Mike Peshek, exec chef of Lou's Food Bar, muses on social-review sites, roadkill and customers who toss out skewering threats
"See the spaghetti and meatballs?" asks Mike Peshek, pointing to a vat of fat orbs glossed with an herby tomato sauce. "That's one of our favorite dishes -- and one of our most popular staff meals." A dishwasher, who's just about ready to turn the tap off for the day, bobs his head up and down in agreement. "There are people who work here," insists Peshek, "who've been in this business for thirty years and say that we serve the best staff meals they've ever had."
And Peshek, the executive chef of Lou's Food Bar, is clearly proud of the accolades. "Look," he says, "it's super-important to us that we we're really good to our staff and give them great food. We may not be able to pay them a ton of money, but we definitely feed them well."
That's a lesson that Peshek learned while growing up in a small town in Nebraska. "Getting the whole family together to eat was the most important part of our day, and my mom is an awesome, unbelievable cook who always made sure that she went all out when we had a meal together," he recalls, adding that he still picks up the phone to call her for advice. "My mom taught me the basics early on, and when I really learned how to cook, she always gave me hints, and she still does."
He got his first taste of a professional kitchen in 1994, at a restaurant called Grandmother's in Lincoln, Nebraska. "It was hideous, at best," admits Peshek, who was the designated pasta bag/microwave monkey. "I had to microwave frozen pasta sauce, and I'd burn myself every single damn time because the bags were so hot, but I needed a job, and it kept me out of trouble and helped me pay for college."
He stuck out both the job and college, then moved to Aspen to join his brother. "I thought I'd be working at the Little Nell, but I ended up serving Caesar salads in the cafeteria on top of the mountain," remembers Peshek, who quickly climbed up the culinary ladder. "I showed up sober every day for a month -- I guess I was the reliable guy -- so they moved me to the Aspen Mountain Club, a private, upscale dining club on Aspen Mountain." He eventually made it to the Little Nell, where he worked in the banquet department until a fellow chef suggested that he try his hand at culinary school. "I never knew that bona fide culinary programs existed, and while a lot of chefs bag on culinary school, I ended up at the New England Culinary Institute and I absolutely loved it," he says, noting that he spent a mandatory sixty hours a week in the kitchen and classroom.
Once he graduated, he took off for Boston, where he spent six years behind the burners of numerous kitchens. But the weather -- and a breakup -- convinced him that it was time for a change of scenery. "I was single and had some money stashed away, so my plan was to go to San Francisco, where there's a great culinary scene," recalls Peshek. But on his way to the City by the Bay, he stopped in Denver -- and never left, quickly landing a stint at Luca D'Italia, Frank Bonanno's Italian restaurant. Six years later, he's still part of the burgeoning Bonanno kingdom. "Frank and I have a great working relationship, and I feel extremely lucky to be a part of his vision, to be part of something new," says Peshek, who doesn't share the same affinity for social-review sites, roadkill or demanding customers who toss out skewering threats.
Ten words to describe you: Lucky, honest, grateful, respectful, loyal, funny, crass, modest, dependable and witty.
Six words to describe your food: Clean, fun, comforting, complex, flavorful and balanced.
Favorite ingredient: Balance is a very important aspect of my cooking style, and while I don't like overly spicy foods that overwhelm the palate, I love using crushed red-chile flakes to give dishes a little kick, spice and heat.
Favorite local ingredient: I love Palisade peaches, which I didn't even know existed until I moved to Colorado. I only wish they were available for a longer period of time. My wife and I usually buy a case just for us and have no problem using them all. I also love anything grown at Oxford Gardens. They had turnips last year that were so tasty you could eat them like an apple; the juice would dribble down your chin when you bit into them.
Best recent food find: Rabbit liver. It has a sweet flavor, similar to pork, and it's mild and smooth to the palate, but it's also got a certain unique gamey element that pairs really nicely with port, sherry and Marsala.
Most overrated ingredient: A whole laundry list of extra crap that people put on dishes to make them look better. Too often, you pay an exorbitant amount of money for a dish that has very little substance; multiple ingredients don't add to the dish, nor do ingredients that appear on the plate just for artistry's sake -- foams or colored oils, for example. I'm a pretty straightforward chef who believes that everything on a plate should be eaten. Still, if I had to pick just one ingredient that's overrated, it'd be chopped parsley. We use it a lot at our restaurant, but it always seems like the go-to garnish to finish a dish and add color, even though it doesn't always add the right flavor combination. But it looks pretty, so we all use it.
Most underrated ingredient: Definitely salt. I have a salt-sensitive tongue and still find that most food is a little under-seasoned. Some cooks just want to leave the product alone, but seasoning is as important as anything else I do in the kitchen, and adding a pinch of salt gives food the right balance. You can gussy up the plate with a lot of great additions, but if it's not seasoned correctly, the dish will taste flat; it's taking the extra few seconds to properly season food that makes the dish rock. And having worked in Italian restaurants, I've learned that salting your pasta water is key, because it helps to balance the entire dish. If the water isn't properly salted, you can have a very flavorful sauce with flat-tasting pasta, which is a shame. Blanching water is also another important step; it's the difference between night and day. Thomas Keller devotes two whole pages in the French Laundry cookbook just to blanching.
Favorite spice: Right now, I'm using a lot of ginger in our sausages and desserts, and I like the contrast between fresh and dried ginger, which gives food a sweet and spicy balance.
One food you detest: I have a weird aversion to cilantro. It creates a really weird taste, like aluminum or soap. I don't mind when it's in dishes like curry or salsa, but when it's thrown on top for a garnish, it can ruin my meal. I'm also not a fan of lobster, mainly because I don't like cooking, cleaning or eating it. I would much rather have a Dungeness crab or a perfectly cooked prawn. Lobster has an almost godlike standing in the culinary world, but I seriously don't know if people really know how to properly use it in their dishes.
One food you can't live without: Hot Tamales. Does that count as a food? I believe I've gone three days living on Hot Tamales. If I want something savory, then it's any kind of taco -- minus the cilantro garnish. I grew up in a small town in Nebraska with a large Hispanic population, which meant really good Mexican food. I loved the tongue tacos at Rosa's Cafe. Hell, everything was great as long as you didn't watch it being prepared.
Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: Possum. My first job was delivering lumber in Grand Island, Nebraska, with a guy named Jim, who kept a shovel on the truck to collect roadkill. One winter day during our lunch break, his wife brought in a fabulous-smelling stew. We all sat around the table and had a bowl, and only later did I find out that it was made with possum, raccoon and a smashed mallard. After that, I always brought my own lunch.
Weirdest customer request: When I was the chef at Luca D'Italia, a customer sauntered into the kitchen, demanding that I make her a veal saltimbocca, a popular dish that we had recently taken off the menu. I initially thought it was a joke because she was laughing and having fun, but when she started to get irate, I realized that she was serious. She said that if I didn't make her the dish, she was going to "skewer us." After much debate and some yelling on both sides, the manager finally escorted her back into the dining room. She sat back down with her guests but refused to eat for the rest of the meal. The only satisfaction was that her husband continued to eat for three hours and eventually apologized for his wife's behavior.
Rules of conduct in your kitchen: Have fun, show up and care, which means be at work when you're at work, forget your problems and enjoy what you're doing. I'm lucky in that I have so many passionate people around me that go the extra mile, and because we have fun, joke and keep the kitchen relaxed, the cooks don't feel the pressure of having me look over their shoulders all the time. They know how we want things done, and they always try to do their best. I won't work for people who are mean, demeaning, condescending or dicks. I was treated like shit in more than one restaurant, and it never motivated me to produce the best food I could. Instead, I like to explain what people are doing wrong, or show them how to accomplish what I'm looking for.
Biggest kitchen disaster: I was working at the Aspen Mountain Club, getting ready to do a wedding reception, and we had two different kitchens: the actual kitchen and the prep kitchen, which is where I was working when the fire alarm went off. We didn't think much of it because the wiring was all goofed up and it happened kind of often. In the meantime, we were running behind and in a hurry, so we sent a kid upstairs to start cooking the steaks for the party. When I went up to check on him, the kitchen was in two inches of foam. The kid had set off the Ansul system and had ruined all 120 steaks. The plastic Cambro we were holding them in was full of foam, the grill was full of foam, and it was close to seeping into the dining room. The kid was so scared that he left without telling anyone, which meant he had to walk all the way down the mountain. It was funny and terrifying at the same time, and we had to beg and borrow from the Little Nell. We made it happen, but the wedding people, not surprisingly, were pretty pissed off.
What's never in your kitchen? A microwave. My family got one when they first hit the stores, and it hummed and sometimes sparked. I always hated those things -- and I hate dry food.
What's always in your kitchen? An education. I learn something new every time I cook, whether it's from Frank Bonanno, a peer or my wife. It's just so cool to observe others or, for that matter, myself. I try new things -- and new ways of cooking food -- all the time, and I like to cook outside my comfort level, which is partly what makes my job so fucking cool. I just started receiving The Lucky Peach, a magazine that chef David Chang puts out, and he's got all sorts of cool stuff in there, including a piece on how to make ramen noodles. I've rolled a lot of pasta in my life, but this is a whole different ballgame. Like I said, every day is an education.
Are you affected by reviews at all? What's your opinion of social review sites like Yelp, OpenTable and Urbanspoon? Of course, I'm human. You never want to hear that you didn't exceed somebody's expectations, but, on the other hand, I've been fortunate enough to receive better-than-average reviews at every restaurant where I've worked. Food writers for major publications understand the restaurant business and see the larger picture behind the food, so I really value their opinion, and I love to hear feedback from individual diners, but I think that websites like Yelp sometimes attract only negative opinions from people who don't always understand the hard work that goes into creating a dining experience. I read a lot of Yelp reviews written by people who had one poor aspect to their meal, only to write off the restaurant altogether. OpenTable, however, is an example of a great website for diner feedback; it provides categories, like ambience and service, for people to rate their experience. I take reviews on this site much more seriously than the ones on Yelp.
Biggest compliment you've ever received: I had the pleasure of doing a tasting menu for Julia Child, and after the meal she gave me a hug. She was a beautiful woman and a true pioneer.
Best culinary tip for the home cook: You don't need to follow recipes to a T. Too often, cooks look at recipes and see a few ingredients they don't have or don't like, so they decide not to make the dish at all. You should feel free to substitute vegetables, herbs and other ingredients with ingredients that you like or have on hand. At the same time, home cooks should try to go outside the box and incorporate new culinary flavors to make their dishes their own. The only time when you should heavily rely on recipes is when you're baking, because it's far too hard to wing it.
What's one thing about you or your restaurant that people would be surprised to know? People often assume that because I'm a chef, I have very specific high-end tastes in food, and while I do have a deep affinity for fine dining, I grew up in a small Midwestern town, so I can eat Runza with the best of them.
Hardest lesson you've learned: Heroes die. When I was fifteen, my father passed away, and it changed my outlook on life. The experience really taught me the value of living each day to the fullest and appreciating what you have. I don't take life too seriously, and I try to find the good in every situation, which helps me to focus on the things that matter most to me, like my work, my family and my relationships. It's a waste of my time to fret about minor inconveniences.
What's next for you? Next question. I try to live each day as it comes. Thankfully, I married a planner, so I don't have to worry about it.
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