Diane Snider, chef of Row 14, on stripping down to her underwear
891 14th Street
This is part two of my interview with Diane Snider, exec chef of Row 14 Bistro & Wine Bar; part one of our conversation ran yesterday.
Most memorable meal you've ever had:
When I traveled to Estoril, Portugal, a little town outside of Lisbon, I found this authentic Portuguese restaurant and ordered the octopus, which was slow-cooked in extra-virgin olive oil and served with potatoes. When I took that first bite, my tastebuds began dancing...it was so tender and so well prepared, and I knew I had to savor every bite, so I tried to eat it as slowly as I could. I was also very reluctant to share it with my company. At the same time, I wanted them to try it, if only to understand how delicious it was. I had to know how the kitchen prepared it, so I asked our server and he told me the secret. I'll eventually travel back to Portugal just to have this dish again.
Your three favorite Denver restaurants other than your own:
I love the Korean barbecue at Dae Gee, in Westminster, and I'm also a fan of Uncle and Pho 79. I love Asian foods due to my upbringing.
Most underrated restaurant in Denver:
Sakura House. They have so many good options, from their ramen to their bento boxes. I've never left there unsatisfied.
Who is Denver's next rising-star chef?
Aniedra Nichols. She's blowing up all over the place, and I had the pleasure of staging with her at Elway's Cherry Creek a couple of years ago. She's strong and smart and an extremely talented chef.
Which living chef do you admire the most?
I know it might be clichéd, but chef Matsuharu Morimoto is a badass. His food is badass; his knives (swords) are badass; his technique is badass; and his clothes are badass. He's just a badass all the way around.
If you could have dinner, all expenses paid, at any restaurant in the world, where would you go?
I was given a cookbook called The Winterlake Lodge Cookbook, which refers to a secluded area that a family bought in Winterlake, Alaska. To get there, you have to take a float boat, and once you're there, you can learn to fish and gather your food. The culinary expert behind this is Kirsten Dixon, and I would jump at the opportunity in a heartbeat.
If you had the opportunity to open your own restaurant with no budget constraints, what kind of restaurant would you open?
Since I grew up in Hawaii and love the ocean so much, I'd open a little cabana directly on the beach and have no more than eight to ten tables. Guests would literally have the catch of the day and all the tropical ingredients the island has to offer. I'd have awesome fruity island drinks and cheap but upscale and delicious food.
What do you enjoy most about your craft?
I love the challenge of turning food into something amazing, and I love it when people challenge me. My favorite part of working at TAG was the omakase challenges we used to have. We'd be assigned a course and a protein, and the winner of the challenge would get their name on the board. It always made the winner feel amazing, and knowing that your dish was the guests' favorite was an overwhelmingly great feeling.
If you could train under any chef in the world, who would it be?
I'd train under chef Morimoto, for the same reason I admire him: He's a badass!
What piece of advice would you give to an aspiring chef?
There was a basketball player and coach named John Robert Wooden who once said, "Be quick, but don't hurry." It's something I tell my cooks all the time. Even when you're slammed, you need to be quick and efficient, but when you hurry, you become sloppy and tend to forget things.
Biggest mistake a chef can make on the line:
Demeaning your staff and making them feel lower than you is a big mistake. I think it's absolutely imperative that your staff knows you have their back and that you're willing to do what it takes to help them, whether it's your dishwashers, prep cooks, line cooks or sous-chefs. It's important that you're in the ring of fire -- no pun intended -- with them, because if they know you're there for them, they'll do what it takes to back you up. Once the trust is gone, you no longer have camaraderie -- just a failing kitchen.
What's been your worst kitchen disaster?
I worked at a restaurant in San Francisco that had its walk-in outside and down some stairs, and one night, after we had just finished straining the chicken stock, I had to take the buckets down the stairs. But it was raining, the stairs were extremely slippery, and my foot slipped. My legs went up over my head, and I came down on my back, and the hot, scalding stock was all over my legs. I jumped up, threw my pants off, ran to the ice machine in my underwear and dumped scoops of ice on my legs. Luckily, the ice machine was also downstairs, so I didn't have to run through the dining room in my underwear. I put my chicken-stock-soaked pants back on and went upstairs with burnt legs to tell my chef what happened and that I had to go home and change my pants and possibly shower. He laughed and was actually surprised I came back to continue service.
Would you ever send a dish back if you were dining at a friend's restaurant?
I would -- and I expect my peers to do the same, and I'd hope they could take constructive criticism. If there were something wrong with my dish, I'd like to know what it is so I could correct it rather than serve it.
Craziest night in the kitchen:
I was working Saturday-night service at A16 in San Francisco, and the chef of Globe, where I had previously worked, asked me to stop by the restaurant to make sure his newbies weren't getting crushed. I headed over there after I was done with service at A16, and when I walked in, three servers immediately grabbed me and said, "Diane, please, please help the kitchen. We have so many incomplete tickets and really angry people. They're incredibly weeded and there's no way out." Both of the boys on the line were very new and had no idea what they were doing, and it was the messiest I had ever seen stations, plus they were burning food left and right. To make matters worse, no one knew where the cook was. I dumped everything on the countertops in the trash, did a quick wipe-down and started working the two stations as hard and as fast as I could. Then the other cook completely disappeared. I somehow managed to get the kitchen out of the weeds and caught up, only to find out that one of the missing cooks was smoking a cigarette, so I had a server grab him, and when he came back in, I may have yelled that I didn't get off work to come here and get him out of the weeds so he could smoke a cigarette. He apologized and said he didn't know how to help, so he left to get out of the way.
Biggest moment of euphoria in the kitchen:
Every time a guest takes the time to come to the kitchen to tell my staff and me how awesome we did, and how much they love the food we're creating. That kind of praise makes everyone realize that working the grind is all worth it.
Kitchen rule you always adhere to:
Sanitation and cleanliness. Absolutely everything must be clean, and you have to know your food safety and sanitation practices.
Kitchen rule you are not afraid to break:
Using the salamander to help bump up the temperature quickly.
What's your biggest pet peeve?
When people smack their lips while eating. I inherited it from my dad, who would yell at my sister and me whenever we'd do it, and now it's become a big pet peeve of mine.
Your best traits:
I'm able to think quickly on my feet. I can multi-task in a very big way and I am a super-patient person.
Your worst traits:
I feel like I should do everything instead of having others help me. I get annoyed really easily and can be pretty temperamental.
Which talent do you most wish you had?
I wish I could dance professionally, and I wish I had enough rhythm to dance hip-hop and breakdance. I once thought I could do a back flip and damn near broke my neck.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef:
I can honestly say that I do what I love and love what I do, so every day is an accomplishment for me.
What's one thing that people would be surprised to know about you?
I grew up in Hawaii and my mom worked in the pineapple cannery, but I'm severely allergic to pineapple, which is a bit ironic.
Last meal before you die:
Korean barbecue, hands down. I love all the little plates they bring out, and the marinades in the meat are insane. Korean food is just so delicious.
What's in the pipeline?
I'm trying to redevelop Row 14 and truly focus on making it a bistro restaurant with approachable, yet delicious food. I want people to come to Row 14 not only for the wine, but for the food, as well.
What's next for the Denver dining scene?
I'm annoyed by how much development is happening around the city, but I'm truly excited to see the end result. The Union Station development will be awesome, especially with all the restaurant talent that's behind it.
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