Johnson & Wales chef Eric Stein dishes on vegetarian food (Denver has the worst), Michael Long (he's a genius) and peanut butter and jelly
This is part two of Lori Midson's Chef and Tell interview with Eric Stein, chef/instructor at Johnson & Wales. To read part one of that interview, click here.
Most embarrassing moment in the kitchen: I worked for a restaurant called Adesso in Providence, Rhode Island, that featured an open kitchen. One night while I was chopping parsley on the line during service, I shaved the nail right off my index finger. One of the line cooks yelled to me to put my hand above my head to slow the bleeding down, which I did. And then I promptly passed out right there on the line.
What you'd like to see more of in Denver from a culinary standpoint: Tasting menus. When I try a new restaurant, I usually eat almost everything on the appetizer menu. Small plates are generally a really good indication of the chef's skills and flavor profiles. Chefs in Denver have a lot of talent to show off, and I think diners here would really benefit from more tasting menus.
What you'd like to see less of in Denver from a culinary standpoint: Overpriced menu items. Everyone is feeling the pinch, so it bothers me to see restaurants that have $12 cocktails and $9 desserts.
Culinarily speaking, Denver has the best: Culinary diversity. We have seriously talented chefs who bring an abundance of flavors to the table, whether it's at a hole-in-the-wall or a high-end place.
Culinarily speaking, Denver has the worst: Vegetarian cuisine. Considering we're one the healthiest cities in the country, it's a shame that our best vegetarian options are either fried, wrapped, smothered or pizza. Denver needs a vegetarian restaurant that offers a menu like Ubuntu in Napa, Green Zebra in Chicago or Dirt Candy in New York City.
What do you cook at home? I never cook at home. I don't even have a dining room table. But if I did cook at home, I'd make posole or country-style spare ribs -- things that are hearty.
Favorite cookbooks: Rick Tramonto's Amuse-Bouche, a book that reflects how I like to cook and how I like to eat: small plates, bold flavors and outside-the-box thinking.
What show would you pitch to the Food Network? I actually pitched this idea to the Food Network in 2005, but now it's already kind of played out in a lot of their shows. People are so curious about food but intimidated by ingredients, so I wanted to have a show where I took people to their local market -- grocery store, farmers' market or ethnic market -- taught them about the ingredients and how to prepare dishes using what we bought. I think it'd also be fun to have a show where a bunch of chefs go to a restaurant, sit around the table and try to figure out how the dishes are prepared and the thinking process behind the presentations.
Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: Braised cockscomb -- you know, the red floppy thing on the head of a rooster. It was like chicken-flavored gummy worms.
Weirdest customer request: It wasn't a restaurant request, but I was doing a cooking demonstration about the benefits of salmon for heart health, when right in the middle of showing the audience how to portion the filets, someone stands up and asks, "Is peanut butter and jelly bad for me?" I had to literally stop and field questions for five minutes about how to choose the right peanut butter, why it's important to avoid hydrogenated fats, and why whole wheat bread is better than white bread before I could get back to the topic of salmon.
Current Denver culinary genius: Michael Long at Opus. There's got to be a little bit of madness involved with being a genius, and Michael Long is definitely a mad genius chef in his approach to food and his innovativeness -- and he has a quirky personality. I also think that Andre Lobato at Interstate Kitchen & Bar has a wicked way of updating American classics. There are so many things on his menu that he's rejuvenated using a modern approach and bold flavors.
Proudest moment as a chef: When I first started teaching at Johnson & Wales, I was only 23 years old, so some of the older chefs definitely viewed me as some punk kid. To add insult to injury, I had long hair and I'm a registered dietitian. There's a chef on campus named David Dawson who's a big deal -- not to mention every student's idol at that school. This is a guy who worked with Thomas Keller, was the exec sous of the Brown Palace, exec chef at the Denver Convention Center and opened Euro Disney -- and he's really an awesome guy. That said, I'm sure he hated me when I started. The first lab I was teaching was vegetarian cuisine -- a class that had never been taught on the Denver campus before -- and the students' final project is to create a vegetarian buffet where they write the recipes, order the food, invite forty guests, decorate the dining room, prepare the food and serve. Our theme for that buffet was The Ring of Fire: cuisine from the Pacific Rim. We had wok action stations, servers in grass skirts with flowers in their hair, luau music and an awesome menu. Right before service, in strolls Chef Dawson to see what's up. In between saying things like "Great job, chef" or "This is amazing" or "This is great what you did with these students, chef," he must have shaken my hand nearly twenty times. It was a really, really good feeling.
You're making a pizza. What's on it? Spinach, roasted red peppers, mushrooms, balsamic red onions, blue cheese and chili flakes.
You're making an omelet. What's in it? Caramelized onions, gyros and feta.
You're at the market. What do you buy two of? Cupcakes. Sugar Bakeshop has a stand on Saturdays at the Cherry Creek Farmers' market. Their peanut butter and chocolate cupcakes and pecan pie bars are incredible.
Best culinary tip for a home cook: Don't follow a recipe; It's not the law. Recipes are meant to be guidelines, so read them, but using your intuition will result in much better food.
After-work hangout: Mezcal. I even have my own drink there: the Mexican Mule, which is 30/30 tequila, fresh lime juice and ginger beer.
If you could cook for one person, dead or alive, who would it be? Natalie Portman. I would just make peanut butter and jelly or something simple, but I bet she would be fun to hang out with, especially if she comes to lunch in her character from Garden State.
Favorite Denver restaurants: Sushi Sasa. Chef Wayne Conwell and his staff are truly culinary magicians, and I've eaten more meals there than anywhere else in town. If you asked me to rank my top ten dishes from there, I'd probably have to give you thirty. One time in particular, me and three other chefs were having dinner at Sasa at the same time the chef from Morimoto's in Philly was cooking there. He and Wayne honestly went back and forth, Iron Chef style, trying to one-up each other for twelve courses of the most amazing food I've ever eaten.
What's your favorite knife? I have a Wüsthof chef's knife that I was given when I worked in Oregon. That thing is a workhorse; it's also the prep knife I use when I have personal chef gigs.
Hardest lesson you've learned: I've learned how to see things through someone else's eyes. I had a student a little while back who really challenged my approach to teaching, not to mention the way I interacted with some of the students. I tend to be more sarcastic than nurturing, and we had a big blow-out because of it. That student and I spent about an hour after class one night talking about how your perception of your own actions can be completely different from how others perceive them. I am now much more aware of how I use my personality and sarcasm in different teaching situations and in my overall approach.
What's next for you? At the end of May, I'm moving to White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, to do a three-year apprenticeship at a resort/private country club and spa called the Greenbrier. The program is somewhat of a finishing school for chefs, where you get exposure to food and techniques unlike what you can get anywhere else in the United States. I'll be focusing on bringing my own style of global flavors with an emphasis on nutrient-rich foods and seasonal ingredients to their menus. A professional goal of mine is to help bring spa cuisine to the country club setting as a whole. Their current chef, Richard Rosendale, is a former captain of the United States Culinary Olympic team, so during my apprenticeship, I also want to train to compete in the 2012 Culinary Olympics. It's a really intensive program in a really intense environment, where the norm is working ninety hours a week, just to hone your skills. I'm going in as a bottom-of-the-barrel apprentice, but it's a good professional move for me.
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