Iain Chisholm, chef of Amerigo: "I simply cannot appease everyone's every desire"
This is part one of my interview with Iain Chisholm, chef-owner of Amerigo Delicatus Restaurant & Market; part two of our chat will run tomorrow.
My mom never used salt. She thought it was the devil," chuckles Iain Chisholm, likening salt's absence in food to "being deprived of oxygen." Salt, he points out, is the "magic ingredient." He figured that out in high school, which is when he got his first taste of the restaurant business, working at a now-defunct Swiss restaurant in Greenwood Village, starting as a dishwasher and quickly moving up the ranks to pantry cook. "Food didn't become important to me until I started working in kitchens, and that's where I started to realize what I'd been missing," says Chisholm, today the owner-chef of Amerigo Delicatus Restaurant & Market, an Italian food temple on Upper Larimer.
And once he got his first jolt of the crystalline mineral, the gateway to a culinary career was all but cemented. Chisholm even spent his last year of high school at Johnson & Wales, graduating with an associate's degree in culinary arts as part of the culinary school's Early Enrollment Program, which gives students the opportunity to take classes and apply the credits back to high school. Between mastering sauces and learning the proper names of every pot and pan, Chisholm did an externship at Disney World and worked on the line of Ventura Grill, a long-gone restaurant whose kitchen was bossed by Jenna Johansen, now the innovation chef at Epicurean Catering. "Jenna showed me how to do everything right; she taught me all of the cool touches that you don't get in culinary school, and because she did everything from scratch and everything she used in her cooking was fresh, it was like a whole new world to me," says Chisholm, who spent more than ten years cooking alongside Johansen at various restaurants, including the Great Northern Tavern; Dish, in Edwards; and Ocotillo, which closed several years ago.
He eventually returned to Johnson & Wales to get his bachelor's degree, and when he graduated in 2009, he began formulating a business plan to open his own restaurant -- one that would take four years to conceive and build. "I was kind of daunted by what it would take financially to open my own place, and I figured that the more I could do myself, the more money I could save, so I spent three years working for contractors and learning how to build a restaurant with my own hands," says Chisholm, who opened Amerigo last fall.
"For my first restaurant, I wanted to do Italian -- it's my go-to comfort food, and it's never redundant -- and I felt like Italian, at least the way we do Italian, with fresh, housemade pastas, was an underserved niche in Denver as a whole," explains Chisholm, who believes that Amerigo is "99 percent more authentic than other Italian restaurants in our price range." Amerigo, he adds, is "my stepping stone to set up the prototype for other concepts in the same vein -- small, neighborhood restaurants that I can build with my own hands." And opening a bar is on his wish list, too. "I'd love to do a bar next, and if I could find somewhere in this neighborhood, I'd jump on it," says Chisholm, who in the following interview admits that cockiness has no place in his kitchen, implores diners to put their restaurant experiences into context, and pleads for the taco craze to take a hiatus.
What do you enjoy most about your craft? Iain Chisholm: I like to create, and I like working with my hands, and what's so cool about cooking is that it gives you the opportunity to create something new every single day -- something that's immediately enjoyed (hopefully) by the person you're cooking it for. It's almost like making tiny little masterpieces that immediately get destroyed, but once they're gone, it just gives you room to make something new. Every person who enjoys a meal has a very intimate appreciation for what you've done, and every new dish has a chance to create a legacy.
What is your approach to cooking? Simplicity is the golden rule. When I was working for Jenna Johansen at Dish, she gave me carte blanche to put whatever I wanted on our menus. Since we were making small plates with global influences, there was no limit to what would pass on the menu. When I left Dish to come back to Denver, it really started to sink in that my favorite things to eat were the things that tasted good by themselves. I like my steak with a drizzle of good olive oil and cracked pepper, and I like perfectly ripe pears with some stinky cheese and honey. There's something to be said for restraint in the composition of a dish, and that's what I think about when I approach food.
What are your ingredient obsessions? Heirloom tomatoes. Their flavor is just so much better than your run-of-the-mill, genetically mutilated globes. I also love really good extra-virgin olive oil. I've been getting olive oil from California -- Bari is the producer -- and I love the flavor. I could put it on everything...and pretty much do. And I love creamy cheeses. We've been serving La Tur with our antipasto course, and I've been eating way too much of it. I'm also hooked on our coppa-and-fresh-ricotta sandwich, which I eat almost every day. I can't get enough of it.
What are your kitchen-gadget obsessions? I've spent the summer purging my house and the restaurant of clutter -- and along with it, any unnecessary gadgets. And I've been getting into heated discussions with one of my sous chefs, because I keep saying there's nothing we can't do with just a chef's knife and a paring knife. Still, if the kitchen were to burn down, I'd grab our Imperia electric pasta sheeter and our five-quart stand mixer. They're nothing too crazy, but they're our workhorses. A French mandolin is a handy tool, too, when you want to gussy up a dish.
Who or what inspires you? My parents are my main inspirations. They've always had my back, and they're truly the reason I am where I am. They raised my sisters and me with a "high love, low protection" kind of philosophy, which has made me venture to some pretty far-out places, but I've always stayed grounded, because they instilled a good compass for my character. I owe them everything, and it's nice to have such a high level of mutual respect for the people who raised you.
What are your favorite local ingredients and purveyors? We just finished up our Palisade peach dishes, which are among my favorite things in the world. And when we butcher pigs or do suckling-pig roasts, we get the pigs from Jeff Bauman at Brush Locker. They're Red Durocs from Brush, Colorado, and I love the meat. I call in an order, the pigs are slaughtered the next day, and I get the pigs the day after. There really is a difference in taste when your meat is that fresh. Even the sausage we make with the scraps has so much more vibrancy to it.
What's one ingredient you won't touch? Frankly, I don't mess with many Asian ingredients -- at least if I'm the one cooking. It's not because I don't like how they taste; it's because they're out of my comfort realm. There's so much to Asian cuisine that's beyond my frame of reference, and I just don't want to bastardize it. But as far as eating goes, there's not much I won't try...unless it's something that's ridiculously spicy. I'm a wuss when it comes to spicy foods. At a certain point, heat sacrifices flavor, and my threshold is pretty low.
What's one ingredient you can't live without? Wheat flour. I feel so bad for anyone who suffers from celiac disease. I eat so much bread and pasta and baked goods in general that my whole life would change if someone told me I couldn't eat them anymore. A day without bread is like a night without stars.
What food trend would you like to see in 2013? I'm a fan of smaller restaurants that specialize. I'm disenchanted with huge restaurants with huge menus that try to tackle so much. I'd like to see more small establishments stay true to a specific mission.
What food trend would you like to see disappear in 2013? Do something other than tacos. Tacos are good, it's easy to make a good taco, and it's fun to make tacos with unusual ingredients or mess with the flavor profile of another region of the world, but I just think they're overdone. I'm not talking shit about the taquerias in town, or even the modern taco concepts that have opened, but enough already. Between all the food trucks and brick-and-mortar taco joints, we're all set. There are so many other great street foods that haven't seen the light of day in Denver. Give us something new.
What specific requests would you ask of Denver diners? Aside from please make a reservation, I would ask that they put their restaurant experiences into context. I hate it when people come to our restaurant and act put out because we aren't exactly what they thought we were going to be. We're small and pretty casual. I can't be everything to everyone, and we're doing a very specific thing here: We're serving good, handmade food in a casual setting, and we're unapologetic about not being a white-tablecloth type of place. That's the great thing about Denver's dining scene: There are a lot of super-fancy places that cater to the fine-dining demographic, but we're the alternative, the kind of place where you can still get a great meal without all that fuss. We don't serve pizza; we don't have a kids' menu; we have limited seating, and the seats are intentionally only comfortable enough to sit there for a couple of hours. With only ten tables, I have to turn them in order to stay in business. There are a lot of moving parts to running a small, independent place like mine. I simply cannot appease everyone's every desire, as much as I might like to. Luckily, our customers are generally on board with what we're doing.
Which Denver restaurant is the most underrated? Pho 79. It's just a strip-mall Vietnamese place, but, damn, it's good.
Who is the most underrated chef in Denver? Thach Tran, a sous chef at ChoLon. He did a sous-vide duck-breast dish with crispy duck skin at a recent Cystic Fibrosis Foundation event, and it was awesome. If he stays in town, gets his own kitchen or opens a restaurant, I think he'll do great things. But all the chefs I know on a personal level, I respect quite a bit. I think it's ballsy to put your name on something and subject yourself to all sorts of criticism from random people, many of whom have no frame of reference for what they're criticizing.
What advice would you give to an aspiring young chef? Scrap what you see on TV, because this shit is hard. Don't do it for fame or wealth, because very few ever achieve it in this business. For every successful restaurateur, there are a slew of hardworking people who will never get the acclaim they deserve. If you're comfortable with being one of these people and are doing it because you really enjoy it, keep it up. It's very gratifying being part of that hardworking crew.
What skills and attributes do you look for when hiring kitchen staff? Cleanliness, eye contact and an ability to verbalize one's thoughts. A good kitchen staff really is a sort of fraternity, so I ask myself if I want to see this person every day and work with them in stressful situations. I want people who take pride in what they do and don't feel like they're doing me a favor by being there. You put a lot of trust in a person when you let them represent you with their dishes.
If you had the opportunity to open your own restaurant with no budget constraints, what kind of restaurant would you open? I actually opened the restaurant I wanted, just on a tight budget. But if someone were handing out blank checks, I'd want my next place to be a bar, so I could keep building our team. I hope to do another restaurant down the road, but Amerigo is all I can handle for the time being.
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