Eric Uffelmann, exec chef of Marlowe's, rips on Denver Restaurant Week and revels in foie gras
It's just past 4 p.m. on a Monday, and the bar at Marlowe's, the oldest independently owned restaurant on the 16th Street Mall, which will celebrate its thirtieth anniversary next February, is already crushed with a sizable crowd. Equally sizable plates and platters emerge from the kitchen; there's rarely a lull. And that's the way Eric Uffelmann, the executive chef of Marlowe's, likes it. "This is nothing," he says, dismissing the rising volume in both sound and bodies. "We get absolutely packed in here, and I like staying busy; otherwise I get bored."
Uffelmann, who was born in Greenwich, Connecticut, grew up on Long Island and still carries a discernible accent, comes from a family of culinarians. "My grandfather always made fresh pastas and breads while I was growing up, and his stash of olive oils was amazing," recalls Uffelmann, whose stepfather attended the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park -- a path that Uffelmann would eventually follow.
But not before pouring four years into a conventional university, where he learned how to crunch numbers. "For some reason, I wanted to be an accountant, so I got my business administration degree, and then I decided that I really didn't want to be one of those guys who threw myself out of a downtown building," he confesses. "I grew up fishing and couldn't envision myself in a cubicle, pushing papers, but I needed to figure out what the hell I was going to do, so I decided to go to culinary school at the CIA."
And he'd cooked before, both as a kid growing up and during high school, when he spent a few years tossing pizzas. "I worked at a lot -- a lot -- of pizzerias, and I loved it," says Uffelmann, who also remembers the first dish he made as a kid: "It was a fringed tomato with lettuce and tuna fish in the middle of it, and I'm fairly certain that my mother still has a picture of it."
Uffelmann has plenty of snapshots from culinary school, too, where he sponged up all he could during his time in the classroom. "I was like a kid in a candy store, and I worked my ass off," he says. He graduated, pondered his next move and came to the conclusion that it was time to leave the Big Apple. "I'm a water boy, fishing since I was five, and Florida sounded like a good place to go," he recalls. So off he went, in search of a lifestyle that fulfilled his passion for sea critters, food and cooking.
He spent five years entrenched in the Sarasota restaurant scene before returning to New York -- three days before terrorists turned that city into pure mayhem. "I could have left, but I grew up in New York, it's my home, and I love the island. I wasn't going to leave because of what happened," Uffelmann says.
Instead, he bounced around numerous restaurants in the Hamptons, which is where he met a girl from Colorado, who convinced him to pack up and move west...to Rollinsville, population 181. "I grew a beard, drank Bud, smoked Marlboros and chopped lumber to keep the house warm," he remembers. "It was definitely interesting." After eight months of roughing it -- and commuting to Denver, where he was working as a line cook at Rioja -- he fled to the city for good, quitting his job in order to find a position that gave him more time in the kitchen. Five interviews later, he landed at Marlowe's.
"I got a job as the kitchen manager," he remembers, "and then two weeks later, they fired the chef and gave the job to me, which didn't seem like a good idea at the time, because I had no friends, no connections and no purveyors." But Uffelmann persevered, completely gutting the kitchen, hiring a new staff and, he says, "just going for it."
That goes for life in Denver, as well: "I'm grateful to my ex-girlfriend's family and the Ott family, which owns this company, for providing a home away from New York and just for helping me navigate my way here in Colorado."
In the following interview, Uffelmann rips on Denver Restaurant Week, calls antioxidants a "farce" and wonders out loud if anyone has a connection to fur seal.
Six words to describe your food: Pristine, natural, worldly, composed, simple and, at times, exotic.
Ten words to describe you: Organized, opinionated, teacher, high energy, troublemaker, progressive thinker, focused, logical, reasonable and a pain in the ass.
Favorite ingredient: Shellfish. You can't find more natural, richer flavors than in shellfish, and I love the natural fat content.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: Hazel Dell mushrooms from my produce company, Fresh Guys.
Most overrated ingredient: Antioxidants. All of a sudden there's a new one every single day, when in fact, ingredients have had the same characteristics and qualities all along. They're a complete farce, but you've got to admit that it's a brilliant marketing scam.
Most underrated ingredient: Ribbon cane syrup. It's just like honey, insomuch that the flavor profiles change depending upon the area of production.
Favorite spice: Tunisian tabil spice blend, which is one of the oldest spice blends known to man, or Aleppo peppers. Both have infinite applications.
Best recent food find: Alaskan spot prawn roe. When it's in season, as it is right now, I have it here at the restaurant. The flavor is really clean and ocean-like, and it's great for making a caviar-butter sauce. You don't need to put anything with it, either, because it stands on its own.
One food you detest: I love all food for what it is, which isn't to say I eat everything, but I'll try almost anything once -- except for the baby duck in the egg, and processed foods.
One food you can't live without: Foie gras is absolutely incredible. I enjoy it profusely, and while I don't have it too often, when I do, it always leaves a great memory. I tried it for the first time in culinary school and I was hooked.
Rules of conduct in your kitchen: Common sense. If you start with ten fingers and end with ten, then it's been a pretty good day. And I can't have people losing it, so we have a "safety" word that we use in the kitchen if someone can't stand the heat. If they're on the verge of a meltdown, then they shout out the safety word. Today it's "jellyfish." I don't really know why we do it -- it's sort of a joke -- but it keeps the mood light.
Biggest kitchen disaster: I guess I've been fortunate, because aside from a few rudimentary grease fires, I haven't really had a major disaster, maybe because I run a really tight kitchen. Actually, I did have to cook service during a class-three hurricane in Sarasota under emergency lights.
What's never in your kitchen? Unnatural food items, truffles -- they're way too overpriced for what they are -- and bad seafood.
What's always in your kitchen? People, banter, all different styles of headbands, pristine seafood and sarcasm. If someone screws up or drops the ball, the guys are on him like a piranha on a chicken bone, or a walrus on a fur seal.
Favorite restaurant in America: Savino's Hideaway on Long Island. It's no longer in business, but the memories of my parents taking me there still linger with me to this day.
Favorite Denver/Boulder restaurant(s) other than your own: Cafe|Bar. It's a restaurant that's all about quality, and I love that it's not at all pretentious, which is what I find with a lot of new restaurants. And I love the boys at Vesta Dipping Grill. They do a really great job with the food, and the staff is really helpful. I also really like Izakaya Den for its great fish.
What you'd like to see less of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: Stop the hand-shackling during Denver Restaurant Week. Every major city around the country does restaurant week, but it's very difficult to create and showcase our food for $52.80. We're not looking to make a huge profit, but prices are going through the roof, and we have to pay the bills. Let us do what we want, serve what we want and price it how we want rather than forcing us to work within the limitations of the $52.80 price tag. And now that they've allowed chain restaurants to be a part of Denver Restaurant Week, it's become a mockery. It's demeaning. Not only that, but it should be two non-consecutive weeks -- one week in the summer, when all the fields are wide open and we can really showcase Colorado's bounty, and then do a week in the fall. Beyond that, I'd also like to see fewer self-appointed chefs and less traffic, because it takes me way too long to get to work.
What you'd like to see more of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: I'd really like to see more bakeries -- real bakeries.
What's next for you? A seafood house in Denver.
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