Drew Archer, chef of TAG Burger Bar, on pointing fingers, Ruffles and bacon
TAG Burger Bar
1222 Madison Street
This is part one of my chef interview with Drew Archer, from TAG Burger Bar. Tune in tomorrow for part two of my interview with Archer.
The first thing that emerges from the kitchen is a heap of french fries: crisp, speckled with salt and far too hard to resist. Then comes a lamb burger paved with Cheez Whiz, followed by macaroni and cheese, requisitely creamy with Velveeta (Oh, stop -- Velveeta has its place!) and crowned with schoolbus-yellow Goldfish. TAG Burger Bar, it should be noted, is not for food snobs, and its chef de cuisine, Drew Archer, is not a culinary highbrow who snubs his nose at Velveeta.
Archer grew up in Tulsa, and while his mom cooked a family dinner Sunday through Friday -- attendance was mandatory -- he appreciated it for what it was: simple, honest and nurturing. He was interested in cooking, but was busy playing competitive tennis. "I played tennis from sunrise to sundown, but at night, my mom and I would watch the original Iron Chef on the Food Network together -- I was probably around ten -- and I became fascinated with food and obsessed with the show," he recalls. "There was something about the voiceovers -- they were entertaining and comedic. And at the time, the chefs were using a lot of live ingredients -- eels, sea urchins, fish -- and while I thought it was a little bizarre, I also thought it was really cool."
In fact, when he was on the road playing tournaments, he'd relax at night by watching the Food Network in his hotel room. And somewhere along the line, he came to the conclusion that the tennis court wasn't his true crush; cooking was. After attending college in Oklahoma and New Mexico -- and eventually graduating with a degree in hotel and restaurant administration from Oklahoma State -- he got his first job as a dishwasher in a restaurant that, coincidentally, was known for its burgers. "I knew I wanted to work in restaurants, and after I'd put in time washing dishes, they put me on the line," recalls Archer, who soon left dish duty altogether: "I moved through all of the stations and ended up being the lead line cook by the time I'd left."
He soon got another taste of cooking during a seasonal culinary internship at the Baldpate Inn, a bed-and-breakfast in Estes Park, where he met a Rocky Mountain girl. After his internship ended, he went back to Oklahoma, grabbed his stuff, hopped in a U-Haul, moved to Denver, and hit the pavement in search of a job. He dropped off a resumé at Restaurant Kevin Taylor, but was told there were no available positions. Four hours later, he got a phone call alerting him that a line cook had just walked out of Kevin Taylor's at the Opera House; the kitchen was in need of a fish cook. Archer bit, splitting his time between that kitchen and the restaurant Kevin Taylor was running at the Teller House in Central City. Personnel changes persuaded him to seek a new gig, and the Teller House chef, who was taking off for Miami, suggested that Archer chase a job at TAG, Troy Guard's Asian-fusion restaurant in Larimer Square. "I went in, gave them my resumé, got a call from Troy and did two stages," recalls Archer, who was offered the day-pantry job. Six months later, he'd moved his way up to sauté. Not long after, he became the lead line cook at lunch. He stayed at TAG for a year and a half, until Guard rebranded one of his other restaurants -- Madison Street -- as TAG Burger Bar. "Troy offered me the head-chef job at TAG Burger Bar, and it was an opportunity that I couldn't pass up," he says. "This job is not just about cooking, but about labor, food costs and administrative stuff, which I hadn't been able to learn as a line cook, so this has been a great crash course, and Troy has a lot of faith and trust in me, plus he's very good about letting people find their groove."
In the following interview, Archer raps on Denver Restaurant Week, explains why it's tough to swallow social-networking reviews, and admits that the Food Network gave him a false sense of security about lobsters.
How do you describe your food? Rustic meets artistic. I grew up in Oklahoma, where we ate a lot of meat and potatoes, and while my mother cooked a family meal five nights a week, it was almost always something classic. To me, you can't beat simple, but you can always make simple a bit more beautiful.
Ten words to describe you: Quiet, reserved, curious, driven, confident, motivated, fast, clean, professional and orange.
What are your ingredient obsessions? With winter coming to a close, I've been working with a lot of tough cuts of meat -- shanks, ribs, shoulders, butts and anything that can be bought cheap, cooked slow, and transformed. I love a more rustic style of cooking. Braised meats are as simple and foolproof as you can get in a kitchen, and when art and meat come together, the result can be pretty incredible.
What are your kitchen-gadget obsessions? I know everyone says this, but it's my knife. Gadgets are fun and nice to have, but at the end of the day, it's my knife that gets 95 percent of the work done. I remember years ago, I was watching a show on the Food Network, and Alton Brown was talking about knives. He simply said that a great knife is worth the investment because it'll last a lifetime -- and that stuck with me. Although everything has its place and use in my kitchen, it's my knife that's always in my hand.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: Right now it's chicharrones, which I source from Tolteca Foods. They're really versatile -- the only way they can't be utilized is in vegetarian dishes -- and they provide so many important elements in terms of flavor, texture, appearance and interaction. The last dish I used them in was a brunch hash. I actually sent out pieces to the dining room and let the guests break them and use them as chips to eat the hash.
Food trend you'd like to see in 2013: Food is really personal, so I'd like to see more chefs cooking what they want to cook, not what they feel they have to cook. I understand that, conceptually, I can cook a vegetable five different ways, but I don't care to eat a carrot five different ways. I prefer to choose one way and make it the most badass carrot you've ever tasted. The chefs in Denver are amazing, and the ideas and dishes coming out of kitchens right now are top-quality, but more often than not, the dishes that stand out the most are the ones made with ingredients and techniques that a specific chef has a passion for -- and it shows on the plate.
Food trend you'd like to see disappear in 2013: Molecular gastronomy...to a point, which could be due to the fact that I have a hotel and restaurant management degree and not a chemistry degree, but to me there's a time and a place for everything. Scallop foam, over a brown-butter powder, just can't replace the real thing.
One food you detest: Raw onions. I understand its purpose and how to use it -- I just won't eat it. Ironically, it's one of my wife's favorite foods. At home I try to put caramelized onions in my dishes, and she always requests raw onions instead.
One food you can't live without: Does coffee count? If not, then bacon. I read all the time that chefs are professing to be "over" bacon -- that it's overdone. I disagree. It's about as close to a perfect ingredient as you can get, and the reason you see it so often is because it's delicious. I eat bacon for breakfast or dinner, cold or hot, crispy or soft. I don't discriminate.
What's never in your kitchen? Pre-cooked ingredients. More than anything, it's just lazy. Nothing is too difficult or time-consuming to prep and cook that I'd feel the need to pay more for something that someone else made.
What's always in your kitchen? Potatoes. We're crushing fries at TAG Burger these days. Believe it or not, I'm going through 500 pounds of fresh-cut fries in a single weekend. My produce delivery guys are getting their workouts for the week just carrying potatoes into my kitchen.
Craziest night in the kitchen: The Ming Tsai dinner we hosted at TAG could qualify for that honor. It was a good kind of crazy -- nothing went wrong. It was just crazy to work alongside such talented cooks, including, obviously, Troy and Ming, but all the sous were so dialed in, too, and all the line guys were trying so hard to impress. The amount of talent and quality of food that was produced that night was something I'd never witnessed before.
Biggest mistake a chef can make on the line: Pointing fingers. Accidents happen. No one is perfect, including the chef running the kitchen. If something happens on the line, cooler heads need to prevail. Problem-solving is what we are paid to do: Get through the problem, the rush and the night, and then we can talk about what happened and why it happened. Yelling and the blame game will never get you out of the weeds.
Favorite dish on your menu: Our lamb burger, Colorado Proud style. I love lamb -- to me, it's the best protein, and the setup on this burger is super-simple and fantastic. We use roasted Pueblo green chiles and finish the top bun with a local honey-goat cheese spread, lettuce and tomato. The entire burger is made with Colorado products, and the pairing of ingredients is about as perfect and simple as you can get.
Biggest menu bomb: Ruffles as a topping for burgers. It may just be me, but I love putting chips on any sandwich. What? It adds texture and flavor. I really expected it to catch on a little better than it has.
Weirdest customer request: The first -- and only -- time I ever waited tables, I was waiting on two girls in their twenties, and one refused to order for herself...because she didn't know what kind of food she liked. She asked me to order for her and then promptly proceeded to send everything back to the kitchen because she didn't like it. She ended up eating a brownie for dinner.
Weirdest thing you've ever put in your mouth: Chocolate-covered crickets. The best part is that they weren't gross. They tasted just fine -- it was all mental. I'm just not a bug person to begin with.
What's always lurking in your refrigerator? Homemade chicken stock. I love making stock. It's such a feel-good smell and relaxing process, plus there's nothing more useful in the kitchen than good chicken stock. Soups, sauces -- everything good starts with a stock.
Favorite junk food: Doritos and Skittles.
Last meal before you die: Fried chicken, mashed potatoes, and biscuits and gravy.
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