Mike Sullivan, exec chef of Devil's Food, on Boulder's late-night college drunk-ass idiots
This is part one of my interview with Mike Sullivan, executive chef of Devil's Food Bakery & Cookery. Part two of my chat with Sullivan will run in this space tomorrow.
While hanging out on the back patio of Devil's Food Bakery and Cookery with Mike Sullivan, who runs the kitchen along with his brother, Adam, we hear a customer pronounce that the plate of eggs Benedict he's just polished off are "fucking sick." He contemplates ordering a second round -- a half portion -- but then, after a scolding from his dining companion, changes his mind, but not before proclaiming that "Devil's Food has changed a lot over the past year -- and definitely for the better."
Sullivan seems oblivious to the praise. He's too busy hailing the attributes of his brother, waxing rhapsodic about Maryland blue crabs and reflecting on whether Radek Cerny, the executive chef/owner of L'Atelier in Boulder, for whom Sullivan has worked, is mad, a genius, both or neither. "Radek is definitely a little crazy, and working for him was...interesting," says Sullivan, "but I learned more while working in that kitchen than anywhere else, mainly because he gave us a ton of freedom to do what we wanted, and he never, never skimped on the best ingredients. But I can tell you, too, that he didn't cook a whole lot."
Sullivan, on the other hand, has spent the past several years doing nothing but cooking -- first in Maryland, later in Providence, Rhode Island, on Cape Cod, and, most recently, in Boulder, where he spent six years on the lines of numerous restaurants, including West End Tavern, Mateo, the Kitchen, L'Atelier and the Pearl Street Pub, where, he laments, he "had to deal with Boulder's fucking spoiled, late-night college drunk-ass idiots." Still, Sullivan is quick to point out that it was a gig that offered solitude in the kitchen -- "I worked by myself and loved it," he says -- and his boss, who likes to keep a low profile, "was the most respectful guy I've ever worked for. He'd let you know when you messed up, but he thanked you for your hard work every single day."
Eventually, though, the "drunk-ass idiots" -- and Boulder in general -- grew boring, and, seeking new opportunities, Sullivan moved to Denver, where he became the chef of Devil's Food four months ago, working side by side with his brother, who'd joined the kitchen crew last year.
"The kitchen manager sucked and got fired, Adam needed more help, and the kitchen needed more structure and organization -- plus we'd worked together before and worked well together, and I love what we're doing here, especially with our suppertime menu," says Sullivan. "We're taking comfort food and Southern food that your grandmother made, and doing them right with some modern twists. The food is really amazing."
In the following interview, Sullivan lambastes those who call themselves "foodies," gives a shout-out to a Boulder restaurant that no one's ever heard of, and reveals what he learned from working in Cerny's kitchen.
Six words to describe your food: Simple, colorful, rustic, home-style and evolving.
Ten words to describe you: Attitude-driven, brothers, creative, reliable, sarcastic, humorous, loyal, humble and inspired.
Favorite ingredient: Local farm-raised pig from Long Family Farm in Boulder. It's delicious and all-natural, and I love that we know exactly where it comes from. Pork makes everything taste better, and from a variety perspective, the pig just has so much to offer. As an old vegetarian friend of mine told me a long time ago, "Pig: It always brings vegetarians back."
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: A plum tree in our back yard. Jealous?
Most overrated ingredient: The over-usage of the deep-fat fryer. Yes, I realize that a deep-fat fryer isn't an ingredient, and when it's used properly, it can be an amazing tool, but there's no need to throw everything you can think of into a fryer.
Most underrated ingredient: The lemon. It's been around a long time, it's so simple and convenient, and yet it can elevate so many dishes to an unexplainable, flavorful level. You can zest it, preserve it or simply squirt the thing. No matter how you use it, with the obvious exception of over-using it, it can add a whole new dimension to a dish.
Best recent food find: On a recent trip to Mexico City, my brother and I went to as many street vendors as possible, and while some were offering free "common cuisine," we found our way to the ones that were offering authentic regional cuisine. The genius of their culture is the fact that they can take four simple ingredients and create a masterpiece that lets you taste every single ingredient on a complex level. The homemade tortillas pressed on the flat-top were incredible, and we loved the tortas and nopalitos quesadillas, too.
Favorite spice: Fresh thyme; its versatility is limitless. You can use it in desserts, soups, meats and sauces...all day long.
One food you detest: Overcooked seafood. When it's cooked properly, seafood is tough to beat on the delicious-food front, but when it's overcooked, seafood is flat-out disgusting. And let's face it: No one likes to eat rubber.
One food you can't live without: Blue crab, hands-down. My brother and I grew up eating what we caught on Solomon's Island, Maryland, and our parents took us out several times a year during the height of blue crab season with nothing but a boat, chicken thighs, string, a net, and a lot of patience. We were usually able to bring up two to three dozen blue crabs in a day, and then, when we returned home, we'd have the "King of Kings" feast -- just add butter. If only we'd been old enough to drink beers back then...
Rules of conduct in your kitchen: Work clean; respect others; if you can dish it out, you'd better be able to take it; and most important, have fun while you cook.
Biggest kitchen disaster: Whoever the hell invented Mother's Day brunch.
What's never in your kitchen? White pepper. Why not just use black pepper? Theo Adley, in his Chef and Tell interview, called out black pepper. What's wrong with black pepper? So I'm saying, why not white pepper? Theo and I met playing poker. He's a friend. It's okay.
What's always in your kitchen? Brothers, creativity, clashing, realization, agreement, and brothers again.
Favorite music to cook by: Old-school and underground hip-hop, and occasionally something heavy, depending on the night.
Favorite dish on your menu: At Devil's Food, we like to take comfort food and give it a modern twist to inject it with new life. Adam and I each have a favorite dish, and seeing as how we're both chefs, we've got two answers: I like the seared pork tenderloin with house-cured bacon vinaigrette and sweet corn pudding -- a dish that Adam insists is "remarkable." Adam's favorite dish is the potato gnocchi with prosciutto, English peas and Grana Padano cheese. It's soft and fluffy enough to sleep on, and tasty enough that you will absolutely need -- and want -- to have it again.
If you could put any dish on your menu, even though it might not sell, what would it be? Scrapple. The Amish are highly underrated. Enough said.
Favorite dish to cook at home: Slow-cooked short ribs or lamb shanks with braised vegetables and a nice bottle of red wine. It's simple, but when done right, delicious.
Weirdest customer request: Funny story. One time I was cutting carrots at Devil's Food for one of our housemade soups. One of our waiters came back to the kitchen to tell me that a guest had requested that I "stop chopping so loudly."
Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: We were at a sushi restaurant, and a friend ordered something without me knowing what it was. Turned out it was live baby eel that they cut up on the spot. It ended up being one of the most delicious things I've ever eaten.
Guiltiest food pleasure? All-you-can-eat blue crabs drowning in clarified butter. It's kind of funny that no matter how much you learn about cooking, or how great of a cook you become, it's the dishes from your childhood that are the guiltiest pleasures.
You're making a pizza. What's on it? That's easy. The delicious 2 a.m. chicken and black olive pizza with a side of ranch dressing and a PBR to wash it down. We've all been there.
You're at the market. What do you buy two of? Two packs of Dubliner cheese, please.
What's next for you? Obviously, as a chef, I'd like to own and operate my own intimate restaurant -- preferably with Adam, my brother. But until we can make that dream a reality, we're really focused on taking suppertime at Devil's Food to the next level. Home-style cooking provides such a great arena of food to play and be creative with. Who doesn't like to eat slow-cooked meats, fresh vegetables and fresh fish? What people don't realize is how much fun they are to cook with, as well. A little creativity goes a long way.
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