This is part one of my interview with Mitch Mayers, exec chef of Black Pearl; part two of our conversation will run tomorrow.
Mitch Mayers wanted to cook; his parents insisted that he go to Cornell. He negotiated. "I made a deal with my parents that I'd go to Cornell if they'd also send me to culinary school," says Mayers, now the executive chef at Black Pearl. After all, he'd been playing around in his own kitchen -- and learning about food -- since before he was a teenager.
See also: - Black Pearl owner Steve Whited and his chef, Mitch Mayers, will open Agio in Baker early next year - Ed Kammerer, exec chef-owner of Highland Pacific Restaurant & Oyster Bar, on clams, Coastal cuisine and his career
Although he was born and raised in Seattle, Mayers spent his early teens living in Germany with his parents (his dad was involved with the World's Fair), and his time there convinced him to consider a career behind the burners. "The whole food scene there really opened my eyes to different culinary cultures, and that's where I really started to think about cooking," he remembers. He returned to Seattle and got his first job on the line at fifteen, and it didn't take long for him to realize he didn't want to do anything else. "I loved the people, the volume, the speed and the passion in the kitchen -- and I saw myself being good at it," he says.
So while he was enrolled in the Cornell School of Hotel Administration, he simultaneously attended the Culinary Institute of America -- and was rewarded with a summer externship at the Herbfarm, a James Beard-winning restaurant in Seattle that changed his life. "It was the most fucking awesome experience ever, but I've never felt so intimidated," Mayers admits, noting that he cooked alongside chefs from Per Se and the French Laundry. "Everything was herb-oriented, which is now part of my own cooking school of thought, and I learned more in that kitchen than anywhere else I've ever been." Including how to multi-task, he says, a skill that would later help him get a gig with the Hillstone Restaurant Group.
"I had some bills to pay, but more important, I wanted to learn about the managerial side of running a successful, profitable and efficient restaurant, and frankly, no one does that better than Hillstone," explains Mayers, who spent nearly three years with the group, working in Miami, Houston and, eventually, Denver, where he ran the kitchen at Cherry Creek Grill.
But while his experiences with Hillstone gave him the insight he wanted, Mayers was eager to cook at an independent restaurant. And at a wine-tasting at Table 6, he met Steve Whited, owner of Black Pearl. "I got into food because I love playing with ingredients and being creative, and when I met Steve, his former chef had just left, and after we talked, it really felt like it was the right fit," recalls Mayers, who took the exec-chef position at Black Pearl in May of last year. "I was absolutely petrified at first, so I called a buddy of mine from culinary school who was working at the Inn at Little Washington, and he was just like, of course you should take the job. You already know how to run a kitchen; creating new recipes is the fun part. He was pretty convincing -- and he was right," says Mayers, who in the following interview extols the virtues of the blowtorch, reveals some of the rather offbeat rules he has for his kitchen staff, and explains why it's not necessary for Denver's dining scene to become a New York copycat.
How do you describe your food? Complex and creative, but simultaneously simple and approachable. I think I take a unique approach to blending cultures and techniques, but ultimately, the ingredients and flavor combinations are easily enjoyable. I'm all about creating the perfect bite: If you get a little of every component of a dish, each forkful should be balanced and delicious.
Ten words to describe you: Sarcastic, driven, stubborn, dedicated, deliberate, hungry, imaginative, smartass, passionate, observant and caring.
What are your ingredient obsessions? Poblano peppers. I love all chiles, but there's something about poblanos that strikes the perfect balance between sweet and spicy. There are just so many vegetal and spicy levels to them. I also incorporate a lot of cumin into my dishes, mostly because it's extremely versatile and goes well with a large variety of ingredients and other spices. I love it because it adds an earthy and warm aroma to a dish.
What are your kitchen-tool obsessions? My blowtorch -- I love fire. It's mostly why I became a chef. I'm pretty sure there's a bit of a pyromaniac in every chef, and I'm no different. I think we use the blowtorch to plate up every single one of our desserts right now. I also love my pasta machine and ice cream maker, which I got for my birthday years ago from my parents. I love ice cream, so giving a kid an ice cream maker was definitely dangerous.
Food trend you wish would go away: It's hard to hate on food trends too much, because usually one or two things that I like come out of every trend. They force chefs to adapt and learn new principles and techniques, whether it's molecular gastronomy or a dish that's gluten-free. But if I had to choose a food trend that I'd like to see disappear, I guess it would have to be cupcakes. I mean, I love cupcakes as much as the next person, but we have more than enough cupcake places to satiate us.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: We're using yak from Grunniens Yak Ranch in Elbert, Colorado. The flavor of their yak is truly spectacular, and while it's not as gamey as buffalo, it still has that great grassy flavor. In my opinion, it's way better than any beef product you can find.
One food you detest: Pickles. I don't think I ever realized how much I hated pickles until my high-school girlfriend sat and ate a whole jar of them...and then tried to kiss me.
One food you can't live without: I love cheese and ice cream, but I could never live without ice cream. I usually want a bowl of it at the end of most days. There's always an ice cream to perfectly fit my mood, although I'm most partial to chocolate chip cookie dough.
Most memorable meal you've ever had: When I was twelve, I was in Florence and went to a tiny, family-run restaurant that was recommended to us by a local. The food and ambience were spectacular, and it felt like we were in someone's home. I ate gnocchi for the first time with a Gorgonzola cream sauce with pine nuts and peppers. I remember thinking how simple yet truly outstanding it was. From that point forward, gnocchi has been one of my favorite things to eat and cook.
Favorite childhood food memory: My brother and I used to pull up highchairs from our kitchen island on either side of the stove while my grandmother cooked pancakes. As we sat and watched her cook, she'd alternate between the two of us, giving us steaming hot pancakes absolutely smothered in butter to eat while she cooked.
Favorite junk food: I really love Cheetos and cookies, plus pretty much anything that's fried.
Favorite dish on your menu: Hickory-smoked duck breast. It's served with cumin-perfumed potatoes, sautéed watercress, harissa sauce and quince jam. To me, it's the perfect balance of smoky, sweet, savory and spicy.
Biggest menu bomb: This wasn't on a menu, but when I was young and first getting into cooking, I wanted to prove that you could eat healthy and still make it taste good. Turns out that making a low-fat Alfredo sauce is not the way to go about that. I ended up using about every spice I could think of to try and make it taste good, and it was still disgusting.
Weirdest customer request: While I was cooking in a restaurant in New York, we had a wild king salmon on our menu, and I had a customer request that we smother it in ketchup and bake it in the oven. I'm almost always willing to do whatever I can to make the customer happy, but there was no way I could destroy this beautiful piece of fish with ketchup, so I told the customer we would just simply grill it and they could slather on the ketchup once it got to the table.
Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: A 100-year-old egg, straight up, in China. The flavor wasn't bad, but the texture was beyond gross.
What's never in your kitchen? I will never have an employee who's unwilling to be challenged. This industry demands that you push yourself beyond what you think you're capable of, so I'm not interested in having someone who isn't willing to learn and take criticism in order to improve their skills. And I want to surround myself with people who are going to challenge me and the way I think. I'm only 25 years old, and I want to keep on growing as a chef.
What's always in your kitchen? Country music. I'm pretty sure I've converted most, if not all, of my kitchen staff. Okay, so that's probably not true, but at least they put up with it. I grew up listening to country music, and it's perfect to listen to in the kitchen, although I'm sure most chefs would disagree with my choice of Garth Brooks and Tim McGraw.
Rules of conduct in your kitchen: We have an entire list of rules written on the wall in the kitchen. The first two are "Eye of the Tiger" and "Shit on your own time." The first one refers to having a goal and accomplishing it -- kind of like going into battle. And the second one means be ready to kick ass and always take pride in what you're doing. I have a few more, including respect the fucking cheese, don't fuck with my spoons, fear the Mohawk and always watch the demon burner.
What's always lurking in your refrigerator? Half-full containers of Thai food and a box of Arm & Hammer baking soda.
What's next for you? Opening Agio, an Italian restaurant in Baker, is the next big step. Steve and I are extremely excited about having a restaurant in the Baker neighborhood that will be different from Black Pearl but still celebrate our principles of sustainable, local, seasonal. Who knows what happens after that? Maybe another restaurant in Denver.
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