This is part one of my interview with Mark Monette, executive chef of the Flagstaff House. Part two of my chat with Monette will run in this space tomorrow.
While Boulder today is renowned for its culinary scene, back in the '60s it had no dining culture to speak of -- unless you count the Village Inn Pancake House, which is where Mark Monette, executive chef/co-owner of the Flagstaff House, got his first taste of the restaurant business. His dad, a chef, was the manager there, and while he was still in elementary school, Monette used to hang out in the dining room and swell his belly with flapjacks. "I grew up eating lots of pancakes doused with syrups -- blackberry, boysenberry, raspberry -- and the Village Inn was one of the only restaurants in Boulder back then, so I spent a lot of time there," he recalls.
But while his dad ran a pancake parlor, eating out at restaurants -- good restaurants -- was part of his upbringing. "We were always searching for the best places to eat, both locally and whenever we traveled," says Monette, whose father opened several java joints and restaurants before he purchased the Flagstaff House in 1971.
By then Monette was a teenager, the age when many chefs-in-training get their first job as a dish rat; that was his first assignment, too, though by the time he was sixteen, he'd graduated to a waiter position. "There were no female servers at the time -- only tuxedoed men -- and since I was underage, I had to have someone else carry alcohol to the tables," remembers Monette, who stuck around for a few more years before heading off to wine country -- still too young to drink.
Not that it mattered, because Monette was there to cook -- and to learn his way around a kitchen that was far more mature than the one at the Flagstaff House. "I knew I wanted to cook, but the Flagstaff House wasn't what it is today, and I didn't want to go to culinary school -- that didn't interest me at all -- so I went to Napa instead," he remembers, "and got a job at a restaurant called Miramonte" -- which was a major adrenaline rush. "I saw the professionalism of the kitchen there, how orderly and clean it was, the skill level, the beautiful dishes and food, and the awe on the guests' faces -- and I knew then that this was what I absolutely wanted to do," Monette says.
He learned what he could and took his skills back to Colorado -- specifically to Vail, where he did a short winter stint at Mirabelle, working alongside a Master Chef who took Monette under his wing. From there he went to New York, where he had the opportunity to breathe the same air as Thomas Keller. "I was working in a very high-end French restaurant, and when the executive chef quit, Thomas Keller, who had just gotten back from France, was hired as the new chef, and as soon as he stepped in the kitchen, I know that he was going to change the way that people looked at cuisine," says Monette, who soon took off for France himself, doing time in several three-star Michelin restaurants.
And it was while he was cooking in France that he got a phone call from his dad. "The executive chef of the Flagstaff House had just quit, and my dad was calling to ask if I wanted the job," remembers Monette, who jetted home to take it. "I've been at the Flagstaff House for 24 years now, and we're celebrating our fortieth anniversary this year, so we're obviously doing something right," he says. Doing it right enough that in 2008, the family opened a second, namesake restaurant in Hawaii. "Both restaurants are doing very, very well," Monette says. "We don't take a back seat; we keep moving forward and giving our guests quality, quality, quality in terms of great service, food and wines."
In the following interview, Monette dishes on being a perfectionist, turning fifty, cooking with Thomas Keller, and his disdain for duck tongues.
Six words to describe your food: The essence of finest products obtainable.
Ten words to describe you: Passionate, seriously dedicated, always learning and always growing, a chef and an athlete.
Favorite ingredient: That's really tough, especially when ingredients are so important to me. If I had to pick only one, I'd have to say Colorado lamb. We have incredible lamb here; it's the best in the world. We even sell a Colorado lamb dinner through our website, so people can have Flagstaff House food delivered to their doorstep. A few years ago, Bobby and Jamie Deen, sons of celebrity chef Paula Deen, were doing a Food Network show called Road Tasted, where they went to each region and featured foods available online. After they featured our lamb entree, sales went through the roof -- and that happened every time they reran that show. We're still selling the dish, but it's now called Food Network's "Road Tasted" Colorado lamb, and it's a Colorado rack, loin and braised lamb shank served with Italian heirloom polenta and ratatouille vegetables.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: In Colorado, it's the arugula from Cure Organic Farms. Theirs is just beautiful, and it's a wonderful addition to almost any savory dish. In Hawaii, we have stuff that you may not find anywhere else in the world -- hearts of palm, Kona vanilla beans, Kona chocolate and Kona coffee. Our local fishermen bring us incredible fish, like tuna, ono and snapper, and we get it in on the same day it's caught. We serve it that same day, too, or overnight it to Flagstaff House to serve the very next day. If I had to pick just one thing in Hawaii that I really love, it would have to be the ono; it's pristine, comes right off the boat and directly to us, and it has a gorgeous, lustrous sheen. We sear it rare and serve it with local corn, hamakua mushrooms, baby leeks and garlic.
Best recent food find: Cinnamon from Adaptations Farms, in Hawaii. In between the bark and wood, there's cinnamon -- and it's much stronger and more intense than your average cinnamon. I just used it in a pulled-pork dish for my daughter's graduation party. It's intoxicating, amazing stuff.
Favorite spice: Cumin. It's used in so many cultures, and there's so much you can do with it. I love the fact that it really "plays well with others."
Most overrated ingredient: Beets and goat cheese. Every menu has that combination, and they have it all year 'round -- even when beets aren't in season.
Most underrated ingredient: There used to be more of these, but it seems like chefs today are more adventurous than they used to be and happy to try all kinds of different things.
One food you detest: Fast food is absolutely terrible for you, and you wake up the next morning feeling like you've got a food hangover. If I'm on the road and forced to eat fast food, I'll try to find a convenience store that carries Braunschweiger liverwurst, crackers and Swiss cheese.
One food you can't live without: Kona sea salt. Salt, because it's essential to our bodies and brings out the flavor in food -- and Kona sea salt, because it's the best salt in the world.
Favorite music to cook by: We don't have music on in the kitchen at Flagstaff House, mainly because it's too distracting. But it's a whole different ballgame at home. When I'm there, I like to listen to whatever music my kids, Adam, Philip and Jennae, put on. We dance around, cook and have a great time together.
Rules of conduct in your kitchen: We're pretty strict in our kitchens; I try to run a tight ship. I'm big on professionalism, so we always wear hats, the men shave every day, and we keep our stations and equipment spotlessly clean.
Biggest kitchen disaster: During our first Christmas at Monettes, we had 200 covers and not enough staff, so we couldn't get the food out on time. It was an absolutely awful, crushing experience, and one I vowed would never happen again.
What's never in your kitchen? Canned tuna -- or any canned products at all, and no facial rings, baggy pants or radio.
What's always in your kitchen? Professional staff, foie gras, positivity, good humor, ball-busting, and high-quality products.
What's your favorite knife? I love to use the right knife for the job. I'd be lost without my French knife, slicer, boning knife and paring knife.
What's the best food- or kitchen-related gift you've been given? My mom gave me a cookie jar that I love. It's a pig wearing a chef's hat.
One book that every chef should read: Every chef should read Auguste Escoffier's Guide Culinaire from beginning to end. It's basically the bible of French cooking methods, and it also introduced organized discipline to the kitchen.
You're making a pizza. What's on it? Prosciutto, crispy shiitake mushrooms, Haystack Mountain goat cheese, Cure Organic Farms arugula and a soft fried egg.
Guiltiest food pleasure? Anything deep-fried -- jalapeño poppers, calamari...
You're at the market. What do you buy two of? Individual servings of coconut water.
Weirdest customer request: We once had three guys come in who wanted to have a competition to see who could eat the most red meat. They asked for whole New York strip loins, which weigh 60 to 70 ounces each. One of them actually managed to consume the whole thing, so I gave him a baseball cap as a prize. I also had a lady ask me to serve her raw elk. That was one request that I wouldn't do.
Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: We were thinking up a new menu item called "Duck, Duck, Duck," which was duck liver, duck egg and duck tongue -- but I just couldn't stomach the duck tongue, so we didn't do it. I once went to a special Master Chef luncheon at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C., and the chef/owner, Jean-Louis Palladin, created a special menu featuring cognac, which are tiny birds that are only about an inch long and deep-fried. You eat them whole, bones and all. They're pretty odd -- and, yes, they taste like chicken
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Last meal before you die: El Tesoro platinum tequila, a beautiful burgundy, and kidneys sautéed with shallots in red wine.