Mike Adams, kitchen magician of Racines, on hunting, fishing, chitlins and the thrill of the mushroom hunt
This is part one of Lori Midson's interview with Mike Adams, the executive chef of Racines. Part two of that interview will run in this space tomorrow.
650 Sherman Street
"Are you seriously going to write that?" asks Mike Adams, stretching over his chair to sneak a glimpse at the screen. Adams is recounting his final days at T.G.I. Friday's -- specifically, the day he got canned. "I was there for sixteen years, starting as a fry cook and moving up to kitchen manager before they hired me as a general manager, but I didn't know what the hell I was doing, so they fired me," he recalls.
He got demoted, too -- twice -- at Macaroni Grill, where, ironically, he was brought on as a manager. It was 1999, at the time of the Columbine shootings, and the Secret Service wanted to decorate the roof with snipers and cordon off the parking lot, limiting access to the restaurant. "Since no one could get inside the restaurant, I closed it -- without permission from the corporate people -- and you can't close a corporate-owned restaurant without talking to the powers-that-be, so I got demoted," sighs Adams. And then he got blistered again, this time for making too much money: "I can't explain it any other way. I made too much money in bonuses and from performance programs, which, I guess, means I'm smarter than I look."
Smart enough to know that his exec-chef gig at Racines, which he's had for the past six years, is definitely preferable to the corporate life. "This is such a great place to work, and it's a really well-run restaurant with amazing owners. It's incredibly gratifying," says Adams, an Air Force brat who learned to cook from his grandmother, who had a farm just outside of Richmond, Virginia. "My mom said I became a chef because she'd never let me in the kitchen when I was a kid, but spending time on my grandmother's farm and hanging out with her in her kitchen made me want to pursue cooking."
Which he did, just as soon as he turned eighteen. "I got my first restaurant job at a Sizzler as a line cook, but I wanted to move out of the house, so my theory was that if I could get three restaurant jobs, I could make a lot of money and move out, so I took on two more jobs, bought a car and eventually moved out," remembers Adams. Today he holds down one job -- and spends his spare time hunting and fishing. "My dad took me hunting and fishing when I was a kid, and it's always stuck with me. It's a part of my life, and I don't waste anything," says Adams, who points out that he even makes headcheese from deer heads.
In the following interview, Adams expands on his connection with nature, explains why Denver and Boulder are the best food cities in the country, and likens chitlins to a pigpen.
Six words to describe your food: Adventurous, consistent, unpretentious, down to earth, exciting and imaginative.
Ten words to describe you: Loyal, energetic, honest, compassionate, passionate, punctual, empathetic, hardworking, independent and imaginative.
Culinary inspirations: The world, books, magazines, food shows, life experiences, observations and family meals, especially with my Southern grandma, who made everything from scratch and could really lay out a spread -- most of it right off the farm. Talk about sustainability. Still, it took me a long time to figure out that I wanted to be a chef, but I'm very happy with my decision, and I still get inspiration -- even from my line and prep cooks when they're preparing shift meals. I constantly listen, observe and learn, and then, usually without fail, inspiration hits me about 3:30 in the morning. There's no rest for the wicked.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef: The innate ability to pull everyone together to work as a team toward one common goal: consistent, great food.
Favorite ingredient: Love. You really have to love everything about food -- the look, the feel, the smell, the taste -- to be a chef, and you have to love bringing people together for a great meal. In my mind, there's nothing better.
Best recent food find: Sweet potatoes. They're actually something I've re-found. Sweet potatoes, whether they're baked, mashed, broiled, candied, au gratin or used in desserts, are so versatile, and they're a staple in any Southern kitchen. I guess my grandma knew a good thing when she saw it -- or, should I say, tasted it. I also like the fact that, nutritionally, they're a great starch.
One food you detest: Chitlins, or chitterlings. You've got to have lived on a farm, killed your own pigs, taken out the intestines from start to finish, scrubbed them, turned them inside out, scrubbed them again and then boiled them in order to understand what I'm talking about. My grandma used to do all that in her kitchen, and it smelled like a pigpen -- only worse.
One food you can't live without: There's always elk in my freezer, either because someone gave it to me, or because I went hunting. I was raised to hunt and fish; it's part of who I am and will always be.
Most overrated ingredient: Salt. Are you really going to salt your food before you try it? It needs to be a trust thing, but aside from just that, there are way too many other flavors out there to experience beyond salt. While we're on the subject, I was raised during a time when MSG was on everything that was grilled. Remember Accent, that little red-and-white container of steak seasoning that was actually MSG? It's got a great flavor, but I don't think we want to chemically enhance our food with it. Don't get me wrong: Salt brings out the flavor, but it shouldn't be the predominant flavor.
Most underrated ingredient: Mushrooms. They're earthy, woodsy and I love them, either fresh or sautéed. It's definitely an outdoor thing for me -- the thrill of finding a patch of edible mushrooms when I'm hunting or fishing. It's like finding gold at the end of the rainbow. You've probably heard this before, but don't eat wild mushrooms unless you're absolutely sure they're edible. Really, don't.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: Striped bass from southern Colorado. It's a mild, subtle, medium-firm fish that cooks clean and bodes well with various flavors and cooking techniques.
Favorite spice: Chinese five-spice powder. It's a contradiction in flavors -- simultaneously sweet and spicy, with star anise, cloves, cinnamon, fennel and pepper. I'll put it on anything I eat for breakfast, lunch or dinner, and I also use it when I bake and make desserts.
Rules of conduct in your kitchen: They're very straightforward. Show up on time; be clean; dress properly; be ready to work; have an open mind; respect your fellow employees; and, above all else, once you've learned your duties properly, always be consistent.
Biggest kitchen disaster: I was a front-of-the-house manager for Macaroni Grill when, during a busy lunch in a full restaurant with a thirty-minute wait, smoke started filling the ceiling in the dining room, and we couldn't locate the source. Ten minutes go by, and as I'm walking into the prep room to talk to the chef, I catch a glimpse of fire through an air-conditioning vent in the ceiling. Talk about an adrenaline rush! We had to clear the building and call the fire department, who came in and completely demolished the prep room in order to get to the source of the fire, which was in the wall behind the wood-fired broiler. The fire stone had deteriorated, and the heat from the broiler had superheated three-inch nails that were driven into two-by-fours that finally ignited.
What's never in your kitchen? Contempt or prejudice. If you harbor those, go work somewhere else.
What's always in your kitchen? An open mind and the willingness to learn from everyone, all the way from the dishwashers to the owners. I always have Old Bay Seasoning in the kitchen, too: It reminds me of the East Coast, plus it's just good -- not just on seafood, but on pork and poultry.
Favorite dish to cook at home: Brined, then fried turkey with all the trimmings -- sausage stuffing, giblet gravy and mashed potatoes.
Favorite dish on your menu: The solitaire salmon salad -- baby spinach and arugula, fresh seasonal berries, feta cheese, curried pecans, red onions and tomatoes tossed with an orange-balsamic vinaigrette and plated with a grilled salmon fillet. It's a collage of fresh, bright flavors.
If you could put any dish on your menu, even though it might not sell, what would it be? Elk -- maybe the prime rib, or rib steak. I think it's possibly one of the best-tasting meats out there, but I get the feeling that a lot of people, especially in Denver, might not appreciate it. You know...hunting and all.
What you'd like to see more of in Denver from a culinary standpoint: I'd like to see a greater use of wild game on more menus. Colorado is known for hunting and fishing, so why not use more of those local resources?
What you'd like to see less of in Denver from a culinary standpoint: Less talk and more action in the areas of sustainability, recycling, localized usage and resource management. Do we ever stop to think about our actions, or about the future of our children, or our children's children? Restaurants place a huge demand on water, power and landfills, and we all need to change the message that we're sending.
Favorite celebrity chef: Guy Fieri. I mean, come on: What's not to like? He's got a great personality, he's a little boisterous at times, and he's got a great eye for food that always appeals to me. Diners, Drive-ins and Dives is all about keeping food simple and making it great, and if the people love it, stick with it.
What's next for you? Carry on at Racines for as long as Lee and David are willing to put up with me, and continue to expand my knowledge, especially with regard to Japanese, Chinese and Thai cuisines, which are the ones I know the least about and would most like to add to my menu.
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