This is part one of my interview with Marty Steinke, exec chef of Linger; part two of our conversation will run tomorrow.
It's a good thing that Marty Steinke doesn't hold grudges against grease, because if he did, he might never have become a chef. The oldest of three, Steinke, now the executive chef at Linger, was the designated cook at home, holding the phone to his ear while his single, working mom dictated dinner directions -- and that's how he was nearly sizzled to death by a hamburger. "She asked me to do burgers for dinner, and I spilled grease all the way down my leg and burned the crap out of myself. The pain was insane," says Steinke, who admits that the greasy encounter didn't do a whole lot to motivate him to pursue cooking.
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"It was hard at first, and I wasn't really into it," he recalls, "probably because my first experiences cooking at home really kinda sucked, and I was justifiably gun-shy."
But a chance meeting a few years later, when he was fifteen, swept the bad memories under the stove. He was volunteering at a bingo hall in Arvada when he noticed that a Pudge Brothers Pizza was under construction across the street, and because Steinke was a teenager, and teenagers are hungry for money, he wandered over, introduced himself to the owners, and after a few weeks of laying tile and painting walls, he was tapped as a pizza cook -- and that's where his cooking career began. "I thought the kitchen looked fun and the guys were badass; I wanted to be one of them," says Steinke, who tossed dough at the prolific chain for two years.
But while he was interested in making money, his mom was more interested in making sure that her son went to college. "She wanted me to choose a challenging major, so I picked computer science," remembers Steinke, who stuck it out until his last semester. "The tech bubble burst, my friends in the field were all losing their jobs, and I got freaked out, so I dropped out...and went to Europe to go backpacking."
He did time on the line there, too, at a three-restaurant resort in the German Alps, where, says Steinke, "I learned all the fundamentals of cooking." And when he wasn't cooking, he strapped a pack to his back and traveled, visiting nineteen countries, eating and immersing himself in beer, wine and cheese.
After three years in Europe, though, he missed home, so he returned to Denver and landed a sous-chef gig at Ellyngton's at the Brown Palace, working for an Austrian chef. "I remember doing the phone interview all in German -- he liked me," says Steinke, who was eventually promoted to saucier at the opulent hotel. "Being a saucier had always been a dream of mine. There's an elegance to making beautiful soups and sauces -- a lot of dishes start and end with sauces -- and it was an essential step in my culinary education." Steinke spent three years at the Brown. "I loved it there, but I missed the intimacy of cooking in a small restaurant and being on the line," he says.
So he did several stages before winding up at Chinook Tavern, which, at the time, was in Cherry Creek (it's since moved to Greenwood Village), but the stint was unpleasant -- and so is his opinion of Markus Georg, Chinook's exec chef. "Markus wanted me to lead by fear -- he told me that I should make someone cry on my first day to demonstrate dominance -- but I refused to do that, and I think he held it against me, because I was fired three months later for not being strict enough," divulges Steinke, who then went to Mizuna.
Ironically, Frank Bonanno, who initially hired Steinke as a pantry cook at Mizuna -- and then catapulted him to the opening chef at Bones -- believed that Steinke was too authoritative, removing him from the line at Bones and shuffling him back to Mizuna. But Steinke is anything but bitter. "Frank thought I was too much of a dictator, and he was completely right," he confesses. "Being an opening chef of a restaurant means that you have to adapt and change, and I was stuck in my own mindset and didn't evolve with the restaurant. But I learned a lot from that experience, and I'm a much better chef now because of it. Going through all of that helped me to find balance in how I treat people, talk to people and manage people."
Steinke, who's been at Linger since it opened, in 2011, says that he's never been happier. "I love that we're always evolving and pushing each other in the same direction," he says. "We're all extremely passionate about our craft, and there's such an uncompromising integrity with this company. We stand behind everything we do, we don't cut costs and we don't cut corners. This is the most rewarding job I've ever had as a chef, both personally and professionally, and I'm staying put," declares Steinke, who in the following interview weighs in on what he expects from a restaurant critic, contends that Denver's pool of cooks is "overrated" and explains why healthy criticism is a gift from diners that he'll gladly take.
What do you enjoy most about your craft? I enjoy the creativity that I have with food and the ability to express myself through food, although the intensity and a high-pressure environment are close seconds. Handling curveballs and having to think on my feet to solve problems constantly feeds my need to feel a rush. I love the heat, the people and the passion, too. Sometimes I have to be camp counselor, the bad cop or a best friend, but everything about being a chef drives me.
Describe your approach to cooking: Clean, simple, intense, creative and edgy -- and I try to honor every single ingredient equally. I give salt the same amount of value as the protein; arugula means just as much to me as pork chops. We have many condiments on the Linger menu, and each and every one of them is aggressive and interesting in its own way. I like to turn up the volume on dishes in any way that I can. Both the meal and the experience should be memorable.
What are your ingredient obsessions? Local produce is my big obsession right now, although trying to find a fruit or vegetable that hasn't been sitting in a cooler is hard -- but when you do find them, it makes all the difference. No one seems to understand that refrigerating a tomato forever changes it in a negative way. Greens picked warm from the garden are delicious, especially compared to baby lettuce heads that have been growing limp in a box from California for a week.
What are your kitchen-gadget obsessions? I'm crazy about our rational ovens, and trying to program them and develop more consistent and higher-quality execution has been my focus lately. Linger has a big kitchen staff with a wide range of experience and skill levels, and being able to achieve the same high-quality product no matter who's cooking is a huge challenge, so I've embraced the wave of modern tools to help produce better food.
Who or what inspires you? Street foods inspire me. I love to find that great local guy who does one thing better than anyone else; no one can beat him. Whether it's chicken mole, fresh greens, peaches, corn or a badass burrito, those inspirational moments get me out of bed in the morning. There are so many amazing restaurants on Federal that do one thing really, really well, and I wish we could gather them all together in one place. The old family recipes that are being used in those places really intrigue me.
Favorite local ingredients and purveyors: Aero Farms has been producing some very delicious greens for us, and they've been more than willing to grow anything we need to accommodate our volume. They grow arugula that's small, tender, spicy and fruity -- it'll blow your mind. I try to feature it on my scallop plate, almost as a centerpoint to the dish.
One ingredient you won't touch: Wasabi powder is foul. I'd rather eat sawdust.
One ingredient you can't live without: Kosher salt and Korean chile, a dried chile that has medium heat and a real depth of flavor. I put that shit on everything; it's way more exciting than black pepper.
Food trend you'd like to see in 2013: Growing your own vegetables. I think every restaurant should have its own garden, if for no other reason than to realize the work it takes to produce food. If everyone understood the effort it takes to grow lettuce, they would cook better food.
Food trend you'd like to see disappear in 2013: GMO food products. The industry is such a monster, and we have yet to discover how harmful GMO foods are to humans.
Favorite dish on your menu right now: Our pad Thai. I love garlic, ginger and fish sauce, and our pad Thai is a great representation of Asian street food that sums up so much of what the Linger menu is right now.
What dish would you love to put on your menu, regardless of how well it would sell? I love blood sausage, and I'm getting whole animals in, and the blood is the only thing I'm not making use of, which bums me out -- but our restaurant is vegetable-focused, so I'm not sure our customers would appreciate it.
Most noteworthy meal you've ever eaten: I've had many great meals, but I think the tasting menu at Aziza in San Francisco defined how amazing Indian food can really be. The food was so simple and perfect, and it just elevated my perception of Indian food.
What cookbooks and/or food-related reading material do you draw inspiration from? The Internet is a great resource for a lot of valuable information about food, plus you can see what chefs are doing all over the world.
What recent innovation has most influenced the restaurant industry in a significant way? Sous vide isn't really a new invention, but its possibilities and uses are endless. It's helped our kitchen do amazing things in a more consistent way.
What do you expect from a restaurant critic? A critic should have credibility, not be a drunk, and be very knowledgeable about food and cooking techniques. We get food bloggers in all the time asking us to buy them dinner and do special things for them in return for a favorable review. To me, that's not a critic. A critic should have an unbiased opinion of what the experience actually is, and getting the VIP treatment is not the right way to evaluate the quality of the restaurant. And anonymity is paramount. To me, a review is about integrity, and reviews should be conducted when no one is looking.
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What's next for Denver's culinary scene? Exciting and delicious food at places that aren't just restaurants. It would be great if you could go to a concert and have really good street tacos, or to a bowling alley and have an awesome burger.