This is part one of my interview with George Eder, exec chef of Pizza Republica; part two of our conversation will tun tomorrow.
George Eder grew up in Detroit, one of five siblings whose mother insisted on cooking breakfast, lunch and dinner every day -- but dinner was the most important meal, and if you missed it, there were consequences. "If one of us didn't show up at the dinner table, my mom would put a plate of food in the refrigerator -- it would always have a sticker on it with your name -- and you weren't allowed to eat the next dinner until you finished the plate in the refrigerator," he recalls. And that, Eder says, was fine by him."My mom was an awesome cook. She definitely turned me on to food."
See also: - David Payne, exec chef of Jelly, on losing your authority, Rick Bayless and gross sticky goo - Part one: Denver and Boulder's most quotable chefs - Drew Hardin, exec chef of Lola, on cooks who don't have passion
Eder, the exec-chef/owner of Pizza Republica in Greenwood Village (a second location will open downtown in mid-March), got started early in restaurants, tossing pizza dough at his uncle's joint. "I was washing dishes, flipping dough and making pizzas -- and I loved it, except for the fact that my uncle was incredibly secretive about his sauce," says Eder. "It was so damn good, but he never shared the recipe. Even now, he still won't part with it."
After five years of paving pizza crusts with that secret sauce, Eder moved on to a management position at Friendly's, a national chain of ice cream shops. "It was my first salaried position -- I was making $16,000 a year and thought I was a millionaire," he jokes. But while the money was hardly a motivator, Eder stayed with the company for twelve years, eventually becoming one of the youngest high-volume unit managers in the United States. But even a passion for ice cream can cool after a dozen years. Eder's uncle was also an avid wine collector and had turned him on to the juice at a young age; wine became his new focus. "I remember being ten or eleven and my uncle showing all of us kids how to hold the glass and swirl, and even though I swirled so hard that red wine went flying everywhere, I always wanted to pursue wine," says Eder.
That passion led him to a marina resort restaurant in Michigan that boasted a 65,000-bottle cellar, and it also gave him the opportunity to oversee an incredibly high-volume restaurant -- one that did 3,000 covers on Mother's Day. That experience would benefit him several years later when he moved to Miami and was hired by Capital Grille to train the back- and front-of-the-house staff in everything from butchery and salads to expo and seafood.
Eder spent more than four years with the high-end cattle palace before moving to Denver in 2005 to jump on board with restaurant developer Jim Sullivan, who was about to open Nine75, a now-defunct restaurant in the Beauvallon. "A buddy of mine was friends with Jim, so we got in touch, and he asked if I'd come to Denver and help him out," recalls Eder, who acknowledges that the area had other attributes that made the move look good. "I used to come out to Colorado during the winter and be a ski bum. I fell in love with it."
He was the director of operations for all of Sullivan's restaurants -- Ocean, Mao and Emogene (all closed) among them -- until he made the decision to open Pizza Republica in 2008. "I decided to do a pizza place because it's one of the most widely accepted segments to improve upon. We wanted to have a restaurant where guests would find familiar and comfortable food done in a way that was truly authentic in style," he explains, noting that all of his recipes were handed down by his mom and grandmother.
"The kitchen is my sanctuary," admits Eder. "I'm behind the line every weekend, stretching dough -- that's my therapy -- and making pizzas and stacking pizza boxes to the ceiling. I love what I do." In the following interview, Eder expands on his plans for the downtown location, explains why a chef who loses his cool is anything but cool, and exposes the guy who insists that chips and salsa should be a mainstay at every restaurant -- even Italian ones.
How do you describe your food? Warm, cozy, comfortable and a little quirky. I try to blend old-world recipes and ingredients with modern techniques and execution. It's always been my dream to bring the feeling my mom gave me growing up -- that warm sense of hominess and love -- to everyone who walks through my door. I want people to know that we take a lot of pride in what we do -- and that we really care.
Ten words to describe you: Driven, adventurous, introspective, scattered, honest, energetic, resilient, committed, loyal and slightly crazy.
What are your ingredient obsessions? Garlic in all forms and varieties: elephant garlic, black garlic, raw garlic, roasted garlic, fried garlic, sous-vide garlic -- every garlic. Every time you change a cooking technique, it changes with you, so garlic can be spicy, sweet, buttery or smoky; it all depends on how you use it. Plus, it's always healthy and keeps the vampires away.
What are your kitchen-gadget obsessions? Immersion circulators and great knives. My current knife obsession is any knife from New West KnifeWorks from Jackson, Wyoming.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: Until it closed, it was Il Mondo Vecchio's porcini salumi. Now goat's-milk cheeses from Haystack Mountain and the MouCo Camembert are staples in my restaurant.
Food trend you'd like to see in 2013: A return to simplicity in the kitchen. I find more joy in a perfectly executed five-ingredient dish than trying to decipher the 100-ingredient cryptic message that ends up on some plates.
Food trend you'd like to see disappear in 2013: Groupons -- and all the rest of those daily deals that can really kill a small business. The discounts on those Groupons are steeper than the cost that goes into the coupon, and restaurants usually suffer and lose a bunch of money because of it. The model for Groupon is really flawed -- they'll tell you that it creates brand loyalty for the restaurant, but it really just creates brand loyalty for Groupon. For the last two and a half years, we've been doing two-for-one Tuesdays, where you buy one pizza and get one free. We much prefer to offer value-driven deals for our guests without compromising our business.
What's never in your kitchen? Egos or lofty attitudes. Cooking should be fun. And there's no rap music, pre-processed ingredients -- that drives me nuts -- or clutter. Clutter drives me out of my mind. If someone asks, "Where's the olive oil?" I can say second shelf up, third item over on the right.
What's always in your kitchen? A sense of learning, coaching and teaching. We can all learn something new every day, from everyone we meet. Our goal is to make each day better than the last.
Weirdest customer request: Chips and salsa. Really? At an Italian pizza place? The guy who ordered them was completely beside himself when we told him that we didn't have them. He wondered how on earth we could be a restaurant that didn't serve chips and salsa. I initially thought they were kidding, but, no, they were 100 percent serious and absolutely aghast that we didn't have them.
Weirdest thing you've ever put in your mouth: Grubs, and they were gross. If you're faced with a bet, just pass on this one.
Favorite dish on your menu: Nona's stuffed shells, which is my grandmother's recipe. She only made them once a year on Christmas Eve -- that was it -- and they were the first item I put on the menu, not to mention a top seller since day one when we opened. Grandma nailed it.
Biggest menu bomb: It's crazy, but anything we do with steak. We've tried to do countless steak dishes at our restaurant, and they're just not what people look for when they visit us. It's the craziest thing. We can blow through seafood and just about everything else in a heartbeat, but steak just doesn't sell. We did bone-in Kansas City strips on New Year's Eve, and we sold two. Steak is our nemesis.
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What's one thing that people would be surprised to know about you? I'm an ocean spirit at heart who fell in love with the mountains, but I still have to make it to the water every year to recharge: diving, surfing -- anything in salt water. Oh, and I have five tattoos, all of which are ocean-themed and represent the qualities I look for in myself and in others.