Part two: Ill Mondo Vecchio's Mark DeNittis seeks global salumi domination
Il Mondo Vecchio
1174 South Cherokee Street
This is part two of Lori Midson's interview with Mark DeNittis, the salumi emperor of Il mondo Vecchio. To read the first part of that interview, click here.
Culinary inspirations: My grandparents, both paternal and maternal, gave me a deep understanding, respect and appreciation for cultivating, gardening, hunting, fishing, and having fun cooking foods. It was part necessity and part wanting to gather the family together for dinner. There was nothing trendy about it. My father also had a creative and playful approach to food, but he always respected the animals roaming the land, air and sea; I'm grateful that he passed that respect along to me. Jean-Michel Matos, from the Breakers Hotel/Breakers Country Club in Palm Beach, Florida, was my first industry chef and mentor -- my industry "father" -- and he taught me the classics and fundamentals of cooking, the hows and whys of cooking, and, last but not least, how to handle a situation rather than let the situation handle you. And I've got to give props to a guy named Jim Mills, a former chef who's now the manager of the Houstonian Hotel Club and Spa, for helping me develop a deeper appreciation and understanding of foods and ingredients themselves. He also helped me cultivate a very mindful approach to culinary departmental management philosophies -- not so much operationally, but the human side of developing and managing a stronger team.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef: The grand-opening night of the Shadow Hawk clubhouse in Richmond, Texas, just outside Houston. It was October of 1999, I was the executive chef, and I had spent just over $55,000 on food for 350 people, including a $10,000, 800-pound cheeses-of-the-world display and a $7,000 caviar display with a rotating ice carving of a golf bag with clubs. The pinnacle moment, after working for 72 hours straight to get the place opened, was welcoming former President George H. W. Bush, our first member, to his new clubhouse and then celebrating the occasion by swigging back a bottle of Moët & Chandon White Star and jubilantly downing a sixteen-ounce tin of Beluga caviar back in my office.
Rules of conduct in your kitchen: I am a very process- and production-motivated matrix, which drives people crazy -- but it is what it is. I insist on organized, effortless motions and movements in the kitchen and a team that's as efficient, clean and sanitary as possible. I train my team to think about their actions and steps during a shift. How many kitchen tiles are you going to cross to accomplish how many tasks? Can you cross 100 tiles and get five things done? Ten things? Fifty things? The culinary world is not just about food and food costs; it's about efficiency and labor, which I can't stress enough. Oh, yeah...and please wash your hands. Frequently.
Favorite restaurant in America: Le Pichet, in Seattle. It serves simple and rustic French food, and the service is impeccable. On a busy Thursday afternoon, with no reservation, my wife and I went to the bar and ordered the charcuterie plate and a bottle of wine at the bartender's suggestion. Two days later, on a Saturday, again with no reservation, we got seats along the wall. The waiter came up, did his song-and-dance routine and then asked if we would like to have the same bottle of wine the bartender had suggested two days before. In a major city, on a very busy day, the bartender glanced our way and remembered us and the bottle of wine we drank. That was really cool.
Best food city in America: Worcester, Massachusetts, at my grandmother's house. We'd have Sunday dinner with cavatelli and tomato gravy with beef, sausage, veal, pork and meatballs; artichokes simmered in water, oil, parsley and garlic; veal cutlets; and chopped salad with olive oil and red wine vinegar. I also really dig the Seattle restaurant scene. Over a span of only four days, I managed to drop over $1,200 in food alone without one bad experience. I can't say the same for other cities; even the $650, sixteen-course dinner at a three-star Michelin Las Vegas hot spot couldn't compare.
Favorite dish to cook at home: Christmas dinner. We have a smorgasbord of seafood, from stuffed squid simmered in red sauce and squid salad to marinated octopus, stuffed quahogs and grilled Colorado/American rack of lamb with salt, pepper, garlic, a touch of rosemary and lemon. The lamb has been my daughter's Christmas request since she started talking, at the age of two.
Favorite salumi product: All of them, but if you force me to pick just one, I'd have to go with the vino e pepe nero. I grew up on it, and out of everything we make, it tastes most like a salami. But the Calabrese sopressata chub is a close second; I grew up on that, too.
If you could make any product, even though it wouldn't sell, what would it be? Pig's ears. For some weird reason, most people don't want to eat pig's ears. I love them.
One book that every chef should read: Kitchen Confidential, by Anthony Bourdain. He speaks very candidly about the dark sides of our industry, and it was a very real read that paralleled some of my own experiences.
What show would you pitch to the Food Network, and what would it be about? I'd pitch an extension to my cookbook, My Jeep Grille Adventures: Camp Kitchen and Cookbook. The show would be extreme adventure travel-based, with a starting point somewhere in the Deep South and a finishing point in the Pacific Northwest, with stops in New Mexico, Colorado and Moab. Each segment would involve locating a really cool local farm, ranch, product or ingredient and a local chef from that area preparing a regional dish out on the trail in the scenic backcountry. Half the fun would be in the adventure itself and four-wheeling from one destination to the next. I have a proposal put together, some sponsorship potentials and it's ready for review.
Current Denver culinary genius: According to Jon Emanuel, the exec chef of Project Angel Heart, who also did a Chef and Tell interview, that would be me, for which I'm very thankful -- but I digress. I've really enjoyed seeing what comes out of Michael Long's kitchen at Opus. His presentations are so unique -- like plates from San Francisco, Chicago or New York City. I have to give shout-outs, too, to the multitude of sous chefs, exec sous chefs and brigades of cooks -- the unsung heroes -- of independent restaurants and hotel culinary crews. They're the backbone of this industry, and not only to they support the guy whose name is embroidered on his jacket, but they're often responsible for the innovations on the plate.
You're making a hamburger. What's on it? In seventh and eighth grade, I was the kid putting together the cheeseburger stacked with all sorts of stuff -- pepperoni pizza, bacon, tater tots, ice cream, PB&J, pasta and the occasional arachnid; in other words, anything that fit in between the buns. Now it would likely be a blue cheese, bacon and foie gras burger.
Guiltiest food pleasure: A full-on twelve- or sixteen-ounce slab of foie gras, maybe with an Osetra caviar beurre blanc.
You're at the market. What do you buy two of? Six-packs of Peroni.
Best culinary tip for a home cook:Don't fear the recipe, unless it's that precise baking science stuff. Ingredients can be massaged, but technique is timeless.
If you could cook for one famous chef, dead or alive, who would it be? James Beard, but not at the James Beard House, or anywhere fancy like that. I simply read his book, Delights and Prejudices, and was inspired by his life story, which was also interspersed with various familial recipes. It's a very real and down-to-earth read. He writes about the Pacific Northwest, which mirrored my upbringing in New England in many ways.
Favorite Denver restaurant(s) other than your own: I don't get out much, and when I do, I frequent what I am comfortable with. I like Vesta Dipping Grill and Steuben's -- good folks, food and service, and fun atmosphere. The food and service are consistently good at Rioja; Elise "Spingy" Wiggins at Panzano serves great grub to dig on, especially her carbonara, which is wicked frickin' awesome, plus she's really supportive of what we're doing at Il Mondo Vecchio; TAG is a cool concept and different; and the pan-seared scallop dish at Jax rocks. I recently had an exceptional dinner at Elway's Cherry Creek, and I also really like Bones: It's great, and Frank Bonanno has done very well with that concept in particular.
Favorite celebrity chef: John Folse. He wrote the encyclopedia of Cajun cooking, and he's just a good person, not to mention inspiring. My plan is to emulate the success he's achieved and continues to achieve.
Celebrity chef who should shut up: Bobby Flay. He just annoys the piss out of me.
What's your favorite knife? An inexpensive scimitar that I bought from George at Brothers Cutlery; he'll give you a deal if you mention my name. It's a great knife that gets the job done. I can dice 250 pounds of Boston butts in about twelve minutes. Trust me: You won't cut any quicker or better with some expensive, fancy-schmancy knife.
Hardest lesson you've learned: Making it through my teens and twenties and getting out of south Florida alive. Let's just say I've built up a tolerance.
What's next for you? Outside of global salumi domination, what else is there? Actually, there is one thing: I want to cruise Baja in my jeep.
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.