Interstate Kitchen + Bar's Andre Lobato on a SWAT team invasion, eating a fried tarantula and the demise of some of Denver's best restaurants
Interstate Kitchen + Bar
901 West Tenth Avenue
"The idea, when we opened, was to accommodate industry people and chefs, bartenders, cab drivers, doctors, anyone who worked off hours," says Andre Lobato, explaining the origins of Interstate Kitchen + Bar, the late-night American restaurant in the Santa Fe Arts District that he owns with his brother, Aaron, and best friend, Joseph Newman. "I'm not going to lie: The first couple of months were tough -- this is a tough location -- and we did a lot of soul-searching, repeatedly asking ourselves what we'd gotten ourselves into. But things have really taken off recently, and the neighborhood, which I love, is definitely responding, and our late-night business is booming."
Lobato is hardly a newcomer to the industry. He got his first gig when he was eleven, doing prep work at 14th Street Bar & Grill, the Boulder joint his parents opened in 1988 and recently sold to a restaurant group that includes Bryan Dayton, a former mixologist at Frasca Food & Wine. "I started out making pizza dough, shredding cheese and cleaning, eventually graduated to pantry, and by the time I left, at eighteen, I was doing grill and saute," remembers Lobato, who then moved to San Francisco, where he spun sugar at Eos Restaurant and Wine Saloon.
He later cooked in New York, spent a year and a half kicking back in Southeast Asia, did some time at Syzygy in Aspen, and spent six years working the front of the house at Lola before heading back to Boulder and 14th Street, to help his brother-in-law in the kitchen. By that time, Lobato had logged a whole lot of hours on the line -- and no one was more surprised by that than he. "When I was younger, I was absolutely certain that I didn't want to be a chef -- or be in the restaurant business at all, for that matter. That was my parents' thing," he acknowledges. "But the more I worked in the industry, the more I enjoyed it, plus I realized that I was pretty damn good at it -- that I really enjoy craftsman-level, blue-collar work."
We recently caught up with Lobato at Interstate, where, between eating lap dogs and deviled eggs and popping popcorn, he talked about opening a new restaurant, the day the SWAT team invaded 14th Street, and how he found himself on the losing side of a bet in Cambodia.
Six words to describe your food: Humble, unexpected, refined, deconstructed, honest and yum.
Ten words to describe you: Incredulous, passionate, artistic, handy, audacious, benevolent, analytical, meticulous, stylish and sore.
Favorite ingredient: Meat of any kind, from any part of the animal. It was the availability of meat protein that first allowed our species to develop larger brains and a capacity for complex reasoning, paving the way for civilization and the greatest accomplishments of humanity. I acknowledge that there are problems with the sustainability and environmental aspects of large-scale meat production, which is why I'm happy to see so many dedicated and incredibly intelligent people working hard to educate others in helping to change the way we provide meat for our tables.
Favorite dish to cook at home: A Gruyere omelet with a simple salad and good balsamic.
Best recent food find: Lychee gummies with the goo inside from the Asian supermarket on Alameda, right by Super Star Asian.
Most overrated ingredient: Extra-virgin olive oil. Don't get me wrong: I love the stuff, but it has a low flash point, and it's really pretty awful for sautéing. Most people don't realize how pronounced the flavor is and use it by default, because gapers like Rachael Ray cheerlead its use. It shows up in food that it has no business being in, like Asian or Mexican, where the dish would be better served by using a lighter-flavored oil.
Most underrated ingredient: Onions are the aromatic backbone of savory cooking the world over, and yet they're maligned to a secondary role when compared to sexier ingredients that, frankly, perform best when onions are involved in the preparation.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: Stranahan's Colorado Whiskey, which is available all over Denver but is distilled right up the street from us.
One food you detest: Cottage cheese. And it's strange, because I love cheese and I'm not too squeamish about texture, but I have a vivid memory of this smelly kid in junior high school whose parents were probably hippies, because they always sent him packing with cottage cheese and dense little melba toast crisps, which he would noisily eat, all chomping and slurping, and the curds would get caught in his braces and form white foam in the corners of his mouth. He'd insist on chatting you up with this mess in his grill, plus he had fetid cheese breath.
One food you can't live without: Bacon. If you need to know why, go eat a piece.
Biggest kitchen disaster: We had just started the lunch rush at 14th Street Bar and Grill, and the dining room was filling up nicely, when suddenly the police stormed the room dressed in SWAT fatigues and ordered everyone out. We had food for about sixty people in different stages of completion and had to drop everything and evacuate. Someone had apparently seen a man on the roof of the building across the street with an alleged rifle. So we stood in the alley for three hours waiting for the situation to resolve itself, by which time every single guest had found somewhere else to eat. By the time we got back inside, everything was wilted and sad and trashed, and the stuff in the ovens for evening service was burnt to a crisp. Here's where it gets good: Turns out the "shooter" was actually a photographer with a telephoto lens taking summertime pictures of the Front Range for some postcards.
What's never in your kitchen? Pre-made convenience food items, like bottled salad dressings or frozen battered onion rings. If I could, I would scratch-make everything from bread to vinegar.
What's always in your kitchen? Sriracha, even if it's just for me.
What you'd like to see more of in Denver from a culinary standpoint: Urban farming and grassroots cultivation of food. In Denver, people buy hydroponic systems for one reason only: to grow weed. I would like to see more usage of the technology to turn our rooftops into fields of heirloom produce.
What you'd like to see less of in Denver from a culinary standpoint: It bums me out that Denver fails to support some of its best restaurants -- restaurants that give this city its identity. Some of the greatest meals I've ever had in Denver were at places that are no longer in business -- restaurants like Vega, Clair de Lune, Aix and Micole. These places weren't supported, while other places that I won't name, but that most can agree suck balls, are doing bang-up numbers.
One book that every chef should read: Setting the Table, by Danny Meyer. While most chefs know and love food, many are unfamiliar with the business aspect of operating a restaurant. It's a difficult situation to separate your ego from the desires of the guest, but we have to keep in mind that it's the guests who we're cooking for, not ourselves. The book is all about the whole concept of hospitality and creating an atmosphere where guests feel like they're the most important person. As a chef, it's easy to become insulated, and this book focuses on the real reason why we do what we do: to make customers happy.
What show would you pitch to the Food Network, and what would it be about? I love education, but it seems to me that culinary school, like medical school and law school, only prepares you to begin to learn your craft. While I certainly respect culinary school as a way to gain kitchen skills, a lot of talented chefs have never had formal training. My show would be simple: I would take celebrity chefs who learned their skill set in a real kitchen and put them through a culinary school program. How are you gonna tell a guy with five restaurants and his own hot sauce that his brunoise sucks? Reality television at its finest.
Current Denver culinary genius: We're fortunate to have so many talented chefs in town redefining the food culture of Denver. I'm not sure "genius" is the appropriate term, but I've always had great food from Alex Seidel at Fruition, Duane Walker at Lola and Scott Parker at Table 6. The food I've had from all three of these guys resonates with my own sense of how food should be: never overly flashy; honest; and the ingredients in the dish all have their own identity.
Weirdest customer request: I once had a woman insist that she was allergic to water. I told her that most of our food preparation involved water at some point. I meekly asked her if she wanted something to drink, and she ordered a Corona Light. Chapo, our dish dog, thought we should inform NASA. He was certain we had found a unique life form on Earth.
Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: On a six-hour bus trip across Cambodia, I found myself on the losing end of a bet to eat a giant fried tarantula from a roadside hawker. The damn thing was stupid-big; seriously, it was the size of a dinner plate! It wasn't too bad -- kind of like soft-shell crab -- except for the hair. I won 60 dollars US, 40 Deutschmarks and 35 Aussie bucks.
Read the rest of Lori Midson's interview with Andre Lobato.
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