This is part on of my interview with Duncan Smith, exec chef of Dazzle. Part two of our conversation will run in this space tomorrow.
Here's what you'll find in Duncan Smith's refrigerator at home: a six-pack of beer, several types of cheese, beef sticks and fresh produce. "These are the things I like to eat and drink, the foods that make me the happiest," says Smith, executive chef at Dazzle. "I'm a simple guy, and I like to eat and cook simple food."
It's a philosophy that carries over to his professional kitchen. "I like to tap into what I know and what I'm familiar with, and a lot of that goes back to my childhood," explains Smith, who was born and raised in a small town in North Dakota, where farm acreage far outweighs fancy restaurants. "North Dakota is a farm state, so we used to pick all of our own vegetables and then get together as a family every Sunday night for a huge meal. We celebrated food from the farm and being together, and it's those family dinners with fresh ingredients from the farm that still fuels me today," he says.
Like a lot of his peers, Smith got his start in the kitchen scrubbing plates, but by his own admission, he wasn't particularly speedy -- and the North Dakota winters have no compassion for a dishwasher who steps into the chill in a soaking wet shirt. "I'd walk outside, and my shirt would freeze to the point where it turned to cardboard," recalls Smith, who quickly abandoned dish duty to seek warmth behind the burners. "I sucked, so they took me off the dish pit and gave me the chance to cook instead." That move not only saved him from future abuse by Mother Nature, it pointed him to a career.
"By the time I was fifteen -- North Dakota wasn't too strict about labor laws back then -- I had the keys to the restaurant, and I realized that cooking came easy to me," says Smith. "I liked it, I was good at it, and I wanted to pursue it." After spending three years flipping eggs at the flat-top, he moved on to a resort. "It wasn't anything terribly gourmet, but it was definitely a step in the right direction," he remembers, "and by the time I left, kitchen life had really started to grow on me. I loved the camaraderie of it all."
Smith wanted to learn more, so he packed his knives and headed for Minneapolis, where he enrolled in a culinary program, cooking in his spare time in an Italian restaurant. The culinary school only offered a two-year curriculum, though, and Smith was after a four-year BA program in culinary arts, which he found in Denver at the Art Institute of Colorado. And it was there that he reconnected with an old friend from Minneapolis, who was working at Dazzle. "I got a job at Dazzle doing desserts to start with, moved up to the sous job, and when they decided to get rid of the executive chef, they asked if I'd be interested in the exec-chef position, and there was no way I was going to pass it up," says Smith.
"I've been here for six years, and I love the place. I love that Donald Rossa, who owns Dazzle, gives his young chefs a lot of freedom, and while I played hockey growing up and was never remotely interested in jazz, I love having the music in the background while I'm cooking," he adds. "I really couldn't be happier."
In the following interview, Smith praises the pig, laments the short life span of the "hamdog" and explains why cooking with Matt Selby would make him even happier.
Six words to describe your food: Comforting, urban, simple, affordable, unique and tasty.
Ten words to describe you: Hardworking, serious, casual, humorous, jolly, goofy, picky, loving, giving and crazy.
What are your ingredient obsessions? From the snout to the tail, I love pig. I consider it a blank canvas that's got infinite possibilities, and while I was growing up, my family ate a lot of it, and I was always enthralled by all the different ways to prepare it. On any given occasion, whether it was Sunday family dinner or Christmas with my entire extended family, there was always pork on the table. I also love onions. They're a simple building block from which all dishes are created, and just about every dish I make has onions in some form or another. Last, but certainly not least, salt. Without salt, food is bleak, boring and worthless. It's the one ingredient that will make or break a dish, because it opens the door to a world of flavor; the lack of it will leave you disappointed and wanting more, while the overuse of it will destroy the delicate nuances of flavor. It's quite a powerful component, when you really think about it.
What are your kitchen-tool obsessions? Sharp knives. It comes down to the simple philosophy of using the right tool for the job, and having the right type of knife with a good edge gives me confidence. I'm not the type of chef who spends all day sharpening and polishing my knives, but I understand the importance of keeping good knives around if I expect good product to leave my kitchen.
Most underrated ingredient: Ground pork. The moisture it gives to simple meatloaf, meatballs or different casserole-style dishes really makes it a great addition. Most people who work with ground meats don't see past ground beef, neglecting to see the advantages that adding a little ground pork can offer them.
Favorite local ingredient: Definitely Colorado peaches from the Western Slope. It's the perfect time of year for those beautiful fruits, and I try to get my hands on them any way I can. It's always special when someone actually drives out to the Western Slope and picks up cases from the farms and drives them back. If I can't find any friends making the trip west, I can find them pretty easy through purveyors or at the farmers' markets.
Favorite spice: Salt. It's one of my favorite spices, as well as my favorite ingredient. I think a lot of people, whether they're veteran chefs or new students in the culinary world, don't realize that all of their preparation, time and talent can be completely wasted without adding that all-important dash of salt at the end. It's so disappointing when you order a dish that sounds and looks delicious only to find that the seasoning just missed because of the lack of salt.
One food you detest: Crawfish. I know a lot of folks from the South would disagree with me, but I'm from North Dakota, where you just don't eat a lot of them. A food that also goes by the name "mudbug" can do just that -- stay in the mud. I use them in the restaurant periodically, and I taste and prepare them, but it's not my personal idea of a good meal. To each his own, but this one just isn't my bag.
One food you can't live without: I love pizza in all shapes and sizes. It's just the ultimate comfort food, and it doesn't matter if I make the pizza myself from scratch, or I get it delivered -- it's very hard to disappoint me with pizza. In its simplest form, it brings a smile to my face, and that smile grows with every ingredient added. Pizza is just one of those magic things that can cheer me up after a long day.
Food trend you wish would disappear: The slider craze. I put sliders on the menu at Dazzle a while ago and they were very popular, but it never really made sense to me. There's nothing efficient about making three of the same little sandwiches. The entire process of making sliders is tedious, and by the time you're ready to eat your third slider, it's cold. For the purpose of keeping hot food hot, I'd rather make my customer the big version of our sandwiches. And if the customer really wants sliders, I'll cut a big sandwich into thirds.
What are your favorite wines and/or beers? My current favorites are the Myrcenary Double IPA and the Cutthroat Porter from Odell Brewing Company. I had the opportunity to host a beer dinner with them, and it really opened my eyes to the quality product they're making. I never considered myself an IPA connoisseur, but that dinner was the beginning of a beautiful relationship between me and IPAs. I also like the Rumble IPA that the guys are making at Great Divide. It really has a great balanced, crisp flavor. As for wines, I like reds with heavy fruit notes. There are so many great drinking wines out there that I find it hard to pick a specific favorite.
Favorite dish on your menu: Our grilled Amigos, a fresh, grilled-to-order Anaheim chile and a fresh grilled avocado over house-fried tortilla chips. We top it with fresh cilantro, pico de gallo and queso fresco, then drizzle it with our homemade green-chile aioli. This dish accentuates freshness, plus it has a lot of healthy attributes. The dishes I take the most pride in tend to be the simplest to create -- the ones where I can just let the fresh ingredients complement each other.
Biggest menu bomb: The "Hamdog." This little gem was an all-beef hot dog completely encased in hamburger. We cooked it in a deep fryer like a ripper dog and served it on a bun with a fried egg and green chiles. The idea behind it was to combine two of my favorite meals into one glorious, gluttonous plate. Unfortunately, the people spoke, and the Hamdog is no more. I still dream about the hamburger-hotdog marriage, but for now they'll each have to be enjoyed individually.
Most memorable meal you've ever had: A dinner with my grandfather and father. I can't remember what we ate, but knowing my grandfather, I can guarantee it wasn't chicken. We were at the family lake cabin in northern Minnesota, and someone mentioned how there were three generations of Smith men at the dinner table. I guess it was a coming of age for me, but I remember how grateful and proud I was to be part of such a great family. From that point forward, the dinner table became much more than a place to stuff my face. I'm a firm believer that the world's problems stop at the dinner table. I guess it just goes to show you that the company you keep while you eat can be much more significant than the actual meal itself.
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What do you have in the pipeline? Right now I'm just enjoying the canvas that is Dazzle. My boss, Donald Rossa, has really helped me invent myself, and I enjoy the chef-owner relationship we've developed. The pipeline hopefully has that waterfront bistro in store, but right now, you'll find me happily cooking at Dazzle, working on a new fall menu that's coming out this week.