This is part one of my interview with Darren Pusateri, exec chef of Gallo Di Nero; part two of our chat will run tomorrow.
Darren Pusateri, clad in a heavy coat with an ebony scarf swaddled around his neck, shakes off a shiver as he slides into one of the booths at Gallo Di Nero, the Golden Triangle restaurant where he's now the executive chef. "We had some issues with the heat this morning," he grumbles. Later, he knocks back a shot of Bulleit rye whiskey to chase away the frosty chill that looms outside on this bleak fall day, the coldest 24 hours of the year.
Florida, where Pusateri was born and raised, is devoid of cold snaps like these, and while he's lived in Denver long enough to experience several spells of frigidity, the 32-year-old chef still has warm memories of his time in the Sunshine State, specifically the Palm Beach area, where he first began experimenting with cooking. And he didn't start with the easy stuff. "I remember being around thirteen and having a bowl of lobster bisque in Las Vegas, and as soon as I got home, I bought a bunch of cookbooks to learn how to make it, except that the first batch was green, because I didn't realize I had to take the poop out, so it was a pretty awful attempt," he remembers, adding that while he also "destroyed three lobsters in the process," he was encouraged by his failure: "The lobster was my first real attempt at cooking, and I loved the challenge of figuring out how to make it better -- it was like a puzzle to me -- and I wanted to keep trying."
That determination led him to enroll in the Florida Culinary Institute and tarnish his knuckles in a professional kitchen, which wasn't difficult, because his father owned a chain of sports bars. But working in a sports bar, Pusateri observes, is "gross, dirty work." It was the series of jobs that soon followed -- including a cooking stint at the Ritz-Carlton and another at a French restaurant -- that encouraged him to keep cooking.
And then he met Daniel Boulud, the New York-based culinary master, whose name, renowned around the world, is synonymous with unparalleled French technique. The chance meeting between him and Boulud occurred during the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, a gastronomic sojourn that was a 21st-birthday gift from his father, who joined him there. But it didn't start out well. "I brought all these résumés with me, and I remember trying to hand them to Charlie Trotter and Thomas Keller, but they didn't want anything to do with me, probably because we were all at a wine seminar and I was kinda trashed and had wine spills all over my shirt," says Pusateri. His dad, however, came up with an idea after they learned that tickets to the coveted Best New Chefs dinner were sold out: They should sneak through the kitchen of the Hotel Jerome and crash it. While they were traipsing through the kitchen, Pusateri was stopped in his tracks. "I literally stumbled into Daniel Boulud," he recalls, and he went into celebrity shock while his dad engaged in conversation with the star chef.
The discussion ended with what appeared to be a job offer from Boulud: "He asked if I wanted to work with him and said to call him the following week," recounts Pusateri, who called, called again and kept calling, only to encounter silence. Then, out of the blue, while Pusateri was cruising down the asphalt in Florida, his phone rang; Boulud was on the other end. The next day, Pusateri packed his knives and moved to New York, where he quickly jumped on the line at the chef's eponymous restaurant. For the next few years, Pusateri spent time on the line in several of Boulud's restaurants, both in New York and Florida.
But when his then-girlfriend -- now wife -- was offered a position in Denver, Pusateri departed Boulud's empire, following her to the Mile High City. And while few things come close to breathing the same air as Daniel Boulud, Pusateri ended up in what many would call the best kitchen in Colorado: Frasca Food and Wine. "It was an awesome experience and I loved it, but my wife and I started having babies and needed more money," says Pusateri, who left to cook at Elway's in the Ritz-Carlton, a stint that was followed by multiple years as the exec chef at Izakaya Den, a gig that also included opening the now-closed Ototo Den, developing the menu at Sushi Den and overseeing the Den Farm, which supplies produce to Izakaya Den and Sushi Den.
After three years, however, Pusateri needed a break to "reflect on my future as a chef in Denver," he says. He traveled throughout Italy, "working in vineyards and staging at some crazy-awesome restaurants," and spent time staging in restaurants in New York, Vermont, Philadelphia and Chicago. When he eventually returned to Denver, he joined the kitchen crew at Squeaky Bean while simultaneously mapping out plans to open a new restaurant with Noel Martin, also an alum of Izakaya Den, and Josh Barhaug, who opened Fired Up last year; that restaurant reopened in October as Gallo Di Nero, with Pusateri at the helm. "This is what I want to do -- wake up early, roast bones and break down fish -- and I get to work with an awesome group of guys and great people in the community," says Pusateri, who in the following interview admits that he'd prefer to cook naked, admonishes the guy who thrusts his fist through the plastic wrap, and explains why he can't get enough of Extreme Cougar Wives.
Lori Midson: What do you enjoy most about your craft? Darren Pusateri: Working with other craftsmen, people with passion, farmers, brewers, distillers and winemakers, and then seeing how everyone's dedication translates to the finished product. I try to bring this attitude to my cooking from inception and creation to execution; sometimes the end justifies the means.
What's your approach to cooking? It's ingredient-forward, not complicated, and I use the freshest products I can get and let the flavors be dictated by that. When you use great products that have been treated with respect for the duration of their life, you really don't have to manipulate them too much to let the natural flavors shine.
Ingredient obsessions: Right now, Colorado striped bass. The flavor is so clean and crisp, and we're using the fish on two different dishes at Gallo Di Nero, both of which are pretty straightforward. The fish is so good on its own that we don't really do too much as far as adding stuff.
Your favorite smell in the kitchen: Probably when I wood-fire mirepoix for my stock. The smell always reminds me that the simplest things can sometimes be the absolute best.
Favorite kitchen-gadget obsessions: They're hard to find locally, but I love my gnocchi board, which I use every day. Making gnocchi, or any pasta, can be therapeutic. I just zone out and make pasta, and I get a lot of thinking done during those times.
Favorite local ingredients and purveyors: We've partnered with a farm in Arvada, H2Organics, and the farmers, Kirk and Jeremy, are two great guys. Late this summer, I got the most amazing heirloom tomatoes from them, and we did a whole tomato tasting menu at the restaurant that was awesome. I can't wait until spring gets here so I can really begin collaborating with these guys.
One ingredient you won't touch: Bluefin tuna: It's so good, but so overfished. I would love for my sons to be able to enjoy it in 25 years with their own kids.
One ingredient you can't live without: Bulleit rye whiskey. Just kidding...kind of. Aside from that, I love white wine-marinated anchovies, which have an addictive quality because of the slightly briny character. I could probably eat, like, $80 worth in one sitting, although that's actually not a whole lot. They're quite expensive.
Food trend you'd like to see more of: I'd like to see more cocktails that pair well with food. Nowadays, there are so many guys behind the bar doing really cool stuff, and finding ways to pair cocktails to food is so cool when it works. The whole point of food and beverages is to create flavors that complement each other. Anytime I'm somewhere where I get a great cocktail-and-food pairing, it's beautiful, and when the pairing is a mixed drink instead of wine, I'm usually blown away. It shows the kind of attention to detail that I love.
Food trend you'd like to see disappear: To be honest, I think that a trend or fad isn't the worst thing in the world. Who am I to judge what other guys want to try? If it's something that gets people excited about restaurants and eating out, then I'm all for it. Plus, sometimes trends can come out really, really good when they're in the right hands.
Favorite dish on your menu right now: We're serving a baby-leek potage right now that's incredibly hearty, rich and full of flavor, and I picked the leeks at the farm with the help of my two sons.
What dish would you love to put on your menu, regardless of how well it would sell? A black chicken ballantine stuffed with truffles and foie gras. Yep, it's decadent, and once you taste it...dang, bro! At some point in the future, I'll probably add it to the menu.
Most noteworthy meal you've ever eaten: Mugaritz, in San Sebastián, Spain. The simplicity of the food, the near-perfect execution, the technique -- it was all just so different from most of the other places that were all focused on molecular food. It was unassuming, delicious, and it made me really stop and think about the direction of my own food.
Weirdest thing you've ever put in your mouth: The pistol of a conch was definitely different. It had the consistency of a cellophane noodle and was a little slimy but still delicious, and it tasted like ocean -- the fresh and clean kind of ocean, not the super-fishy, bad kind of ocean.
What's always lurking in your refrigerator? I always have extremely spicy instant ramen around...for real. It's quick, it's easy, and it's delicious.
Last meal before you die: A dry-aged, perfectly cooked, bone-in ribeye. There's something about the beautiful marbling, the crust and the flavor that nothing else can compare to that perfect bite.
If you hadn't become a chef, what would you be doing right now? I'd probably be a farmer somewhere growing vegetables, raising lamb -- you know, real earthy, hands-on type of stuff.
What's one thing that people would be surprised to know about you? One of my guilty pleasures is watching Extreme Cougar Wives on TLC. I can't look away; it's like watching a train wreck. For the record, I'm pretty sure that I'm the only guy out there who watches shows like these.
What's in the pipeline? I'm full of aspirations to keep improving Gallo Di Nero, keep improving myself, and maybe use that to open something else down the road, although there's nothing concrete.
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