Part two: Big Game's Leo Harvey dishes on trashy cheese dip, his biggest embarrassment and Gordon Ramsay
This is part two of my interview with Leo Harvey, executive chef of Big Game Restaurant & Lounge. To read part one of that interview, click here.
Favorite dish to cook at home: Braised chicken thighs and Yukon Gold mashed potatoes. It's a very comforting dish that's hearty, easy to make and makes great leftovers.
Favorite dish on your menu: Our bison short rib. It's a dish that has achieves the perfect balance and provides nice contrasting and complementary flavors. It just really comes together well.
If you could put any dish on your menu, even though it might not sell, what would it be? White cheese dip. You know, melted white American cheese in a bowl with chips or flour tortillas. I know it's trashy, but it's really good. They'd never let me put it on the menu, though.
Favorite music to cook by: I listen to a variety of music when I cook; it just kind of depends on what I'm cooking, but when I'm at home cooking, I like to listen to hip-hop and R&B -- something a little mellow though, like the older albums of OutKast, Jay-Z or Wu-Tang. Lately I've been listening to John Legend and MGMT. Their music kind of puts me in the zone, takes my mind away and allows me to enjoy what I'm doing.
What's your favorite knife? A Wüsthof chef's knife that I found on a basement floor, took under my care and nursed back to health. It was a castaway -- unwanted. I took it, cleaned it, sharpened the blade and it's kicked ass for me ever since. I found it necessary to engrave the name S. Chocolate (pronounced S dot Chocolate) into the side of the blade as an ode to a nickname that was bestowed upon me in a prior kitchen. But that's a whole other story.
Rules of conduct in your kitchen: Work together, work safe, work efficient and work fast. They're simple rules, but I feel like if you do these things, then your kitchen is working at its best and becomes alive. If people aren't working in that manner, then the kitchen gets kinks in it and we all have to work much harder. Here's my quirky rule: Our sliders come two to an order on a long rectangular black wooden board, and if the sliders are too far apart, I tell my line to slide them back in. I can't stand it when they're too far apart from each other.
Best food city in America: I've had some great food in a lot of cities, but have yet to experience the restaurants in what some consider to be the best food cities -- cities like Chicago, New York or Los Angeles. I will say, though, that Atlanta has a lot of talented chefs who are doing some really great things there. It's a city that's full of adventurous diners, and it's right on the cusp of blowing up as a notable American food city. There's everything from your mom-and-pop ethnic restaurants to your celebrity chef-owned establishments that would satisfy any palate. I love Bacchanalia, a really eclectic restaurant with amazing food quality that's the closest thing to a five-star restaurant you'd find in Atlanta, and Top Flr is great, too, because they stay open late and serve entrees until 4 a.m. with no limited menu.
Favorite restaurant in America: Stardust Cafe in Lewisburg, West Virginia. It's a little cafe that's family owned and operated, and they serve some of the most phenomenal food anywhere -- food that you wouldn't think you'd find in a place like Lewisburg, a tiny mountain city with a population of, like, 3,000 in the middle of nowhere in West Virginia. But, honestly, this town has some of the best food, and the Stardust is all about good people and good farm-to-table cooking.
Most embarrassing moment in the kitchen: Without a doubt, the night I got kicked off the line at the Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia. Their line is massive and only has a couple of exits, so you have to walk by everyone to get out. It was one of my first days of my externship, and I was scheduled to work the hot line for dinner service. As a line cook, you were responsible for one dish, but you had to cook every component of that dish from start to finish; nothing was pre-cooked and reheated. With about four different cooking methods and at least eight components per dish, things could get a little intense for a newbie. So I had to make this bass dish -- a simple appetizer that was served with some sort of vegetable chowder. I started off doing fine, but when the rush came, I crashed hard. I kept burning my fish and as I'm trying to fix that, I overcook my vegetables. It was a nightmare, and the chef de cuisine, finally fed up with the product I was putting up, kicked me off the line, and I had to do the walk of shame in front of everyone. Never again did I let that happen.
Favorite cookbooks: I've always enjoyed cookbooks that go into a lot of depth about ingredients -- cookbooks like Culinary Artistry or The Flavor Bible. I like reading some of Gordon Ramsay's cookbooks along with ones by Tom Colicchio and Eric Ripert, because I really like the stories that go along with each recipe -- tales of great services, disastrous nights, broken sauces and perfect techniques that are written alongside beautiful recipes that come alive and depict a significant moment in time.
Current Denver culinary genius: I haven't been here long enough to know, but I have my own "to-do" list and the only things that are on there are finally putting down the papers and finding out the answer to this question.
You're making a pizza. What's on it? Barbecued chicken, white cheddar cheese, red onion, avocado and cilantro.
You're eating a burrito. What's in it? Mexican-style rice with lots of tomatoes, braised short rib, guacamole, sour cream and cheddar cheese.
You're at the market. What do you buy two of? Chinese pears. They're delicious. I've never had a fruit like it. They're shaped like an apple, the skin has the look and feel of a Bosc pear, and it tastes like an apple and a pear. I always want just one, but I always buy two.
Favorite Denver restaurant(s) other than your own: I like TAG, because Troy's food is very similar to how I cooked and ate in Atlanta. I've also had very good, simple French food at Bistro Vendôme. It's perfect bistro food, and the fries are delicious. Cuba Cuba has phenomenal braised pork; I can't get enough of it. That place has better Cuban food than in Miami.
Favorite celebrity chef: Gordon Ramsay. I know a lot of people don't like him because of the yelling and over-the-top dramatics on Hell's Kitchen, but I think the man is phenomenal. Aside from Hell's Kitchen, he has this show called The F Word, where he takes a team of regular people who just love to cook at home and he challenges them to serve three courses to fifty guests, who then say whether or not they would pay for that dish. It's a very entertaining, educational and informative show, and I love his style of cooking and his "anyone can cook" approach to the kitchen. Other than him, the real "celebrity chefs" are the certified master chefs -- a small minority of men and women that most people have never heard of. These are the guys they have true talent, not just the ability to smile at a camera. But then again, those unnamed individuals also don't own private 5,000-square-foot wine cellars and jets.
Celebrity chef who should shut up: Anyone who actually calls themselves a celebrity chef. Gordon Ramsay doesn't call himself a celebrity chef -- he fell into that role -- so he's spared. Guy Fieri is the worst. Of all the shows on the Food Network, his is the least impressive because he doesn't add anything innovative to the food world.
Hardest lesson you've learned: The hardest lesson I've learned -- and am still learning -- is to let go. As you move forward in life and in your career, things are bound to change, and I'm learning that it's best to not hold on so tight to things that progress sometimes leaves behind.
What's next for you? I'm still young and have a lot of the world to travel and see. I'm always striving to learn more and get better at what I do, so any opportunity to do that is where I'm headed.
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