Los Chingones's Lou Ortiz: "You'll always be a rookie in someone else's kitchen"
This is part two of my interview with Lou Ortiz, executive sous-chef at Los Chingones; part one of our chat ran earlier this week.
Most underrated Denver restaurant: Go Fish on Broadway. They make awesome sushi, and it was the first sushi place I went to when I moved to Denver. I just never hear anyone raving about it, and they should be, because it really is that good. It may be slightly overshadowed by some of the more popular or trendy places in town, but it definitely shouldn't be passed up.
Who's the most underrated chef in Denver? Jeff Hickman, the savory-items chef at Sugarmill. He makes the most amazing food that's full of flavor and texture, and he's a food scientist at heart and traditionally likes making classic gourmet American comfort food. I'd put his beef Wellington up against anyone, anywhere. He's one of the guys to watch in Denver.
What advice would you give to an aspiring young chef? Be humble. No matter how great of a chef you may eventually become, you'll always be a rookie in someone else's kitchen. Never assume that there isn't something valuable you can learn from a line cook or a prep chef or a dishwasher. Everyone comes from different backgrounds and experiences, so use the knowledge from the people around you to grow as a whole. You'll be a stronger chef because of it.
What skills and attributes do you look for when hiring kitchen staff? I look for industry passion and the willingness to learn and grow. I always ask cooks why they want to work for me, and if they say they need a job, or they just like working, then they don't make the cut. I want to hear things like "I love to cook," "I want to be a chef one day" or "I want to increase my knowledge about cooking and grow." Have the fire that shows that you'll take what I give to you and run with it. I'll take care of the rest.
What's your biggest challenge as a chef working in Denver? Keeping up with the demand and wanting to be the best. Over 300 restaurants opened this year in the Denver area, and people obviously love to eat out, and it's my goal to make sure that Los Chingones is always a place that people want to go to, whether they live in Denver or they're just visiting. Since new competition is popping up all the time, I have to make sure I don't miss a beat; I have to stay ahead of the game. Python tacos, people, python tacos.
What recent innovation has most influenced the restaurant industry in a significant way? I'd have to say foodie apps for phones, like LivingSocial, Groupon, Yelp, OpenTable or any other app out there that helps people find new restaurants and provides incentives. It's got to be challenging for diners to pick where to eat, with so many great restaurants in town, and I feel like these apps have encouraged people to be more adventurous in trying places that they haven't been instead of going to the same handful of places over and over again.
Favorite culinary-related gift you've been given: A few months after I moved to Colorado from the East Coast, my previous boss, chef Mike Petrilla, sent me a goodbye-and-good-luck package. Inside there was a great chef's knife along with other nerdier things. The knife is one of the most valued tools in my chef's bag. It meant a lot. Still does.
Favorite culinary-related item to give as a gift: Small nested glass bowls. I love using them at my house to line up ingredients for dinner and then as presentation dishes. They're just nice accessories all around, and most people don't have them -- and if they do, they can always use more.
What's your fantasy splurge? I'm sure I'm not alone in saying that a Shun knife set would be a dream to own, not to mention one helluva splurge.
What cookbooks and/or food-related reading material do you draw inspiration from? Some of my favorite cookbooks are Alton Brown's series of Good Eats books. They're just fun to peruse and provide a lot of information and insight about ingredients that you wouldn't otherwise know about. There's more to his books than just cooking, and I like that. I don't want to just know how to cook a certain fish; I also want to know where it comes from, how it's caught, species characteristics, seasonal availability, etc. I look for books that teach me these kinds of things.
Best recipe tip for a home cook: Mise en place your recipes out before cooking. All success in cooking is reliant on preparation. Organization and mise en place are cornerstones to good cooking.
What should every home cook have in the pantry? Olive oil and honey, both of which are ingredients I can't live without -- and nor should you. I use honey in soups, sauces, dresses and vinaigrettes, because it's the perfect sweet balancer.
What do you expect from a restaurant critic? I expect honesty and fairness from critics, and appreciate it when critics give a place a month or two after opening to iron out the kinks before they come in. Critics in Denver seem to be a pretty fair bunch, and I've heard that many of them won't review a place if they don't at least like it. I appreciate that, because most people don't realize how hard it is to own a restaurant -- how many hours are put in and how expensive it can be to build -- and to have someone come in once or twice and then completely slam your business in a review can be devastating. It can destroy a person's livelihood. I'm all for input on ways to improve, but if you really hate a place, it seems like you could just move on and review someplace else.
If you could dress any way you want, what would you wear in the kitchen? I would still wear my chef's coat. It's an honor and a mark of accomplishment for me to have that coat with my name on it. I'm a former United States marine, and uniforms are important to me. When a person puts on a uniform, whether it's a police officer, a mail carrier or a doctor, it indicates to the person and the people around you that you're heading out to do something important. It's a mental thing, and I think of it as my battle raiment. That said, if I were to fancy it up a bit, I would totally wear a tuxedo apron -- that would be fun.
Biggest mistake a chef can make on the line: That's easy: treating your employees with disrespect. Workers in kitchens have strong personalities and egos to match, so the more disrespectful you are to them, the less allegiance they have to you. How can you run a kitchen effectively if your team works hard when you're there but then slacks behind your back because they don't respect you? If you bleed for your staff and lead from the front, you'll build unbinding loyalty. If you disrespect your colleagues, expect your business to go astray every moment you're not around.
Your biggest pet peeves: I hate missing a call from a food rep or one of my employees, then calling them back immediately and getting their voice mail. Where could you have possibly gone to in thirty seconds? You just called me! Really?
Your best traits: My sense of humor and compassion. The kitchen is chaotic, and the best way to get through the days and nights is to have fun and never forget to treat people with compassion. Smile and your team smiles with you.
Your worst traits: Remembering to take time off. I can get pretty self-absorbed in my own projects, and then I forget to take time for myself and the people I care about. Being in the restaurant business is both a blessing and a curse, as it requires not just your time, but your heart, mind, energy and soul.
If you could cook in another chef's kitchen, whose would it be? I'd love to cook in Robert Irvine's kitchen. That dude is intense in a militant way. I like the intensity he brings in his shows. I think he would be great to work with, and I know I'd appreciate his style. No doubt I'd learn a ton from him.
What would you cook for Irvine if he came to your restaurant? A sampling of everything on our menu: rooster hummus with jalapeños and black beans; mushroom fundido with pumpkin seeds; salmon ceviche in cactus water; and tacos galore, including lamb neck, beef tongue, griddled cotija and, of course, octopus. Our new menu is so flavorful that it would be a cheat just to have him try a few things after coming this far.
If you could have dinner, all expenses paid, at any restaurant in the world, where would you go? I'd go to Tokyo to eat the greatest sushi in the world from Jiro Ono at Sukiyabashi Jiro. It's over 300 bucks per person to eat there and requires many months of advance notice to get a reservation, but it would be the coolest trip ever.
If you left Denver to cook somewhere else, where would it be? I'd go back to working for Iron Hill Brewery in Philadelphia. It's a great company, and the chefs I worked with were so great. I miss that place and the people I worked with.
If you had the opportunity to open your own restaurant with no budget constraints, what kind of restaurant would you open? I'd open a restaurant featuring food from Spain and Portugal -- traditional, true Spanish cuisine done European style, not to be confused with the Hispanic or Mexican styles out here that everyone deems "Spanish." The menu would change seasonally, and the restaurant would also offer cooking classes.
Biggest moment of euphoria in the kitchen: I think my happiest moment was creating my first special and receiving a little bit of praise. It's the greatest feeling in the world to come up with something on your own and have customers love it. There is no greater feeling than receiving that immediate sense of accomplishment.
Craziest night in the kitchen: Working in Newark, Delaware, during a homecoming weekend that also happened to fall on the weekend of Halloween. I was working at a brewery on campus, and it was pure mayhem the whole weekend. The volume of wall-to-wall tickets came in huge waves, we had a bunch of banquet setups to deal with, and eighteen-hour days will really test your will and dedication.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef: Having my own chef role models call me "Chef." Being considered an equal to someone you admire is something special.
What's one thing that people would be surprised to know about you? One of my favorite foods is a hot dog. I'll never be able to explain why, but I loved them as a kid, and it's just never changed. I can make five-star meals all night and then head home with a hot dog and be perfectly content.
If you hadn't become a chef, what would you be doing right now? I used to be a singer with the University of Delaware Deltones, and we even made it to the NBC show The Sing-Off. So I'd probably be pursuing something like that with my friends and trying to make myself famous on the song stage.
What's in the pipeline? Working hard at Los Chingones every day (and night) to make it one of the top places to eat in town. Troy demands perfection, and he makes me find ways to better myself on a daily basis. I'm always thinking about how to make things better, because that's the way that Troy thinks. I love everyone in Troy's entourage -- they're all equally passionate -- and his restaurants are filled with people who really care, and because of that, amazing things just naturally happen.
What's next for Denver's culinary scene? It's hard to say. Denver is such a melting pot of cultures when it comes to food that it's always going to be hard to predict what the next fad will be. The only thing I can say for certain is that there will be more and more extraordinary, creative and inspired new restaurants opening in 2014. This is a community full of places you can only find here, and that's what makes it so special.
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