This is part one of my interview with Marco Ramirez, executive chef of The Palm. Part two of that interview will run in this space tomorrow.
Marco Ramirez, a self-described "child of a poor farmer family" in El Salvador, was shooed out of the kitchen by his mother, who insisted that men, at least in that household, had no business in there. It was a scolding that Ramirez ignored. "My mom used to kick me out of the kitchen and tell me that I belonged somewhere else -- it's a Latino thing; men don't cook -- but I was always in the kitchen anyway, asking questions and wanting to know more," remembers Ramirez.
His persistence paid off. For the past fifteen years, the 39-year-old chef has been behind the line of the Palm, the tony steakhouse in the Westin Hotel whose upscale clientele congregates at white-linen-topped tables to wheel and deal and surf and turf. Many of their caricatures grace the walls -- but Ramirez, who's easygoing and soft-spoken, shies away from the limelight, preferring the illumination of the kitchen to the spotlight of the show unfolding in the dining room. "The Palm has made me what I am today," says Ramirez. "It's a family-owned company that's been at it for over eighty years, and, like myself, those families came to America as immigrants looking to fulfill their dream. My dream is cooking, and I do it because I love it, not for the accolades."
Not that he hasn't earned them. Ramirez moved to Florida when he was fourteen, seeking a better life because he wanted to provide security for his family, most of whom remained in El Salvador. "I wanted to work hard, and had I not come to the States, I would have had to fight in the army -- and we needed money," says Ramirez. But finding a job wasn't easy. "I was this skinny little guy without a high-school education, so no one would give me a job," he remembers. "Instead, they told me to go to school." So he did, and when he graduated, he picked up his first kitchen gig, as a dishwasher in Miami Beach.
His brother had moved to Denver in the meantime, and Ramirez "chased him" here. He enrolled again in high school to learn English, working at night at the long-dead Mexicali Cafe (Osteria Marco is now in that space), where he scrubbed pots and pans -- but not for long. "I was always nosy in terms of what everyone else in the kitchen was doing, especially the chefs, and I kept thinking how cool it would be to cook rather than wash dishes," he says. He landed a job at the also long-dead Maxfield & Friends, first as a dish mutt, then as a line cook. After stints at several more defunct Denver restaurants, he joined the kitchen crew at Morton's of Chicago in LoDo, where he worked for eight years before spotting an "opening soon" sign for the Palm. "I walked in, met the chef and the GM and got hired as a prep cook," recalls Ramirez, who was promoted to pantry a month later, then the broiler station, a niche he held for eight years. In 2003, he was given the sous chef position, and in 2007, the role as executive chef.
"I love the atmosphere here, the relationships between the front and back of the house -- we even have picnics together -- and I want to keep the Palm tradition going," he says. In the following interview, Ramirez talks about life in a crazy-busy kitchen, the flood that almost drowned it, and how hard work and determination fulfilled his American dream.
Six words to describe your food: High-quality, tasty, fresh, good and flavorful.
Ten words to describe you: Simple man who loves what I do and does the best I can.
Culinary inspirations: In the late '80s, when I first got to the States, I'd always watch Paul Prudhomme on TV and think to myself: Wow, I hope that one day I can do what he's doing. He turns out really great dishes, but they're very simple. I like that. I'm also inspired by the fact that I love my job; the patrons and clients who keep coming back for more really keep me going.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef: Becoming the executive chef at the Palm. I've been here ever since the doors opened fifteen years ago, starting as the line cook on the broiler and working my way up to the executive chef position. Considering that I've had no formal training in the culinary arts, I'm living proof that hard work will get you ahead.
Favorite ingredient: I love to cook anything and everything with garlic. I love basil, too, and when you pair basil and garlic together, it's the perfect match. They're kind of like french fries and ketchup.
Most overrated ingredient: Microgreens. They're nothing more than decorations, not to mention far too expensive for what they are, and better nutritional value and flavor can be found in many other -- and cheaper -- herbs. Their full-sized cousins pack way more flavor, so why not use them?
Most underrated ingredient: Fresh basil. It's an easy ingredient to work with, but people don't seem to realize how much flavor it can bring to a dish.
Best recent food find: The capicola at Carbone's, the awesome Italian market in northwest Denver. They do a great job, and I love their sandwiches, and while I've had capicola at other places, the capicola here is definitely the best I've ever had.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: Onions from a farm in between Brighton and Fort Lupton. They have pretty much every vegetable that you can name -- twenty different peppers, zucchini, squash, cucumbers, beets -- pretty much everything. You can just go there and pick what you want from the huge fields, which is pretty cool.
Guiltiest food pleasure? A fat ribeye, followed by a rich dessert.
You're at the market. What do you buy two of? Two gallons of milk and two boxes of cereal.
Favorite spice: Garlic. It can be used in such a variety of different ways, plus it really does make a dish taste great.
One food you detest: Any type of fast food. It's so unhealthy, and there are just so many alternatives that provide better nutritional value, along with great, craveable flavors. It's all about preparation: If you plan ahead with the right ingredients, you can prepare a great-tasting meal on the fly without having to rely on the convenience of fast food.
One food you can't live without: Fruits and vegetables. I love peaches, kiwis, cantaloupe, mangoes, green beans, spinach and Swiss chard. They're best when they're naked -- raw. I love that you don't need to do anything fancy to them to make them taste good.
Typical staff meal: Our staff kitchen meals are usually breakfast with fried eggs and ham, omelets, pancakes or eggs Florentine, but I change it up every day.
Biggest kitchen disaster: Last year we had a flood during the first week of December, which is a really bad time of year to have things go wrong in the kitchen. It was a huge mess: The drains clogged, and everything that drained out of the sink ended up on the floor, which affected the whole restaurant. The servers walking through the muck tracked it out of the kitchen and into the dining room, and, of course, it had to happen during a busy shift while the restaurant was rocking. To make matters even worse, we had to work around the plumbers trying to fix everything while we were right in the middle of service. That was, um, challenging.
What's never in your kitchen? Roaches or any other creepy, crawly things. I've always been commended on my clean kitchen, and while it takes some extra effort on the part of your staff, it's so worth it. There are never any offensive or insulting jokes in my kitchen, either. You don't generate respect by disrespecting others or behaving as though you're better than someone else.
What's always in your kitchen? All the necessary ingredients. In my kitchen, you need to be prepared, and it's never a good thing when you have to 86 an item because you've run out of something. We've got fifty different spices alone in our kitchen, and more than one hundred different products, many of them fresh, and everything is made to order and from scratch, so we can't risk running out of anything. And respect. There's always respect in my kitchen. You can't have camaraderie or make good food without it.
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Rules of conduct in your kitchen: Always keep it clean and be respectful of your staff and each other; respect diversity. Additionally, I like a quiet kitchen; it's imperative to running it smoothly and efficiently. If I can't communicate with my guys on the line, who knows what will come out of the window? Our guests are paying top dollar, so we need to make absolutely sure that everything on the plate is exactly the way it's supposed to be.
What's next for you? I'd like to own my own restaurant -- an Italian/French fusion restaurant. There's a gracefulness in both cooking techniques that I think would blend well together.