This is part one of my interview with Matt Stein, chef of Bruxie; part two of our conversation will run tomorrow.
Even after three decades in the kitchen, Matt Stein still shakes his head in denial as he recalls what he was fed when he was growing up in the Bronx. "My mother was a horrible cook, really the worst cook ever," he says. "The kind of cook who would put spaghetti and ketchup in front of us and think that it was acceptable."
So Stein, the chef of Bruxie, a new waffle emporium in Glendale, found refuge at the homes of friends. "It all worked out, because I had friends whose mothers were amazing cooks, and every Friday for like five years in a row, I was a fixture at their dinner table," remembers Stein, whose professional dreams at the time drifted not toward cooking, but toward the deep blue sea.
He went to the University of Miami to study the organisms of the ocean, and to make a little extra cash, he took a gig at an outpost of Blimpie, a nationwide sandwich chain. It was just a part-time job, but it significantly altered his career path. "The staff there took a lot of care when it came to their product, and there was a deliberateness to what I was doing that resonated with me," says Stein, who left college -- and marine biology -- behind to explore culinary opportunities. "I finished my first year of college, dropped out, moved back to New York and became a bartender, spending whatever downtime I had in the kitchen, watching the guys on the line," says Stein. Restaurants "became so interesting to me."
And so did the cookbooks he was reading. "A friend of mine gave me a copy of Jacques Pépin's La Technique for my nineteenth birthday, and then someone else gave me Escoffier's "Black Book," and my head just started to swim; I couldn't gather cooking information fast enough, and all I was doing was thinking about food," says Stein, who eventually became a student at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, and then a sojourning chef in Austria and Switzerland, where he cooked in highfalutin, multi-starred restaurants.
He spent just over a year in European kitchens before returning to New York and "knocking on the door of every French restaurant," he remembers. Le Cirque, a then-legendary house of fuss, snobbery and undeniable cooking talent, let him in. He snagged a job as a saucier, cooking for famous -- and infamous -- heavyweights like former president Richard Nixon. And, he jokes, "the staff gave me all the Evian I could drink."
He moved on to cook at a private club and then headed to Aspen by way of Copper Mountain. "Both my wife -- she's a pastry chef -- and I interviewed for jobs at Copper, which went really well, but then we went to Aspen for the day and ended up staying there for five years," says Stein. He spent four of those years as the sous-chef of the now-defunct Gordon's, in its heyday one of Aspen's most see-and-be-seen restaurants.
But both Stein and his wife felt "like maybe there was a bigger world out there, with better jobs," he says, so they moved to Los Angeles, where Stein signed on with King's Seafood Company, a culinary group that owns numerous restaurants in California, including Water Grill, a fish house that's been splashed with accolades. Stein spent 23 years with the company, collecting titles that included corporate chef and chief seafood officer. "When I joined, we had just three restaurants, and when I left, we had eighteen, so it was an amazing upward learning curve," admits Stein, "but we really wanted to get out of L.A. and move back to Colorado, and we'd fallen in love with Denver after taking vacations there."
Stein and his wife touched down in the Mile High City in 2012. After taking a few months off to enjoy the scenery, Stein and business partner Jeff Goodman started working on a plan to open the state's first Bruxie, a shrine to waffles that got its start in California. "I feel young again, and I wake up every day feeling like today is going to be a great day," says Stein, who in the following interview calls Work & Class's Dana Rodriguez Denver's most dominant chef, hints that a foie-gras waffle could be on the horizon, and reveals that he can sing about shrimp in Spanish.
Lori Midson: What's your first food memory? Matt Stein: My earliest food memory is from the streets of New York City, where I was born and raised. When I was a kid, there were street vendors with open barrels of brined and marinated olives, pickles and other vegetables, salted-and-smoked fish and meats, and cheeses; obviously, city health-code requirements were a little different than they are now. And within just a few blocks of all of that, there were several delicatessens that, in my opinion, would today rank among the world's greatest practitioners of this now-fading art form. Of the three -- Schweller's, Katz's and Epstein's -- it was Epstein's that became my favorite, and it was there that I ate my first slice of pastrami. It was far more intensely flavored than anything I'd ever eaten as a young kid. The combination of the heavy crust of seasoning, the salty chewiness of the lean meat and the sultry smokiness trapped in the fat changed my life. My mother recounts that it was all I talked about for weeks.
Ten words to describe you: I admit that I'm pretty bad at the humble brag.
Five words to describe your food: Deliberate, traditional, simple, sound, tasty.
What are your ingredient obsessions? I like a spark on my palate, so I'm frequently using blends of citrus juice, zests, pickles and vinegars. Seafood has been my thing since a guy came in the back door of a hotel I was working at in Switzerland with a fifteen-kilo char he'd caught deep in Lake Vierwaldstättersee. I've worked with virtually every species of seafood since then, and I'm always looking for great sources and new ways to show off pristine quality in simple preparations.
One ingredient you won't touch: Nettles...the leaves sting you if you touch them directly.
Favorite piece of kitchen equipment: The sauté pan is pretty darned versatile.
Your favorite smell in the kitchen: At Bruxie, our crème-brûlée waffle is super-popular, because it's one of the most delicious things you've ever eaten; it's a really well-balanced dessert item and a trademark of ours, actually. The smell of the sugar being torched on top of our own pastry cream is not just my favorite smell; it makes me hungry every time I smell it. I had one this morning with coffee.
Food trend you'd like to see disappear in 2014: My ongoing discussion obsession with my partners about who makes the best burger was charming four years ago. But who knew that it could go on as long as it has, and that so many quality burger joints would continue to open, and that each new spot would require repeat visits? Basically, each new place that opens up adds four pounds to my weight. If no more burger places open this year, I'd be grateful.
Food trend you'd like to see emerge in 2014: Expertly made sandwiches that use yeast-risen waffles as the platform and are filled with high quality, cleverly combined and delicious ingredients.
If you could make one request of Denver diners, what would it be? Dine out more often. We have a lot of great restaurants.
What do you expect from a restaurant critic? Being a critic of anything can be tough, because you're judging other people's heartfelt work, and you have the potential to affect their -- and their crew's -- livelihood. And now the paid, professional critic has to compete with all the online people who have a potentially wider audience and oftentimes don't know anything about what they're writing about. On the advice side, be fair, know what you're talking about, and ensure that you're not just taking a "snapshot" of the work someone is doing.
What do you enjoy most about your craft? It's the perfect blend of art, craft, labor, love, educating and learning.
What are the most challenging aspects of being a chef? The simplest answer is: You're only as good as the last meal you put out. It's a bitch to tell you the truth.
What's your biggest pet peeve? Poor craftsmen complaining about their tools.
Your best traits: I'm pretty loyal to my friends and associates; I try to listen well; I can work pretty hard for long stretches of time; I'm a good person to invite to dinner because I can help plate up the food, and during the holidays, I can fix your gravy if you mess it up. It doesn't take much to make me happy, but I need to burn off excess energy, so I'm fun to hike or bike with. I drive a car really well and can estimate arrival times to distant places very accurately. Oh, and I always have gum.
Your worst traits: Lack of patience. Don't go on vacation with me, because I don't relax until the last day. I have a habit of repeating stuff, and I snore. If you eat at my house and I'm cooking burgers or steak, you'd better like them rare. When I drink, I will tell the truth no matter what the consequences are, so if we're drinking together, be careful what you ask me...and kicking me under the table won't stop me. For a more comprehensive list of my worst traits, call Carrie at 303-715-7784, or Jeff at 720-447-2586.
If you hadn't become a chef, what would you be doing right now? You know, I've never really thought about it, because I've been incredibly lucky to have had such a ridiculously great career. The obvious answer would be something that combines art and craft, labor and education, and a vision of something that your customer finds compelling and pleasing. I've landscaped a lot as a hobby and been fulfilled by it, and I've built a bunch of furniture for my family and enjoyed that, too. I've created a number of "design-y" odd gifts for my wife and kids for fun, so I guess some type of design job. Either that or a plumber.
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What's next for the Denver dining scene? If I had to speculate, I'd say more of the same. Right now, lots of culinary boundaries are being tested, which seems to be good for everyone. We went to a Monkey Town dinner several weeks ago that was cooked by the guys from Noble Swine, and it was a combination of really good food and a great visual mixed-media experience curated by Montgomery Knott. I'd love to see more of that kind of thing going on.