Doug Mace, exec chef of CY Steak: "I'd like to see less complicated cuisine in the restaurants that hold the limelight"
This is part two of my interview with Doug Mace, exec chef of Cy Steak and the forthcoming BaRed; part one of my chat with Mace ran yesterday.
Most noteworthy meal you've ever eaten: Franina Italian Restaurant, my old stamping ground in Syosset, New York. Every meal I've ever eaten there, including the family meals, has been ten times better than most restaurant experiences. They use the freshest produce and seafood, the greatest protein cuts, and every employee there has a vested interest in the food. Passion is something you can taste, and this food drips with passion.
Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: A shot of turtle blood with gin whisked into it. Thank you, Morimoto, for that experience.
What dish would you love to put on your menu, regardless of how well it would sell? A Bangladesh curry with sautéed pork that's braised in caramelized onions, jalapeños and dark Indian beer. It's sweet from the natural sugar from the onions, but it's really spicy, too, and I'm not sure that Americans could stand the heat.
Favorite dish on your menu right now: We just revamped the menu a week ago, and our housemade Parmesan-and-truffle gnocchi is a stunner.
Best recipe tip for a home cook: Send your cautions to the wind. You're not a chef, you're a cook -- so be okay with making mistakes and the learning process. We chefs don't arrive at success in one meal, so don't expect to nail it with your first turkey. The soffritto will be probably be burnt, and your hands, too. That's just part of practicing before you get it right.
Favorite culinary gift to get: As a chef who enjoys enhancing food, it would have to go to the gifted bottles of wine. I love my big Italian reds and my dry German whites. A bottle of Gaja, Brunello di Montepulciano or Alsatian Riesling always make me happy.
Favorite culinary item to give as a gift: If it's for a chef, then I like to give them a book on the roots and/or history of food. And for an everyday person interested in food, I like to give something like a basket of fine cheeses with honeys and charcuterie.
What cookbooks and/or food-related reading material do you draw inspiration from? When I create new dishes and menus, I enjoy reading holiday cookbooks. Think about it: Looking to a book of food when you're celebrating joyous occasions ensures that what you're cooking will please your soul. Even better, most cuisines that pop up for holiday occasions are derived from generations of family recipes, which makes them approachable and easy to understand.
What's your fantasy splurge? It would all start with a trip to Italy, eating fifteen small meals a day with enough handcrafted pasta to end world hunger. Sardines in everything, truffles being shaved left and right, Parmigiano Reggiano, till nitrate crystals burn your tastebuds right off, and casks of red wine till you fall asleep. It's like my favorite food quote. "To eat good food is to be closer to God."
What recent innovation has most influenced the restaurant industry in a significant way? Can I say innovations in transportation? We live in a landlocked state, hundreds if not thousands of miles from the sea, but nonetheless, I could have a hand-caught fish from the Bahamas in my kitchen the day after it's caught. Spices, produce and proteins from anywhere in the world are now just a click or a phone call away.
What do you expect from a restaurant critic? I agree with many of the past chefs you've interviewed: Anonymity is key. What's the point of a critic who can be bought? Can his words be trusted? It's not appropriate table talk, but they're sometimes no better than a politician. I love it when a critic speaks highly of an establishment, but only if the product is doing the talking. If they write about the generosity in portion size and flavor, then I expect to receive the same experience with my money when I visit.
What advice would you give an aspiring young chef? Keep your head held high, because the work you've chosen to do isn't always one of praise and gratitude. More than anything, find one thing about this industry you love, keep it for yourself, and never let your passion die because of long hours and naysayers.
What skills and attributes do you look for when hiring kitchen staff? A good attitude and a willingness to learn. If you think you're better at what you do than everyone else, that's fine, but keep it to yourself, and dispense with the ego. Be wiling to learn from those above you and, more important, the people under you, because more times than not, your dishwasher and prep cooks are actually faster -- and better.
Biggest mistake a chef can make on the line: A cook should know which corners to cut -- and which corners not to cut. A lot of procedures can be simplified and shortened, but when you take the wrong shortcut, you risk ruining someone's dining experience and the way they perceive you. "Do it right or do it twice" is my philosophy.
If you could cook in another chef's kitchen, whose would it be? Any small-city Italian restaurant in Italy. There's just something about the food culture over there and the overwhelming sense of generosity and community that makes me want to cook there. It's a country that may not be financially well off, but they measure wealth in other measurements: strong family ties, great relations with their communities, and a huge responsibility to the earth on which they live. It's the closest thing I can imagine to a perfect lifestyle, and I hope to be able to experience it one day.
What would you cook for those Italian chefs if they came to your restaurant? There would be a festival of food: cheese, fruit and charcuterie boards, small pasta dishes to begin, a protein of a simply prepared bass or squid to follow, then possibly hare or lamb for the main course. To finish, I'd serve biscotti, mountains of figs and melon, and great espresso and cappuccino.
If you had the opportunity to open your own restaurant with no budget constraints, what kind of restaurant would you open? It wouldn't be cheap, that's for sure. I'd have an open-kitchen format with the kitchen as the dead center. White and black marble would be everywhere, and I'd have back-to-back Lacanche French ranges and copper everything. The food wouldn't be cuisine-specific, but quality would be non-negotiable, and the menu would be pricy but justifiable. It would probably be a cross between American and European, with hints of Asian influences. That, or a good ol' New York-style delicatessen with Boar's Head everything.
Biggest moment of euphoria in the kitchen: It happens a lot, and when it does, it always confirms my choice to become a chef. Every time I walk out to greet a table and they tell me that they're eating the best steak they've ever had -- that's euphoric. Guests often tell me, too, that while they've had salmon before, which they hated, ours is amazing. I like to watch people enjoy my food; it's like this weird, sexy feeling, kind of like catching someone checking you out.
Craziest night in the kitchen: In 2008, during Restaurant Week at Morimoto, we had a forty-top attended to by a waiter who was a real comedian and thought he'd ring the damn ticket all on one order. Me and five other line cooks stood shoulder-to-shoulder in fear, because the damn printer wouldn't stop beeping. The ticket was about fifteen feet in length, and almost every order had modifications, so needless to say, it wasn't easy putting the ticket in the window all within three minutes of each other.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef: I'm only 24, and I'm the executive chef of two restaurants, as well as a third, if we count another small venture I oversee. It's crazy, because in the middle of a workweek, there's no downtime, but on that one day off, I look at what was done that week and I just feel old -- like, really old. I find myself yelling at kids who drive with their music too loud, and immaturity hits all the wrong buttons in my head.
What's one thing people would be surprised to know about you? I love Taco Bell. Classically trained or not, that's my jam right there. When I admit this, people yell at me, but the trick to appreciating something like Taco Bell is all relative. I love Taco Bell because I give them ninety cents and they give me a taco that tastes great for ninety cents.
What's always lurking in your refrigerator? Hot sauce. It can be as simple as Tabasco or Red Hot, but I prefer heat with lots of complex flavors. I've been getting into these great jams with jalapeño, pineapple and other fruits. Hot sauce is also great with seafood and poultry.
Last meal before you die: Buffalo mozzarella and an aged balsamico, fresh Christmas Eve pasta with breadcrumbs and clams, several bottles of Amarone, my mother's fruit tart with apricot preserves, and there would probably be a Cheesy Gordita Crunch in there somewhere.
If you hadn't become a chef, what would you be doing right now? I'd probably be a lawyer, or doing something with accounting. I was taught by my father to follow my heart as long as I could support myself financially with that dream. I can be a very money-driven New Yorker at times, and those fields pay a lot, so they're attractive to me. That said, if I were a lawyer, I'd be held in contempt all the time; I don't like to be silenced.
What's next for Denver's culinary scene? I'd like to see less complicated cuisine in the restaurants that hold the limelight. As a city, we're still young, so like what you like, but don't be fooled. Overworked food can be enjoyable at first, but at the end of the day, nothing will please you more than food that speaks from passion. That's what BaRed, our new place, is all about: great, thoughtful food with no pompousness attached.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Denver dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.