Linger's Marty Steinke: "The talent pool in Denver is so overrated""
2030 West 30th Avenue
This is part two of my interview with Marty Steinke, exec chef of Linger; part one of our conversation ran yesterday.
What's your biggest challenge as a chef working in Denver? Finding good cooks. The talent pool in Denver is so overrated. We have some really amazing cooks, but we have some really, really crappy cooks, too. The average cook in Denver is pretty weak sauce; everyone is so eager to move up the ranks and become the chef. I wish the cooks in Denver spent more time in the trenches making mistakes. Not enough cooks put the time and effort in to develop basic knowledge and skills. I can appreciate these new culinary schools, but they give cooks a giant sense of false confidence. It takes years to be good in this industry.
Most underrated Denver/Boulder restaurant: Boulder's Pizzeria Basta hits the mark consistently, with food and service that are second to none. The level of execution and depth of flavors that Kelly Whitaker reaches are amazing.
Who's the most underrated chef in Denver? My team is badass. I don't tell them enough how much I appreciate what they do.
What skills and attributes do you look for when hiring kitchen staff? Solid knife skills, the ability to take criticism, a healthy lifestyle, passion, consistency, good communication skills, and, in general, they need to have their shit together as a person. It seems like everyone in this town has a DUI and has to take a day off for their alcohol-abuse classes. I understand that we all make mistakes in life, but don't bring that shit to work or let it interfere with work. And please know the basic fundamentals of cooking. Believe it or not, I've interviewed cooks who appear to know what they're doing, only to find out a week later that they can't brunoise an onion. It's depressing and shocking.
What advice would you give to an aspiring young chef? Don't go to culinary school! Learn how to handle a knife, don't be a pussy, and lose the ego. Culinary school is damn expensive, and I find that the burden of debt forces people to focus on getting promoted and making more money when they should be focused on cooking and learning. This is a tough career, and it's not for everyone. You have to be very motivated and really love being in crappy situations; otherwise, you're going to burn out...fast.
Biggest mistake a chef can make on the line: Leading with anger. This is a very passionate and intense industry, and it's all too easy to let your emotions get the better of you. No one ever fucks up a dish on purpose; it's usually because the cook doesn't understand the complexities of execution. The first time I had the honor of being the chef of a restaurant -- Bones -- I was a complete asshole. No one wanted to work with me, and it showed. I fucked that dream up in a major way, and I'll never forget it. That was a hard life lesson.
What specific requests would you ask of Denver diners? Stop giving money to chain restaurants. So many great local restaurants struggle to survive, while Chili's is raking in the money.
When guests want to thank you for a meal that really wows them, what do you wish they'd send to the kitchen? Healthy criticism. That's the only way to get better. If everyone loved everything all the time, then nothing would ever get better. I like it when I go to a table to ask, "What could we have done better?" There's always something to improve on. I love this quote from Justin [Cucci, owner of Linger]: "I'd rather be saved by criticism than ruined by praise." There's a constant, gentle pressure to be better. Mediocrity or complacency isn't allowed.
Favorite culinary-related gift you've been given: Japanese chef knives with my name carved on them in Japanese. They were a gift from Frank Bonanno.
Favorite culinary-related item to give as a gift: The Joy of Cooking is such a solid cookbook, with classic recipes that can be useful to anyone.
What's your fantasy splurge? Tasting menus. I love to find a great chef with a lot of talent and give them control over my dining experience.
If you had the opportunity to open your own restaurant with no budget constraints, what kind of restaurant would you open? I'd do a restaurant on the coast with a large farm around it and focus on highlighting the best possible local ingredients: Things grown and picked close to home just taste better. It would be edgy and sexy inside, a place where people would stand in line to get in. I'd change cuisine on a regular basis, and I'd highlight execution and creativity. It would be one of those places with an R&D lab and a test kitchen -- pretty much that same dream that most chefs have.
If you could cook in another chef's kitchen, whose would it be? Thomas Keller's spirit and level of execution in his kitchens strikes a chord with who I am as a person. I came up when we all had the French Laundry on our brains, and it definitely helped form how I cook. I know a lot of chefs say this, but Thomas Keller rewrote what it means to be a chef.
What would you cook for Keller if he came to your restaurant? Simple street food. Every chef loves to enjoy some badass street food with lots of flavor.
Best recipe tip for a home cook: Be creative, use kosher salt, and buy quality ingredients.
Weirdest thing you've ever put in your mouth: Duck balut. The feathers and crunchy bones of a fertilized duck egg were just too much for me.
What's always lurking in your refrigerator? Cheese, olives and Chinese leftovers. I always order too much food when I'm on South Federal, because I have to try as many things as I can when I go out to eat.
Your best traits: I'm observant and don't let anything slide. I'm always scanning like a hawk and trying not to let anything slip past me. The level of operation I try to maintain is higher than most, and I push things pretty far sometimes, because I like to see where the line is and then cross it. I know this all sounds elitist, but I still try to be humble. Every single person in my life teaches me a lesson, and I can learn something from everyone.
Your worst traits: I don't let anything slide. It's both my best and worst trait. It can be very hard to work in my kitchen because I'm always on your ass. It's all for the best, and I won't accept anything less than perfection. At the end of the day, I want everyone to leave knowing that they put on their best performance possible. Leave nothing in the tank.
What's your biggest pet peeve? Laziness and excuses. An old German chef once told me, "Make it nice, or make it twice."
Biggest moment of euphoria in the kitchen: Cooking for chef Andoni Aduriz of Mugaritz, an amazing restaurant in Donostia-San Sebastian. He came in with his entire crew when I was cooking at Bones, and it was a huge honor. They just wanted some exciting and chef-friendly food, so I cooked hamachi collar for his group and it blew Andoni away. He came up to me and asked a bunch of questions -- in Basque -- about the dish. Eating perfectly ripe Palisade peaches is a close second.
Craziest night in the kitchen: The first time we offered a tasting menu at Linger was a disaster. The flow and style of service was completely different from everything we'd trained for, plus the menu was very ambitious. We tried to do things like poaching lobster to order, and it was just too overwhelming. Because of the high volume we do at Linger, we have to simplify most times. A Marco Pierre White quote sums it up best: "Strategy will overcome the talent. The talent will never overcome the strategy." I learned the hard way that being a good chef is way more than making good food; it's also about execution.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef: Earning the position as the executive chef of Linger. I helped build this place from the beginning, and to be in charge of Linger's kitchen is very humbling. Every day, I still learn so much as a chef and as a human being by leading this kitchen. It's an amazing restaurant -- and a beast -- and I'm honored every day to be a part of Justin Cucci's creation.
What's one thing that people would be surprised to know about you? I'm very emotional, and I've cried at work a few times in private. I also have two middle names, Martin and Marvin. I know it sounds goofy, but I'm officially Marty Martin Marvin Steinke.
Last meal before you die: My mom's lasagna is full of so many good memories, and she used to cook it as a celebration dinner. When I was in high school and got a good grade or did something well, Mom always made lasagna and garlic bread for dinner. I can't live without it. I remember not wanting a birthday cake -- just a pan of lasagna.
If you hadn't become a chef, what would you be doing right now? A race-car driver; I love to drive fast. It would take a lot of money to make that dream happen, but it would bring me great happiness.The adrenaline, and the rush, would be the best part.
What's in the pipeline? Try to take over the world.
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