Part two: Chef and Tell with Kyle Fitzgerald of the Old Blinking Light
Kyle Fitzgerald, exec chef of Old Blinking Light
This is part two of my interview with Kyle Fitzgerald. To read part one, click here.
Culinary inspirations: I wish I had some great story about my mom's kitchen, or the way I would watch my grandma bake, but my kitchen was never that put together growing up. Most of my inspirations come from my wife and her family, along with all of my friends. I started cooking because of their suggestions and eventually found that this is where my heart is. My first daughter was born with a genetic disorder that affects her diet, and that drives me to be more creative in the kitchen; my wife is a great mom and makes me want to make my restaurant a success; and all my in-laws have different opinions on food, so it's fun when we can get all twenty of them in the same house and I get to see all of their reactions at the table when I present a faux caviar on a pancetta crisp or something completely out of the comfort zone -- and they like it.
Proudest moment as a chef: On my thirtieth birthday, my father-in-law came up to me, looked me in the eye and asked whether or not I realized that only eight years ago, we were sitting at the table trying to write up my resumé -- and now I've done all of this. I knew, at that moment, that while it's been a long road with a lot of crazy chefs and small restaurants, I had accomplished what most people with a four-year degree strive to do in twenty years. I haven't had any professional training; I taught myself how to cook and studied my ass off to get where I am at, and I'll continue to study and push all my culinary skills so that I'll never be called boring or mundane.
Best food city in America: Chicago. I spent a good half a year out there and loved the restaurants. You can find everything, from those detail-oriented, experimental places like Alinea to the mom-and-pop Greek and Italian joints and all those little tiny holes-in-the-wall in between.
Favorite New York restaurant: I haven't been to New York in a while, so I'm just going to play the chef card on this one and say that my favorite is whatever restaurant takes the award for the best customer service.
Favorite music to cook by: Prep time: classic rock. Crunch time: Tiger Army or some kind of psychobilly rock. On the line at night: Reverend Horton Heat or something with a great bass line that can keep the energy flowing. I hate all drama country music and all the Matchbox Twenty-sounding bands, because the lyrics make everyone think about their problems too much, and that brings production to a standstill.
Most embarrassing moment in the kitchen: It was my second night on the line as a sous chef at the Old Blinking Light, and I was cooking with a bottle of cheap tequila. I looked away while pouring it in a hot-ass pan and the bottle suddenly caught fire and shot into the expo side of the line, and half the kitchen was covered with tiny blue flames. All the guests heard the explosion, and the line cook who was standing next to me was shaking. It was like I was pointing a gun at him. My chef, Joseph Wade, came running around the corner asking if everyone was okay, and I felt my face turn red as he just laughed and told me to be more careful. I knew it was a rookie mistake. To add insult to injury, I felt the wrath of Montezuma's revenge and used nothing but good tequila after that.
You're at the market: What do you buy two of? Chiles and anything pickled. I love green chiles, jalapeños and stuff like banana peppers and olives.
What's never in your kitchen? Drama. I know that we all have things that happen outside of our work, but your problems shouldn't be brought into my kitchen. That said, I allow fights as long as they are refereed by me and no weapons are involved. But no one ever throws a punch, because they know that I'll lock both people in the dumpster and only one man is allowed out. I learned about that from the good old Mad Max movies, and it seemed to work great. I hate the line cooks who can't ever seem to have a good day. Respect the fact that all you have to do is cook and keep your station stocked. Seriously, what the hell is so hard about that? Stop crying, take an aspirin and just do your job.
What you'd like to see more of in Denver from a culinary standpoint: Molecular gastronomy. A few places here are experimenting with it, but no one has carried it all the way through into the crazy and cool stuff that you can find at places like Alinea or El Bulli. Right now a few chefs are flittering with it, but we need a great chef in Denver to really jump behind it and make it happen.
What you'd like to see less of in Denver from a culinary standpoint: Asian fusion or bistros. The concepts are over already; just let them die and put them to rest. We need to start our own trends and concepts to put Colorado on the map. These kinds of concepts will never place us higher than a tourist trap or a good stopover en route to a better destination.
Favorite cookbooks: That's like asking a DJ what his favorite album is, or asking an artist for his favorite color. I'm most attracted to cookbooks that involve the thoughts and ideas behind the dishes or pairings of flavors. I read cookbooks when I have that tired feeling coming over me and need to challenge myself to try something new. My top five are The Fat Duck Cookbook, by Heston Blumenthal, Thomas Keller's The French Laundry Cookbook, David Chang's Momofuku, Grant Achatz's Alinea and Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page's Culinary Artistry, which is the Holy Grail of cooking. Every chef should use that book.
What show would you pitch to the Food Network? I'd take a high-end kitchen just the way it is -- without directors and actors -- and show the world what real chefs and cooks say and do while working their butts off for fourteen hours a day. My hope would be that people would gain a new respect for those of us who work in restaurants. The chef they all see shaking hands and kissing babies is really the same guy who just fired someone in the middle of Friday night service. When people can openly witness the comedy and struggles in a real kitchen, maybe they'll start to really see what makes a good chef and restaurant succeed.
After-work hangout: I have another restaurant I cook at. It's on my Nintendo Wii and the game is called "Order Up!" Honestly, I had my heyday at the bars and in the back of other restaurants drinking and making food with chefs until three in the morning, but now I'm a dad with two beautiful daughters and a wife who's with me after I don't know how many 100-hour work weeks. Call me simple, or introverted, but I've learned to settle down after work with my family. I love to take my wife out to eat, though. We order like food critics who haven't eaten in days.
If you could cook for one person, dead or alive, who would it be? My grandma. She left us way too soon, and long before I had the chance to cook for her or show her what I had become. I know she'd be a straight shooter and give me the feedback that I'd need to bring the meal to its next step in flavors. She loved to cook and was a person who lived to serve others. I wish I would have had the opportunity to serve her.
Favorite celebrity chef: Gordon Ramsay and Mario Batali. Those two guys have great personalities outside of the kitchen. I mean, Batali hangs with cats like Jimmy Fallon and Gwyneth Paltrow, and Ramsay is rocking the food scene in half the world. I've read the books that both chefs have written, and they remind me that inspiration can come from other places other than inside a hot kitchen or from staring too long at ingredients in a cold walk-in.
Celebrity chef who should shut up: Rachael Ray. My teeth hurt every time I hear "EVOO" or "sammie."
Hardest lesson you've learned: Your ego will lock your doors faster than you can open them. When I first started cooking, I walked with my head taller than my body. When I first started this journey, I was a cocky little bastard who used to insist on doing specials that no one would eat. I thought I knew everything, and then I worked for two restaurants that closed down because of an owner's ego. I've learned to treat everyone with the mindset that when they leave my restaurant, the food is going to be talked about as the greatest thing they've ever had. I don't reserve quality by giving friends and VIP tables the good stuff: I give everyone the same great food. I now listen to even the craziest requests and build my menu with what I like and what customers want to see. The lesson? Be proud, but be humble.
To read part one of my interview with Kyle Fitzgerald, click here.
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