world expect of cooks when they start in their kitchen, and it's a great way for guys to learn what it takes to achieve a high level of proficiency.
What's your fantasy splurge?
A heaping spoonful of triple-zero beluga caviar, a bottle of Selosse or Chiquet Champagne, my bed and my wife, on Sunday morning.
What cookbooks and/or food-related reading material do you draw inspiration from?
When I was 21, my exec at Cafe Boulud gave me White Heat, by Marco Pierre White, and it was life-changing for me. I'm still inspired by his philosophy of food and restaurants, and while a few of the dishes probably seem somewhat antiquated, the overall points are well taken.
Best recipe tip for a home cook:
Learn how to make a proper chicken stock, freeze it and then use it in your cooking. The concentration of flavor will add a little something extra that will elevate your food to that next level. Sure, it's a little time-consuming to do it right, but the result is beyond compare.
What should every home cook have in the pantry?
Every home cook should have a really good bottle of first-press extra-virgin olive oil to finish plates; the slightly grassy notes will accentuate the other flavors and make them pop.
What advice would you give to an aspiring young chef?
Learn how to take criticism -- not just take it and shrug it off, but take it and do something with it. You don't just start out as a smashing success. There are going to be some duds along your path, so know how to accept them and move on. I know it can be hard, because most chefs put a lot of themselves into each plate, but you've got to have the ability to recognize when you've made a mistake, and listen to other people when they tell you it's just not that good.
What skills and attributes do you look for when hiring kitchen staff?
When I'm hiring, I look for people who are excited and will come to work with a desire to learn. Food is always evolving -- there's something new to learn every day -- and I want to see passion, a deep sense of humility and respect for all things food: the creative process, the execution, all of it. Sometimes, it's not so much about experience as much as it's about work ethic. I can teach you technique, and I can teach you how to break down a whole pig, but what I can't teach is you wanting to be the best and taking pride in your work.
What's your biggest challenge as a chef working in Denver?
Finding enough money to pay quality guys. For the guys with passion, humility and respect for the food, there's never enough money. I feel the responsibility of that every day, which is why I always try to create a family atmosphere. Landed in jail? I'll be right there to bail you out. Need some help? I've got your back. Just pay me back by always trying harder than the day before.
Biggest mistake a chef can make on the line:
Messiness. It sets you back in so many ways, especially when you're getting crushed. Nothing like getting to a guy's station to bail him out and there's nowhere to plate food because he's got all his mise all over the place. You've got to have speed, precision and cleanliness.
If you could dress any way you want, what would you wear in the kitchen?
I wouldn't wear anything. Wait, maybe a really-deep-V-neck T-shirt.
What recent innovation has most influenced the restaurant industry in a significant way?
I'd have to say Obamacare. I don't know what it all means -- I don't think anybody does -- but it's provocative.
Biggest pet peeves:
The guy who goes into the walk-in, finds what he needs, and it's all packaged up nice with plastic wrap, but instead of unwrapping it, he shoves his hand through the wrap, grabs what's inside and goes on his way. Bro, you can unwrap it, then rewrap it.
My passion for food.
My passion for food. You have to take the good with the bad.
If you could cook in another chef's kitchen, whose would it be?
Steve Redzikowski from Oak at Fourteenth and Acorn. He's one of the best chefs I've ever worked under.
What would you cook for Redzikowski if he came to your restaurant?
It really depends. If I have every ingredient at my disposal, then lamb kidneys with a poached egg. It's one of my all-time favorites.
If you could have dinner anywhere in the world, where would you go?
I would definitely go to my mom's house. She passed away about a year and a half ago, and I miss cooking with her a lot.
If you left Denver to cook somewhere else, where would you go?
Probably Quince in San Francisco, mostly because chef Michael Tusk's style of food really speaks to me. I've done stages in a lot of different places, including San Francisco, and I'd really like to spend more time in that city.
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 small -- really small -- and intimate place that had a chef's table and no servers, kind of like the Catbird Seat in Nashville. The focus would be all about the food.
Biggest moment of euphoria in the kitchen:
My best moment was cooking for Paul Bocuse when I was working at DB Bistro in New York City. I mean, you're cooking for a legend, so it's intimidating, but at the end of the day, all you can do is put your very best food out there and hope it's enough.
Craziest night in the kitchen:
New Year's Eve 1999, at the Ritz-Carlton in Palm Beach, Florida. There were several bomb threats called in, so we had to cook outside for 300 people. It was madness.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef:
When I find time to cook with Remy and Nico, my two beautiful boys. They come down to Gallo di Nero from time to time and we make pizzas together and joke around. They know everyone, and I feel like they're at the age when hanging with the older guys is really cool for them.
What's next for Denver's culinary scene?
I hope we see an explosion of great restaurants that really find perfection in the details. There's just so much young talent in this town that it's inevitable, right?
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