Every week in Chef and Tell, Lori Midson features a Denver chef.
During the Taste of the Nation, the July 19 charity event that Matt Selby chef-chaired, he turned to me and uttered one word: "Wow." He was awestruck by the size of the crowd, but also by something else: himself. Selby, a Denver native who turned 35 on July 30, wasn't sure how he'd made it this far. "Can you believe how different things are now?" he asked, referring to the days, now behind him, when his best friend was a bottle of whiskey. "It's amazing."
The tattooed chef, as renowned for his knuckles inked with the letters that spell out "foie gras" as for his thirty dipping sauces at Vesta Dipping Grill, where he's been cooking since 1997 (he's also a partner at Steuben's), is a bona fide kitchen veteran, having logged more than a dozen years in Vesta's kitchen, with several more before that at Top Hat, Rattlesnake Grill and Bennigan's.
Along the way, Selby has cooked at the James Beard House (twice), appeared on the Food Network's Unwrapped and Rachael Ray's Tasty Travels, and amassed accolades both locally and nationally for his playful, globe-trotting cuisine. And his first cookbook – a collection of recipes from Vesta – will be published in November by Northstar Books, just in time to stuff the stockings of your favorite foodies. While you're waiting on that, you can chew on Selby's musings from our recent interview:
Ten words to describe you: Driven, funny, dorky, happy, grateful, confident, colorful, loyal, annoying and thoughtful.
Culinary inspirations: The seasons, my childhood, Harold McGee, the weather, ingredients, history, Julia Child, M.F.K. Fisher, travel, my family, my cooks, my staff, Josh Wolken, Jacques Pepin, my brother and Jimmy Schmidt. This is a list that could go on forever.
Proudest moment as a chef: This year's Taste of the Nation. I had been disheartened with the direction of this event and saddened by the loss of steam for quite a while, because I knew that guests were less than thrilled to attend and that the chefs sort of forgot why they were there...what they were supporting. It had also lost some of that local charm, of being the premier chef-driven local event, so it meant so much to me that I did what I could do to get involved this year. I think that this year's turnout speaks to the efforts and vision of the people who poured 100 percent of their heart and soul into making it work.
Favorite ingredient: Foie gras, rabbit, fennel and citrus.
What show would you pitch to the Food Network? Jason Sheehan's sitcom idea of my chicken and waffle house, with Kevin Taylor as the grumpy old neighbor. I'd make chef Taylor and me business partners at odds with each other — like the Odd Couple. I think Ralph Macchio would play my part best. Any ideas for Kevin?
Weirdest thing you've ever shoved down your throat: Chile-roasted crickets in Oaxaca, Mexico.
Current Denver culinary genius: James Rugile at Venue. He's a genius because he knows how to subtly push the envelope and ultimately turn out food that people love. He doesn't push too hard, but he cooks with soul and dignity while focusing on ingredients and the seasons. It's like what I said about doing things for all the right reasons. James cooks for all the right reasons, and, yeah, that makes him a genius.
Best food city in America: No sense in trying to deny that it's New York. I first fell in love with all of the super high-end joints, like Gramercy Tavern, Gotham, Jean Georges and the like. And I'm still in love with those kinds of places, but my renewed love is for the New York neighborhood joints and all the street food there.
Celebrity chef that should shut up: While his food blows me away, every time David Chang is quoted in the media, I cringe. I totally get it: You open a restaurant, and you have a right to run it your own way. I get it. But at what point does your ego control too much of your guests' experience?
Favorite music to cook by: Don't want to sound like a prima donna, but I can't stand music in the kitchen. I have a hard enough time getting focused.
Most overrated ingredient: Fresh wasabi rules, but powdered wasabi sucks. It's overbearing, and it doesn't bring anything to the fish. And I gotta just say this: I get so annoyed with the whole sushi chef/wasabi lecture about not wanting guests to use it. If you don't want guests to use it, then don't put it on the plate!
Most underrated ingredient: Chicken thighs. They're fatty, flavorful, moist awesomeness. Not sure why it's underrated, other than the American health curse that said chicken breasts are good and thighs are bad. There's a good goddamned reason why the Asians and Latinos have been using thigh meat over breast meat for centuries. It tastes better!
Rules of conduct in your kitchen: Be respectful, always be learning, work clean, have a plan, no music, ask questions, respect your ingredients, be proud of yourself, help others to achieve success, be like family, have fun, and above all else, be respectful of the guests supporting our passions. Oh, and none of this unbuttoning-the-top-button shit on your chef coat.
Favorite New York restaurant: Actually, I have two favorites. Scarpetta blew me away with incredible food and gracious service, plus I was able to stage there. The stage itself was hospitable and gracious, which I've never been able to say before about a stage. And, man, the Fatty Crab? That place blew me away. Super clean, fresh, simple and zero pretense. They cook like I wish I did.
One food you detest: Green peppers. They overpower everything. Even fresh, they taste rancid.
One food you can't live without: Sausage and cured meats. Maybe it's because I'm a man, I don't know. Or maybe it's because they're so versatile. All I know is that I crave them at all times of the day.
Most embarrassing moment in the kitchen: My first trip to the James Beard House. I was mentally and physically unprepared. I didn't think everything through. The absolute worst was that my rosemary whipped cream did not whip.
Six words to describe your food: Seasoned, bright, worldly, local, educated and simple...though I know some chefs would disagree with that.
What you'd like to see more of in Denver from a culinary standpoint: Nothing. Nada. Denver is doing just fine doing what it should be doing, which is to grow, evolve and simply be itself. The more you try to push what it should be, the less it becomes. Leave the damn city alone and nurture it for the right reasons.
What you'd like to see less of in Denver from a culinary standpoint: Less speculation on what's next for Denver! My personal philosophy is that if you do what you love for all the right reasons — and do it with grace and humility — all of the accolades in the world will come, but the moment you do it to stroke your own ego, everything falls apart. Serve a kick-ass product, treat our diners like kings and queens and stop measuring ourselves by what others are or are not doing. Let's just cook!
Denver has the best: Community-driven chefs.
Denver has the worst: Street food. Not enough of it.
Favorite cookbook: Contrary to what most people think when it comes to my food, my first culinary love is Provençal cooking. The book that I first fell in love with was Lulu's Provençal Table, by Richard Olney. Lulu was the great matriarch of the Peyraud family and responsible for Bandol wine. The book itself is a testament to their family wines and the Provençal dishes that the region is known for. It's a book that I think first made me ingredient-driven and made me focus on technique. Ultimately, I think every chef has a book that is the "nostalgic one," the one that inspires them, the one they go back to for a recharge.
You're making a pizza. What's on it? Sausage, rapini, ricotta and fresh mozzarella. I actually think they have that exact same thing at Marco's Coal-Fired Pizza.
You're making an omelet. What's in it? Braised short ribs, chanterelle mushrooms and Explorateur.
After-work hangout: Home with my family, sometimes watching television.
Favorite Denver restaurant other than your own: Ba Le Sandwich on Federal. I dream about this place and all their variations of banh mi sandwiches. I want to do a banh mi on one of our menus at Steuben's or Vesta. I love it there because that's all they do — just the sandwiches — and they do them really well. Plus, you can buy French pâtés on your way out the door.
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Favorite celebrity chef: Rick Bayless. His food is pure, simple, clean and inspired. He cooks from the soul, and goddamnit, he's just so fucking cool!
Hardest lesson you've learned: Three-quarters of a bottle of whiskey a day is no way to go about life.
What's up next? Finish a Vesta cookbook and then get started on a Steuben's cookbook.