This is part one of my interview with Hunter Pritchett, exec chef of Luca d'Italia. Part two of my chat with Pritchett will run in this space tomorrow.
Hunter Pritchett and his kitchen crew are thumbing through an Italian phrasebook, one that's devoted to naughty slogans, maxims and mottos, most of which are hilarious...and unprintable. There's a blank green chalkboard in the open kitchen of Luca d'Italia, where Pritchett oversees the burners, and by the time he gets to the last page of the phraseology guide, he's decided on an inoffensive one-liner to scrawl there: minne di Sant' Agata, which translates to "breasts of virgins."
Pritchett, however, is no virgin in the kitchen. Born in Miami, he's lived -- and cooked -- all over the globe: New York, London, Malaysia, the Philippines, Las Vegas and Vermont. "Food, and food culture, was a really big deal while I was growing up, and my first job in the kitchen was working illegally at a Long John Silver's when I was fourteen," says Pritchett, who adds that it sucked. "I was the fry guy -- frying hush puppies and frozen hunks of fish in the biggest, nastiest fryer you've ever seen -- and I've never been burned so often in my life. The amount of oil and grease was just gross."
Still, he insists, "the rush of fast food was like a crash course in the pace of cooking in a hellish kind of way, and there was something about it that made me want to continue on this path." And, in fact, he went right back to the sea of fried sea creatures when he worked at "a greasy, fishy sandwich joint" in Vermont, before he realized that even in Burlington, there existed bona fide restaurants.
He eventually became the executive chef of an Italian restaurant, and later, a bistro. "It was -- and, thirty years later, still is -- the best restaurant in Burlington," says Pritchett, which could explain why he left Vermont altogether. "I'd worked everywhere there was to work, and I couldn't go any further, plus it had been a very long Vermont winter, so I moved to Las Vegas." He did a year-long stint at the original Andre's, which Pritchett calls a "super-old-school-Vegas, outrageously expensive, Escoffier-type of French restaurant that really taught me to respect ingredients, but the truth is, I couldn't relate to it at all."
He spent another few years working in Vegas restaurants before he packed his knives for Denver in 2008. "I didn't have a job lined up, but when I got here, I staged at Black Pearl, Duo and Z Cuisine before walking into Osteria Marco, who told me to go to Mizuna, who told me to go to Luca -- and now, here I am," says Pritchett, who started, ironically, as a fish cook before moving to the meat station and ultimately becoming Luca's executive chef. "Even though the restaurant is named after Frank's kid, he's the best boss I've ever had, and I love the gratification of cooking, of fulfilling the primal need of feeding people, and I like making people happy, which is why I come to work every day," explains Pritchett, who, in the following interview, compares an intern's peanut butter and jelly sandwich to the Dollar Store, laments Denver's culinary mediocrity and explains why bum piss led to the strangest thing he's ever put in his mouth.
Six words to describe your food: Balanced, definition-bending, contemporary Italian grub.
Ten words to describe you: A bespectacled, hairy, thoughtful, restless, calculated, worldly, unsatisfied man-child.
Favorite ingredient: Age. I was really impatient in my younger years, with no real understanding of how incredible things can taste when ingredients hit their peak of ripeness and freshness, or, in this case, progress to the pinnacle of flavor and texture because of dry-curing, fermenting and aging. Dry-aging and curing changed my outlook on taste and flavor: Start with great product, and let it progress to something amazing. We've dry-aged our steaks for years, but I started dry-aging the ducks at Luca this year -- ten days for the breasts left on the crown -- and the results blew my mind. There's more depth of flavor, better texture, and the stronger-flavored fat just melts in your mouth. It's fucking magic. The entire restaurant fights over the trimmed ends.
Best recent food find: I've been getting finger limes from California for a while now, and you're starting to see them more and more. The fruit cells pop out like caviar -- it's awesome -- and they have a hint of mint to them. The intermezzo on our tasting menu is a finger-lime sorbetto with shaved bottarga di muggine, or salt-cured mullet roe, and parsley. It's a great application and really clears the palate.
Most overrated ingredient: Sous vide this and sous vide that. Sous vide is great in some applications, but it's not the answer to everything. On top of that, it can be extremely dangerous if you don't know what you're doing.
Most underrated ingredient: Salt. Nothing is more important than properly seasoned food, and nothing makes me angrier than under-seasoned food. Properly seasoning and tasting your food shows that you're putting time and care into your product, and if you're not doing that, get out of the kitchen. Every once in a while, I'll get a heads-up that a customer doesn't like seeing me -- or my cooks -- tasting food, and to that I say, be happy that whoever is making your food is making doubly, even triply sure that your dish is as good as it can be. Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: I got a cold call last spring from a dude named Aaron, from Montrose, and he made me a bet that his Marai sweet corn would be the sweetest, best corn I'd ever tasted. He brought me a dozen ears, and, holy shit, it was definitely the best corn I've ever had. I instantly turned eight again...eating fresh corn out of my grandparents' garden in southwest Virginia. It's organic, totally edible raw, has a higher sugar content than a Palisade peach, giant kernels, and it's bright yellow -- just amazing. I get it the day they pick it, and I'm counting down the days until it's available; it usually ripens before the Fourth of July. They have a stand at the Mile High Marketplace in the summer, and you'll see it on my menus, for sure.
Favorite spice: When it's cold, I go on a juniper berry kick. It's got such a complex flavor to it: effervescent, citrusy, crisp and clear, like a cold winter day. It's great with game meats, and at Luca, I roast green leek tops, which turn to ash, pulverize juniper berries into it, and then dust our venison loin with it. It's a great contrast to the gamey richness of the meat, and it really makes it different and special. It's also one of the few things that can be foraged in Colorado. I can't pass a tree without grabbing a handful, and anything that's made with gin has to be good.
One food you detest: I fucking hate canned water chestnuts. I'll truly eat anything, but a bleached-white, waterlogged, half-crispy, tasteless sliver that tastes like the can it came in has zero appeal to me.
One food you can't live without: Cheese. It's the fat man's candy.
What's never in your kitchen? Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. There's a great story behind this one. I had a culinary-school intern who was a week from finishing her tenure here, but she started to slip in her quality of work, so we made her do family meal, and she tried to pull off Dollar Store-quality peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Actually, they were much worse than Dollar Store peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
What's always in your kitchen? Sharp knives, sharp minds and spicy green hot sauce.
Rules of conduct in your kitchen: Be nice, and make it perfect. Biggest kitchen disaster: I used to work at a really, really nice place in Las Vegas that was amazingly expensive, but there was no money coming back to the kitchen for equipment. We had giant forty-gallon stockpots with drain spigots on the bottom. These things suck -- only a true shoemaker would buy them, as the faucet always goes bad and you're left with a hole in the side of your pot. Sure enough, the cheap-ass chef decided to hammer a wine cork into the hole to plug the spigot, and lo and behold, one day, while reducing an entire simmering pot of chicken stock, that cork shot across the room, followed by a scalding jet of stock. Long story short, five cooks ended up in the hospital with burns, one with a full clog of burning stock. Totally preventable and totally stupid. I was happy to leave that joint.
Favorite music to cook by: We prep to music but turn it off during service. Every day is something different. Sometimes my pasta chef, Eric, and I listen to old punk and get all misty-eyed and end up feeling really old by the end of it, but usually we just hit shuffle on the iPhone or iPod. It can go from Screamin' Jay Hawkins to a terrifying half-hour of Disco Biscuits jams, to Dr. Octagon, Theophilius London or the Jesus Lizard. When I'm alone in the kitchen, I usually just blast metal, or really noodle-y indie rock, which seems inspiring enough for complex food liturgy. Music in the kitchen is great; we all listen to each other's shit, bust each other's balls about it and go to different shows together. I went to see the Disco Biscuits with Seth, my grill chef, and I made him follow me to the Planes Mistaken for Stars reunion show. We're all passionate about music, and sharing it creates good bonds, widens everyone's perspective and forms great team connections.
Weirdest customer request: I'll do just about anything that doesn't hurt the integrity of the dish. The gluten-free vegans with extreme dislikes always make things interesting, but I take it as a challenge, and everyone leaves happy.
Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: I once went urban "foraging" for young pine shoots, and as I was nibbling on some, I noticed a nice homeless gentleman relieving himself on the base of the tree. So the answer is bum piss.
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If you weren't a chef, what would you be? Eternally unfulfilled.