Part Two: Chef and Tell with Elise Wiggins of Panzano
Panzano executive chef Elise Wiggins
This is part two of Lori Midson's interview with Elise Wiggins, the executive chef of Panzano. You can read the first part of Midson's interview with Wiggins here. Best food city in America: Yikes. That's hard, but I love Atlanta because of the farm mecca that surrounds it -- and because of the long growing season, chefs can get whatever fruit and vegetables they want. It's a great place for livestock, too. Then there's Seattle, where you can catch your fish right out of the water and have it on your plate that same day. The fish tastes just like ocean, and it's all right there in front of you. There's no shelf life.
Favorite music to cook by: Billie Holiday. She's sultry and romantic, which is usually how I feel when I'm cooking.
Rules of conduct in your kitchen: My staff can't come in with an attitude. If they're the least bit pissy, I won't let them on the line; they can either go home or check it. I'm really lucky, though, because the crew that I have is so congenial. We have an open kitchen at Panzano, and I insist that it be a happy place to cook -- that you must be in a happy place emotionally. I also tell everyone that I want them fat, which is why each person at every station has a spoon so they can taste the food. I can seriously turn into the devil if my crew isn't trying the food while they're cooking. I'm a Nazi about that. And If I catch someone trying to pass something over me -- and then call them on it -- their eyes turn into puppy eyes. I always tell my staff: Don't make my head pop off and land in Mississippi.
Favorite New York restaurant: I could go on and on about my favorite New York restaurants...but I love the straightforward and classic approach to food at The Spotted Pig. And I love the rustic Italian food at Babbo, which has got to be one of the only restaurants where you can serve calf's-brains ravioli and actually make money from it. Gramercy Tavern is consistently really fantastic, too, with an almost infallible, tried-and-true technique. If you order a steak at a certain temp at Gramercy Tavern, that's how you're going to get it every time.
Favorite Denver restaurant other than your own: Potager. It's perfectly executed food with minimal manipulation. Chef Terri Ripetto perfectly pairs ingredients and then lets them speak for themselves.
What you'd like to see more of in Denver from a culinary standpoint: Creative gluten-free dishes. Celiac disease and wheat allergies are on the rise, and more and more people are being diagnosed every day. Wheat's in so many things -- ice cream, Tabasco, soy sauce, Twizzlers -- and we're putting way too much of it into our bodies, and our bodies are starting to reject it.
What you'd like to see less of in Denver from a culinary standpoint: Use of products that have pesticides and hormones, and genetically modified foods.
Denver has the best: Ethnic food. I really love Denver's authentic little pockets of ethnic restaurants. Sahara, El Taco de Mexico and Little India's are some of my favorites.
Denver has the worst: Cajun French restaurants. I'm not talking about places like Bayou Bob's or Lucile's (love their biscuits, though), but about refined Cajun/Creole food -- that collection of old and different cultures that are fused together.
Favorite cookbooks: Pork and Sons, by Stéphane Reynaud; Bones: Recipes, History and Lore, a cookbook by Jennifer Mclagan that uses alternative parts of the animal that most people have never even thought to use; The Splendid Table, by Lynne Rossetto Kasper, because all the recipes have a history behind them and the Italians are wonderful storytellers; and Raw Food: Real World, a cookbook by Matthew Kenney and Sarma Melngailis that teaches you how to get full nutrition with full flavors from raw foods. It's also a book that really challenges me to use different techniques at the restaurant.
What show would you pitch to the Food Network? I'd love to do a show that's a cross between The Amazing Race and Top Chef. Chefs would be dropped off in one country with a limited amount of money and have to travel to another country to cook the ultimate meal, while collecting exotic ingredients along the way that they'd also have to transport to their final destination. No travel by car or plane would be allowed, so the chefs would have to get to each country by motorcycles or rail or kayaks -- all without letting their food perish. They'd have 48 hours to accomplish this, and that would include the time it takes to prepare the final meal. The other kicker is that each contest would utilize a different cooking method.
Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: Chapulines in Oaxaca. They're fried grasshoppers, and I've got this mental block when it comes to eating bugs. It grosses me out, but I'll try anything once.
Current Denver culinary genius: There's such diversity here that I could give you a litany of people who deserve props, even though guests tell me all the time that we haven't been given enough credit for our culinary talent. I honestly can't name just one or two chefs, because there are so many. I will say, though, that John Imbergamo, who does our PR, is amazing. The man is like an octopus; he has his hands in everything. He's so deeply connected and never betrays a confidence, which is something I really respect. He's a superstar.
You're making a pizza. What's on it? Anchovies, peppers and pepperoni.
You're making an omelet. What's in it? Crispy housemade pancetta and Fontina cheese.
After-work hangout: My home. I pull fifteen-hour days, plus I work at a lot of fundraisers, and the last thing I want to do at the end of a long day is stay out late and feel lousy in the morning. I'll watch CNN for a little bit, talk to my girlfriend, read a bit and go to bed.