This is part one of my interview with Diane Snider, exec chef of Row 14 Bistro & Wine Bar; part two of our chat will run tomorrow.
Diane Snider had her first food epiphany in the sixth grade, hundreds of miles away from her birthplace of Oahu, Hawaii. "I went to Tennessee for the summer with my best friend, and the family I stayed with farmed all of their own food, which was such a surreal experience for me, because at that age, all I knew was food that came out of a box, or looking for recipes in cookbooks, and this was the first time that I'd ever experienced food that was all made from scratch," remembers Snider, today the executive chef at Row 14 Bistro & Wine Bar.
That memory never strayed far from her mind, and when she was sixteen, Snider got more food for thought. "I had a friend who had just graduated from culinary school, and every time I asked him about it, I became more and more fascinated, and once I started researching culinary schools on my own, I was even more intrigued," says Snider, who attended the California Culinary Academy and spent close to four years on the line at Globe, a fast-paced, late-night industry favorite in San Francisco.
On her nights off she'd go out to dinner, and an experience at A16, one of San Francisco's most ballyhooed restaurants, convinced her to switch kitchens. "I went there for a graduation celebration, and every bite of food I had was so amazingly delicious, which made me really work to work there, plus Nate Appleman was the chef de cuisine at the time, and I thought I'd have the opportunity to learn a lot from him," says Snider, whose prediction was correct. Appleman, a James Beard Foundation Rising Star Chef winner, "would spend morning, noon and night at the restaurant, and he was so passionate about food and willing to teach his craft to those who wanted to learn. I'd ask him questions all the time, and he never, never got annoyed," recalls Snider.
But the pace was slow -- at least compared to her former stamping ground -- and so Snider, who admits that she likes "getting my ass kicked on the line," returned to Globe. "The kitchen at A16 was so organized -- and I mean that in a good way -- but because everything was so well put together, it almost felt like a retirement home for cooks, and I missed the nonstop grind and chaos at Globe: I thrive in that kind of environment," says Snider, who eventually left Globe -- and San Francisco -- to move to Denver in 2006.
She landed first at the Flagstaff House, but when she found that the commute from Denver to Boulder stole too many hours from her day, she moved on to the now-defunct Aix, where she cooked for a year before landing at Root Down. Still relatively new to Denver, Snider began researching chefs -- and restaurants -- and came across a swell of accolades surrounding Troy Guard, who was just opening TAG, his flagship restaurant in Larimer Square. "Troy is from Hawaii, so we have similar backgrounds, and I was just really interested in what he was doing," says Snider, who became the second person Guard hired to work the line at TAG. "In the three years I was there, he taught me so much, including patience and management skills."
During her time at TAG, Jensen Cummings was the chef de cuisine, and when he left to take the exec-chef position at Row 14, Snider followed. "I knew from working with Jensen at TAG that he would give me a lot of creative freedom with menu development, and I thought I'd have opportunities to move up a level," explains Snider, who did precisely that, becoming the executive chef of Row 14 last July when Cummings moved on. "Cooking is what I absolutely love, and with Row 14, I'm concentrating on what Colorado has to offer and making my food as fresh and vibrant as possible," says Snider, who in the following interview reveals what the smartest applicants do when interviewing for a job, recounts the kitchen disaster that made her strip down to her underwear, and explains why a chef who demeans his staff is making a big, big mistake.
Lori Midson: What's your favorite food memory? Diane Snider: When I was living in Hawaii, I stayed at my Auntie Alcia's house, which was actually a farm in the mountains. We'd wake up in the morning and grab eggs from the chickens for breakfast, and one morning, I had left some of the egg in the bowl, which I put in the sink. Auntie Alcia made me take the bowl back out of the sink and use my fingers to scrape the bowl clean. It gave me a great understanding of how food should be handled: Take only what's needed and use it to its fullest.
Ten words to describe you: Stubborn, hardworking, humorous, demanding, logical, compassionate, humble, creative, educated and assertive.
Five words to describe your food: Fresh, palatable, bright, flavorful and delicious.
What are your ingredient obsessions? I'm absolutely obsessed with finishing salts and oils. I love to make my own infused oils to help enhance a dish.
One ingredient you won't touch: Fennel seeds. I love everything fennel pollen, fennel fronds and fresh fennel, but I can't stand fennel seed. When your bite into the seed, that's all you can taste, and the flavor is so strong that it just overpowers the dish.
Food trend you'd like to see emerge in 2014: Definitely more ramen houses. I love ramen and could probably eat it every day of my life. I'm looking forward to chef [Jeff] Osaka's new place.
Food trend you'd like to see disappear in 2014: I'd have to say taco places. There are just so many of them, and I think it's time to put on the brakes.
Favorite piece of kitchen equipment: The salamander; it's a beast. It can be your best friend and your worst enemy. It can make a piece of meat jump to the right temperature fast if it's ordered on the fly, but it can burn it just as instantly. I've donated many pieces of bread to this fiery beast.
Your favorite smell in the kitchen: When someone else is cooking for me, which happens very seldom; people don't realize how much chefs and cooks appreciate it when someone else cooks for them. I especially love the scents of garlic, ginger and onions when they're sautéing.
What's your fantasy splurge? An Italian wood-burning oven that would sit next to my pool and wet bar, all of which are on my deck. However, I don't have a deck next to a pool, nor do I have a wet bar, so I may need to work on those, as well.
If you could dress any way you want, what would you wear in the kitchen? I'd wear shorts and a tank top. Our kitchen is so hot, especially when we get slammed. My cooks and I constantly joke about working with no shirts on.
If you could make one request of Denver diners, what would it be? Ease up on your modifications, and let the chef take care of the flavor profiles. It's our craft and profession. I understand diet restrictions and allergies, but when you change the dish entirely, you've butchered what the chef has spent their time and energy on.
What do you expect from a restaurant critic? I expect them to be truthful and not include any personal biases about the food in their reviews.
What skills and attributes do you look for when hiring kitchen staff? Honestly, I look for someone who pays attention. When they pull out a notebook and take notes, it's almost an instant hire...almost. It's about their attention to detail and how many questions they ask. I also look at their knife skills and their short-term memory. I tend to ask applicants to grab five different things from our outside walk-in. Most of them will forget one or two items; the smart ones write them down.
Best recipe tip for a home cook: Try a recipe once, and then try it again by putting your own spin on it. Look at cookbooks more as guidelines. You'd be really surprised what you can do if you put your own spin on it.
What's the best food-or kitchen-related gift you've been given? I recently was given an awesome five-burner gas range. It's my best friend, and I can cook so much more at home now.
Favorite culinary-related item to give as a gift: A peeler is something everyone always needs and the first thing that everyone loses.
It's your night off and you're starving. What's your go-to quick fix? I generally go to Uncle or Pho 79. Either way, I'm having noodles.
Favorite dish on your menu: Our chicken is so simple and so delicious. It's a crisp-skinned chicken breast and thigh with broccolini, Israeli couscous and roasted-red-pepper yogurt sauce. It takes a while to prepare because they're quite large, but it's worth the wait.
What dish would you love to put on your menu, regardless of how well it would sell? Grilled baby octopus, watercress salad, pickled fennel, sheep Gouda cheese and orange-chive vinaigrette.
Weirdest customer request: A woman recently asked us to chop up her pasta and make it mushy. She essentially wanted us to take her pasta and throw it through the Robot Coupe and cook it until it was mush.
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If you hadn't become a chef, what would you be doing right now? I have a deep love for history, so I'd probably be working as a historian specializing in the Civil War, or maybe an archaeologist digging and discovering what happened during the Civil War.