Iain Chisholm, chef of Amerigo: "Big egos are everywhere in the restaurant business""
This is part two of my interview with Iain Chisholm, chef-owner of Amerigo Delicatus Restaurant & Market; part one of our chat, in which Chisholm admits that he doesn't mess with Asian ingredients and likens the absence of bread to a night without stars, ran yesterday.
What's the most noteworthy meal you've ever eaten? When I was eight, my parents took us to San Sebastián, Spain, and my dad, uncle and I were wandering around the old town where all the tapas bars were. I was complaining that I was hungry, so we popped into one of the tapas bars, and I had never seen anything like it. There was this huge bar with hundreds of tiny little hors d'oeuvres that were beautiful. You just took what you wanted, and the servers kept tally. It was a real eye-opener for me in terms of turning me on to good food.
What's your favorite dish on your menu right now? Creamy polenta paired with seared side pork, scallions, thyme, blueberries and wildflower honey. It sounds like a sweet dish, but it's not. The fatty pork and silky polenta get cut by the slight sweetness of the sautéed blueberries, and with the savory scallions, it's really well balanced. I'm about ready to take it off the menu, and I'll be sad to see it go.
What dish would you love to put on your menu, regardless of how well it would sell? I'm ready for cold-weather food, and I've been waiting to put some rabbit on the menu, which is something I've never run at Amerigo, so I'm not sure how it will sell, but I'm pretty confident that it'll go over just fine. Our customers are typically willing to try everything we put on the menu, but rabbit just isn't very popular in the states, and that's a shame, because I love the earthiness of the meat. It's perfect for fall.
What's the weirdest thing you've ever put in your mouth? A miracle berry. A buddy who I went to culinary school with got into growing these West African berries that totally screw up your palate. You chew the berry, hold it in your mouth for a while and then swallow it, and eating it makes everything taste totally different. We went through my refrigerator and made the weirdest combinations to see how it would change the taste. Drinking vinegar tasted like the sweetest juice. Spicy things like Tabasco combined with Worcestershire sauce were actually pretty tasty. It was a trip.
Last meal before you die? My mom's pork roast and sauerkraut. And her cherry pie to finish. That's what she made every year on my birthday for years.
What's always lurking in your refrigerator? Dijon mustard. I've been hooked on it since I was eight. It's the best condiment there is, and I never allow myself to run out.
What's your best recipe tip for a home cook? Use recipes as guides, not as formulas. Cooking is fun, because you get to make every dish a little different. Use the recipe to get the gist of what needs to take place, and then use your own sensibilities to make the dish your own. Cooking is not the same thing as baking. Baking is regimented, whereas cooking is very flexible.
What is your favorite culinary-related gift you've been given? Jenna Johansen gave me my first copy of Culinary Artistry, which is such a great reference to get your ideas flowing. It's the most-used book in my collection. In fact, it's all burnt on the edges and beat to hell because it's lived in several kitchens over the past ten years.
What's your favorite culinary-related item to give as a gift? I love giving knives. It's a very personal gift, because you have to know someone and be familiar with their work in order to make it a good gift. You have to know what knives they're using, what style they like to cook, what they're lacking in their kit and what knife would be the most useful addition. Do you get high-carbon knives, which have to be sharpened almost daily? Stainless, where they rarely need to be sharpened but need a machine edge? French or Santoku? Cleaver or boning? It's very personal.
What's your fantasy splurge? Really good cheeses are such a treat. I'm really cheap and don't part with my money all that freely, but I never have buyer's remorse when I walk out of the Truffle Cheese Shop.
What cookbooks and/or food-related reading material do you draw inspiration from? Culinary Artistry is awesome for generating ideas, and I love Ethan Stowell and Thomas Keller's cookbooks. My mom has this ancient cookbook that she leaves at the restaurant, and I think it's the precursor to the Fanny Farmer cookbook. There are some great base recipes in there, particularly baked goods. I also bust out the old JWU master book from time to time for base recipes.
What recent innovation has most influenced the restaurant industry in a significant way? The Food Network. Good thing or bad thing, it seems like every Joe-from-the-street wants to talk about consommés or barding versus larding or the mother sauces. Everyone has a base knowledge of culinaria these days, and "foodies" are everywhere and from all walks of life. I think it's great that people want to know more about food, and your average diner is no longer ignorant to what they're eating and paying for. Nonetheless, it's produced a lot of self-proclaimed experts who could use some firsthand knowledge rather than just regurgitating what they heard Bobby Flay say about how to cook the "perfect" pot roast. Take the good with the bad, I guess.
What do you expect from a restaurant critic? Review restaurants as a customer, not as an "expert." Dining in a restaurant is about your overall experience, and that's what I want to know about in a restaurant review. I can take the good with the bad, and I don't ever expect to have the perfect experience, but I want to know if I should spend my hard-earned money at a place. I think anonymity levels the playing field in this respect.
What are your best traits? I'm honest, I don't steal and I don't cheat.
What are your worst traits? I can have a pretty bad temper. Just ask my PM sous chef, Mo.
What's your biggest pet peeve? Oh, I have a lot. Poor grammar is way up there, though. How else does do you represent yourself if not by how well you speak? It's pretty much the first thing someone notices about you. That, and how well you take care of your teeth.
What's the biggest mistake a chef can make on the line? Cockiness. Big egos are everywhere in the restaurant business, and it's good to be confident, but humility is a real virtue. The frauds are exposed really quickly on the line, because they either can -- or can't -- handle the heat. It takes a certain type of person to be a badass on the line, but that doesn't necessarily mean inflated self-esteem. I'll take the quiet guy who shows up every day and produces over the egoist any day.
If you could cook in another chef's kitchen, whose would it be? I think Old Major would be a fun kitchen to work in. The facilities are badass, the menus are badass, and I really enjoy butchery.
What would you cook for that same chef if he or she came to your restaurant? I don't know...maybe a plate of steamed vegetables, if only to get Justin Brunson out of his element, even for a minute.
When guests want to thank you for a meal that really wows them, what do you wish they'd send to the kitchen? Just a sincere "thank you." It always feels great when people come up to the window and really thank us for a great meal. That's what we're shooting for, and it's nice to get validation.
What was your biggest moment of euphoria in the kitchen? I remember finishing my first night working by myself on a five-foot grill when I was doing an externship at Disney World Resort in Florida. I sold 600 steaks off my station, and none were sent back. Even the old-timers, who were permanent employees and a surly bunch, were impressed. We sold around the same number of steaks every night, but that first night, I had such a great sense of accomplishment.
Craziest night in the kitchen? I recall this one restaurant opening party where I had to have the Westword food-blog editor, who was actually there to do a piece on the restaurant launch, work the window all night. We had gotten our first food delivery 24 hours prior and were pretty much developing the opening menu as food went out. The term "shitshow" comes to mind. We survived, though, didn't we?
What's your greatest accomplishment as a chef? Opening my first restaurant at the age of 27. Nobody gave it to me. I had to see it through from concept to operation. I'll always be proud of Amerigo.
What's one thing that people would be surprised to know about you? I'm a bluegrass musician, and I sing and play the mandolin and the guitar. It's strictly a hobby, but it's my second love.
If you hadn't become a chef, what would you be doing right now? Probably carpentry. I love welding, too. Then again, I was a concert promoter for a while and really enjoyed it, so maybe that. It would have to be something that keeps me running around and working with my hands. I could never have a cubicle job; I have to be creative and think outside the box.
What's in the pipeline? Not a whole lot other than working out the kinks at the restaurant. We've been open one year and we're off to a great start, but we still have a lot of work to do. I've got a great team and we're getting there, but it's still a work in progress. I never want to bite off more than I can chew, and my mouth is pretty full right now.
What's next for Denver's culinary scene? I get the feeling that there's a lot of talent here and a lot of energy. People are trying new concepts and coming up with great stuff. I have no idea what new restaurants we'll be talking about a year from now, but there never seems to be a lack of new and exciting start-ups here. I think that's just going to continue, because the people in Denver love to try new places and they're very supportive of the dining scene, which is what keeps us all motivated.
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