Martin Campos, chef of Comida: "Work your ass off, keep your head down, and keep your cool"
3350 Brighton Boulevard
This is part two of my interview with Martin Campos, exec chef of Comida at the Source; part one of our interview ran yesterday.
Your three favorite Denver restaurants other than your own:
Bourbon Grill, because, well, it's bourbon chicken. It's simple and always good, and the fact that you always have to wait for it just makes it that much better. Plus, you get so much food for so little money. I also love Pho 95, which is good at 9:30 in the morning or 11 at night. The pho is just amazing, the dining room is quiet, and you can sit in the corner and have an all-around pleasant experience. And for a nice, family-run restaurant, I like Banzai Sushi. The place is clean, everyone is always working, and the fish is fresh, clean-tasting and always consistent.
Most underrated restaurant in Denver:
Z Cuisine. The menu changes constantly, and it's just a nice forty-seat place with food that's done right, plus there's a good vibe to the whole restaurant. And yet I've never heard a word spoken about the place.
Who is Denver's next rising-star chef?
Steve Redzikowski, the chef of Acorn. His food is incredible, and so is his integrity. He keeps it honest, and he doesn't try to steal the attention; he knows that his staff makes a great restaurant. His food is just phenomenal, and he's just a real genuine guy; there's no arrogance about him. That's not true with a lot of chefs.
Which living chef do you most admire?
Chef Bill Greenwood of Beano's Cabin. He's taught me almost everything that I know. He's brutally honest, but only because he cares so much, and he believes in people and gives them a fair shot regardless of their experience.
Most memorable meal you've ever had:
The one I shared with my parents and sister in Eugene, Oregon, when I was ten. It was my first taste of oysters, crab, lobster and, really, seafood in general. Ever since then, I've been hooked on seafood.
If you could have dinner, all expenses paid, at any restaurant in the world, where would you go?
ElBulli, even though it's closed. That restaurant created an entirely new cuisine with its constant thought processes and practice. Working for six months to perfect a dish and the integrity and hard work that went into every dish is just so impressive.
If you had the opportunity to open your own restaurant with no budget constraints, what kind of restaurant would you open?
I'd probably open a forty-seat restaurant in a place where you can source most of your own products. Having a quiet, peaceful lake where you could fish for what you need would be ideal.
What's your fantasy splurge?
It'd be pretty cool to travel around the world, work in different restaurants and try all kinds of food.
What's the best food- or kitchen-related gift you've been given?
Getting my own kitchen to run is the best gift, in a sense, and having the freedom to organize and set the flow of the back of the house is also one of the best gifts. Knives are always great gifts, too.
Favorite culinary-related item to give as a gift:
Knives are always good, essential tools to give, or a good cookbook that teaches you about products and ingredients and why they act the way they do.
If you could dress any way you wanted, what would you wear in the kitchen?
I wear exactly what I want to wear in the kitchen: a chef shirt, hat and jeans. That's pretty much how I dress when I'm not at work, too.
Would you ever send a dish back if you were dining in a friend's restaurant?
Yes. They need to know if something is really off or wrong. If the meat is completely overcooked or the dish is just unpalatable, they need to fix the problem so it doesn't continue to go out that way. You don't want your friends -- or their kitchen -- to look bad.
Best recipe tip for a home cook:
Recipes are a guideline rather than an exact science. It may not fit your tastebuds or the altitude or the cooking environment -- all of which will make a difference -- so always taste your food and make sure you understand the ingredients you're cooking with. Chiles, for example, are hotter in the summertime then in the winter.
What piece of advice would you give to an aspiring chef?
Get out while you can! No, just kidding. Work your ass off, keep your head down, and keep your cool. Don't get your hopes up, don't expect to get rich overnight, and realize that a cooking career isn't for everyone.
What skills and attributes do you look for when hiring kitchen staff?
I look for a sense of excitement and their skill set, and I look for people who actually want to learn as opposed to just wanting a paycheck.
If you could train under any chef in the world, who would it be?
Eric Ripert. He's a master at what he does.
It's your night off and you're starving. What's your go-to quick fix?
Bourbon Grill; it's so damn good, and you get three pounds of food for $8. Plus, they have chicken wings. If not there, then pho, or any place that has a good Cubano sandwich.
Favorite dish on your menu:
Our bacon-jalapeño griddled taco is delicious. We use Tender Belly bacon, jalapeño and three different cheeses, and the salsa verde gives it the perfect spice and rounds out the flavor really well. And you can eat twelve of them and be perfectly okay with it.
What dish would you love to put on your menu, regardless of how well it would sell?
A pound of chicharrones and fresh Alba truffles just mixed together in a brown paper bag for a delicious $200 snack.
What's always lurking in your pantry?
Sherry vinegar, fennel pollen, olive oil and some sort of citrus and finishing salt.
Weirdest customer request:
People sometimes ask us to build tortas without bread or tacos without tortillas, which always makes me laugh; it looks silly. I've also been asked out before -- that was weird.
Biggest mistake a chef can make on the line: Losing control of a situation and freaking out, and not being able to figure out a solution to a problem without letting their anger get the best of them. That, and chefs who try to be overly creative, overthink the process of food in general or try and do things that are way over their head.
What's been your worst disaster in the kitchen?
Running out of tortillas at 7 p.m. I also dropped a pot of marinara at one my first jobs in Fort Collins. It shot up all over the ceiling and all over the back of the wall. It was my second or third day on the job, which made it that much worse. This guy I won't name -- I worked with him in Arizona -- used to puncture his hand daily while shucking oysters. It just became comical to watch...poor Dillon.
Craziest night in the kitchen:
Christmas Eve 2007 at the Hotel Jerome in Aspen. We had 130 people at one time, and we were putting out to three to five plates for each person. It was about a two-hour wait to get food, and we were running out of everything left and right. I call it survival mode: You're not really cooking anymore; you're doing shit like dropping steaks in the fryer, putting five of each plate up, and the servers are just grabbing whatever they can. The front of house had opened up an additional seventy seats, and between that, room-service orders and the bar, it was horrible. There were three of us on the line spinning in circles, an expo whose head was in the clouds, and a trail of tickets dragging about ten feet. It was hands-down the worst night in the kitchen, ever.
Biggest moment of euphoria in the kitchen:
Saying goodbye to Christmas Eve 2007.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef:
Cooking for as long as I have and still learning something new every day. That, and working in a busy restaurant with a great kitchen crew at a place where people want to eat.
What do you enjoy most about your craft?
There's never a dull moment. Food is always changing, and there are always new ingredients to try and techniques to learn. There are always people to fire and hire, and it's an ongoing, exciting journey. Not only that, but you meet the most interesting people, and I like the fact that cooking has given me the ability to move around a bit.
What's one thing that people would be surprised to know about you?
I'm quite the opposite outside of work. I'm less serious and more easygoing.
Last meal before you die:
A platter of shellfish and hundreds of oysters and clams, crab and lobster; some good, sweet corn; and broth with a little squeeze of lemon and hot sauce. Oh, yeah, and some good ol' Budweiser, too.
If you hadn't become a chef, what would you be doing right now?
Honestly, I'm not sure. I'd probably work at a gas station or maybe work with sea life...I haven't really ever given it any thought. I've cooked for the last ten years and haven't wanted to do anything else. It'd be cool to build houses, I guess, if I had to imagine myself in a different industry.
What's in the pipeline?
Continue to grow as a chef, take in as much knowledge as possible, and raise my daughter to be a good person.
What's next for the Denver dining scene?
Colorado cuisine, honest cooking all across the board, more educated diners willing to explore new flavors, and chefs all over the city and state elevating the bar.
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.