Part two: Cafe Options chef Craig Dixon extols butter, pounds the chicken breast and makes a surprising declaration about Denver
Craig Dixon, executive chef of Cafe Options
This is part two of Lori Midson's interview with Cafe Options executive chef Craig Dixon. To read part one of that interview, click here.
Favorite ingredient: Butter. Animal fat is where it's at. You can't fake butter. Humans have survived for thousands of years eating animals. Why try to find a substitute for something that's so versatile and has worked for so long?
Best recent food find: I love Alex Seidel's twist on oysters Rockefeller at Fruition. They're deliciously wrapped in crisp potato with an amazing purée of leek. The buttermilk panna cotta with red wine-poached rhubarb at Colt & Gray is a simple dish of flawless execution that needs no garnish, and I recently had my first experience at Olivéa and devoured everything on the charcuterie menu. The menu recommended picking three items, which I did -- twice.
Most overrated ingredient: The overused, underflavored, processed chicken breast that's unfortunately on so many menus. I'd rather eat boiled chicken feet with hot sauce.
Most underrated ingredient: Salt. It's so basic yet so important. If it's not used judiciously, you can ruin a dish early in its preparation and destroy worlds, but if it's used correctly, it can open doors to gastronomical delights. I use it to blanch vegetables, cure meats and make brines. It's the finishing touch.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: I'm a big fan of Colorado lamb. They're so cute and delicious, and I love to get up early on the weekend and get the smoker going. My other favorite ingredient isn't local to Colorado, but I'm going to tell you all about it anyway. I lived on the west side of Kauai for two and a half years, doing some part-time work at a local golf course, getting to know the old-timers: "Uncle" or "Auntie" was preferred nomenclature. Uncle Clarence found out I was a chef and excitedly gave me some salt he made in the salt ponds of Hanapepe, where he and his ancestors have been making salt for the past 1,000 years. It's an ancient practice that used to be imperative for survival, so for a haole like me, it was an honor to be given a local product so full of culture and tradition. I try to make it back to Kauai every year for salt and surfing and golf and aloha.
One food you detest: High fructose corn syrup. It's a dangerous product that should be sold with a scary warning label.
One food you can't live without: I love changing my diet with the seasons; it just makes sense to eat your fruits and veggies when they're bountiful. But the one thing my body craves regularly is a thick and bloody steak with a nice fat cap on it, cooked rare as hell over a wood fire.
Guiltiest food pleasure? The chicken-liver mousse at the Squeaky Bean. I'm only allowed one portion per month.
Best food city in America: Denver. Okay, I know we're the B-list to the powerhouses of San Francisco, Chicago and New York -- but we're B-list with a bullet. The quality of life here, combined with an amazing crop of chefs -- Max MacKissock, Alex Seidel, Jennifer "Jazzy J" Jasinski, John Broening, the crew at Colt & Gray...I could go on and on -- make this city rock. We recently had an amazing number of local chefs who, on their day off, showed up at a Work Options for Women charity dunk tank event at the Squeaky Bean, and I can't even tell you how much I appreciate that. I'd like to say thank you to all of them.
You're at the market. What do you buy two of? Whatever the kid stocking fruit at Sunflower Market tells me is good.
Weirdest customer request: After a nice dinner at the St. Bernard restaurant in Breckenridge, Shakira came in with her then-boyfriend and wanted to know if we would go play pool with her at the Brown hotel, one of those really old flophouse-like hotels with a bar.
Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: A Tijuana street taco, cooked in a hubcap, with protein of an unknown origin.
Best culinary tip for a home cook: Don't skimp on quality ingredients, and practice making housemade stocks using scraps and trimmings -- bones from your roast chickens, beef bones and ends of carrots, onions and celery.
If you could cook for one famous chef, dead or alive, who would it be? Julia Child. She was a nice lady.
Favorite Denver restaurant(s) other than your own: Rioja, because the food and service are incredibly consistent; Squeaky Bean -- I just go there a lot in hopes that they name a drink after me; and Lao Wang Noodle House for their pot stickers. I'd fight for those. And win.
Favorite celebrity chef: Tony Bourdain lacks pretentiousness, and Jennifer Jasinski puts the "f" in fun.
Celebrity chef that should shut up: Chef Gordon Ramsay. Where's the love? Why so angry?
What's your favorite knife? My two-sided axe. It gets results.
What's next for you? A fatter pair of chef pants, maybe a rooftop garden, and hopefully a second location at some point in the future.
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