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Part two: James Van Dyk, exec chef of Lucky's Cafe, weighs in on vegans and the missing fish

Part two: James Van Dyk, exec chef of Lucky's Cafe, weighs in on vegans and the missing fish
Lori Midson

James Van Dyk Lucky's Cafe 3980 Broadway, Boulder 303-444-5007

This is part two of my chat with James Van Dyk, exec chef of Lucky's Cafe in Boulder. Part one of our interview ran in this space yesterday.

Favorite restaurant in America: Just one: Momofuku Ssäm Bar in New York. David Chang's food is right up my alley, and he's managed to strike a perfect balance of modern and classical technique in his execution and marriage of Eastern and Western ingredients.

Favorite Denver/Boulder restaurant(s) other than your own: Frasca Food and Wine in Boulder. Those boys are pros. Bobby Stuckey has never put a wine in front of me that wasn't extraordinary, and the food is simple and perfectly executed. I'm also really liking Oak at Fourteenth and Fruition, as well. I love the passion that both of these restaurants convey -- a passion that's translated onto each plate. They clearly have well-trained staff members.

Favorite cheap eat in Denver: Dim sum. I love to graze. Top honors go to Star Kitchen.

What you'd like to see more of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: More ethnic foods. I grew up on the East Coast and was surrounded by ethnic neighborhoods. I wish there was more of an international dining scene in Boulder. I'd also like to see more seafood restaurants in town, but I don't know if that can happen, because all of the fish are gone. We're depleting our seas, because everyone is tapping into the same thing. I thought it would happen eventually, but not this quickly. You call up your purveyors and they have three varieties of salmon, some tilapia and striped bass and some varieties from Hawaii, but it's not like to used to be in terms of choices and varieties.

What you'd like to see less of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: Vegans. I jest, in part, but I don't like militant vegans. There's an element within that group that feels a need to be unnecessarily forceful when they push their views. I have a hard time respecting that, even though some of their arguments are compelling. Their needs are important to address -- we all want to please our guests and do the best possible job -- but when it's at the expense of other guests, it can get frustrating. Nonetheless, I have great friends who are vegans.

Best thing about cooking in Boulder: I've been kicking around this area so long that I've been able to build great relationships with my purveyors and regular customers. Building those relationships takes time, but I've made a lot of good friends along the way that keep me here. Ultimately, though, the best thing about cooking in Boulder is all about living in Colorado: the mountains, the weather, just the beauty of it.

Most memorable meal you've ever had: There have been so many, but Le Bernardin would be at the top of my list. It's amazing yet simple food, and the service is seamless. There really is a difference between professional and seamless service, but it's hard to properly explain it.

 

Most humbling moment as a chef: During my externship in San Francisco, I worked the opening of Maxwell's Plum, an incredibly popular restaurant that generated four stars from Craig Claiborne, then the critic at the New York Times. On opening night, I worked the line between Jean LaFont and François Soyer, two of the greatest French chefs to have graced these shores. We served a twelve-course dinner for 600 people, and they treated me as a fellow chef. There is nothing more humbling than that.

I would later work again with these chefs in Texas after graduating from the CIA. LaFont was from a long lineage of chefs in France and knew classical French cooking like no other chef I have ever met. His grandfather had authored some important culinary books in France, and he always said that any chef who thought they "invented" a new dish was wrong and that it had all had been done before. François Soyer was immersed in the Nouvelle French school of food, and we -- his crew -- always said he loved the taste of blood. At any given time, we had various kinds of wild game hanging in the saucier walk-ins, and every kind of organ meat you could imagine. He also had a love for seafood. We would receive fresh deliveries every couple of days from France, and in the year I was there, I counted eighty different water creatures that came through our kitchen. Where have all the fish gone?

Biggest compliment you're ever received: "You know how to make food taste good," a few words of praise from chef and cookbook author Marion Cunningham, in 1986. That said, it's truly a compliment whenever a customer walks through the front door of your establishment.

What's the best food- or kitchen-related gift you've been given? It's going to sound silly, but during twenty years of eating sushi with my wife, I've always commented on how cool those tin nori boxes are. Last year my wife gave me one for my birthday.

What are your favorite wines and/or beers? Silver Patrón and Heineken, but in a pinch, a Vieux Telégraphe Châteauneuf du Pape 2005.

One book that every chef should read: The Art of Eating, by M.F.K. Fisher. She was the greatest food writer of all time -- almost like Steinbeck in her prose, in that you can nearly smell what she's writing about. When she describes biting into a slice of sweet buttered pumpernickel bread and chasing it down with a briny oyster, for example, doesn't your mouth just salivate? I also really like On Food and Cooking, by Harold McGee, for its fundamentals. He teaches us to ask why, which is so important and yet so overlooked.

Best recipe tip for a home cook: Have all of your ingredients ready before you start, use all your senses, and listen to your pan.

What's your biggest pet peeve? Cooks who don't taste.

If you could cook in another chef's kitchen, whose would it be? It would have to be with Ferran Adrià. What an education.

 

Favorite celebrity chef: David Chang. He's doing some really important work, especially with his publication Lucky Peach, which is so well done and so well written. I'm lucky enough to have a signed copy of the first issue. In the second issue, the piece on ike jime was mind-boggling. It's just great stuff. I have to also give props to Shaun Brock, Nathan Myhrvold and, of course, Alice Waters. Brock's work with seed preservation is so important; Myhrvold's books on modern cooking are works of art that will be considered classics for generations; and Alice is just a goddess who led the way for my generation.

Celebrity chef who needs a muzzle: Rachael Ray. I'm sure she means well.

Culinary heroes: Fernand Point, Ferran Adrià, Paul Bocuse, Jiro Ono and Yoshihiro Murata.

Are you affected by reviews at all? What's your opinion on food writers and social review sites like Yelp, OpenTable and Urbanspoon? Of course I'm affected, but those social-review sites attract haters, by and large.

Greatest accomplishment as a chef: Opening the Gateway Cafe, the restaurant my wife and I had in Lyons. A good restaurant is like putting on your favorite pair of jeans, and at Gateway, we tried to achieve that level of comfort, familiarity and ease. We did great food there. Receiving a work visa to chef in Japan was a feather in the hat, especially since it was the very first working visa issued to an American chef. It was 1987, and it took seven months and two lawyers to make it happen. I have no idea what the lawyers said that got me in, but they did, and I stayed in Japan for four years.

What's next for you? I would love to teach again some day, but I'm in a good place right now.


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