Part two with Gerard Strong, exec chef of Central Bistro & Bar
1691 Central Street
This is part two of my interview with Gerard Strong, exec chef of Central Bistro & Bar; part one of our chat ran yesterday.
Most memorable meal in Denver that you've ever had: I've had most of my top meals at Cafe Brazil. The flavors of each dish are so complex, and also very fresh and simple. The mango soup is some of the best I've ever had; everyone from the waitstaff to the chef, Tony Zarlenga, is incredibly friendly, attentive and relaxed, and the overall dining experience is wonderful.
Your five favorite Denver/Boulder restaurants other than your own: Los Carboncitos, for the al pastor tacos; Hops & Pie, for the amazing crust on the pizzas, friendly owners and great beer list; New Saigon, for the lemongrass beef bun and all of the banh mi selections at the deli; Wooden Spoon Bakery, especially for the prosciutto croissant and the energy of the place; and Z Cuisine, for the atmosphere -- plus I used to be the chef de cuisine there, so I'm a pretty big fan of the intent and approach of the Z Cuisine culinary team.
If you could change one thing about the Denver dining scene, what would it be? I came here from Seattle, where there's a very strong food community. Restaurants there don't compete; they collaborate. Everyone supports each other's restaurants, wants them to be successful and unique, and because of those things, the food community is elevated as a whole. I think this exists in circles here in Denver, but I'd love to foster more camaraderie among the chefs and restaurants in our own neighborhood, as well as the city as a whole.
What's your idea of a great dining experience? When I eat out, I want the experience to be seamless. I don't want to be aware that things are happening -- like when you start thinking about asking for the bill, and you look down and it's already there but you never noticed it. Or your wine glass is always full but you didn't see it being filled. I don't like overly chatty servers -- the best ones are like ghosts, taking care of everything without interrupting anything. I like having all my expectations met, when I'm not even sure what they are. Being pleasantly surprised is great.
What's the best compliment someone could give you? When a guest dines at Central for the first time, and then they come back, and then come back again. Making a first-timer into a regular is the best.
What recent innovation has most influenced the restaurant industry in a significant way? Fast-casual dining has certainly put a focus on speed and using somewhat elevated ingredients at a price point that's appealing to many people, but it puts undue pressure on restaurant owners and chefs to compete with this model. If you're not a fast-casual restaurant -- if you're a restaurant that's creating a more intimate food-and-drink-centered dining experience -- you sometimes get diners who, even though they know you're not that, still want food made fast.
What's your fantasy splurge? Eight weeks in Laos and Cambodia with my woman, Rebecca. We'd just eat our way through both countries, trying all the different styles and cuisines, eating from food carts and local places. And we'd relax. I'd love to have two months off -- but who ever takes that much time away?
What's the best food- or kitchen-related gift you've been given? A friend of mine who worked for a grocery store gave me a Vita-Prep, which is the most versatile piece of equipment in my kitchen. Apparently the grocery store had a closet full of them and wasn't using them, and even though I offered to buy it, he refused. I use it for sauces, soups, marinades and, well, margaritas.
What was the last cookbook you bought, and what recipes are you cooking from it? I use The Art of Living According to Joe Beef for inspiration. I've read every word of it -- and I can't say that about any other cookbook. It's laid out like a story, and the recipes are incredible and very classically French, plus there's a lot of information about creating a kitchen garden. The two owners of Joe Beef -- David McMillan and Frédéric Morin -- are self-made badasses.
What do you enjoy most about your craft? I used to be in a band and thought I'd end up playing sold-out concerts and recording albums for the rest of my life, and when that didn't work out, I wasn't quite sure where I'd end up, so being a chef in such a great kitchen is a real honor. I love that every day is unique and the learning never ends; I consider myself a culinary carpenter.
Best recipe tip for a home cook: Buy the best ingredients you possibly can. Before the modern grocery store, shopping for good food was a way of life. Markets, butchers, farmers, fishmongers and cheesemongers were crucial relationships for every family to have. Invest in fresh produce and local meat and dairy, and then don't overwork it. Let the quality of each component of your dish shine.
What's your biggest pet peeve? Having to tell someone the same thing twice; we don't have time for that in the kitchen. I really need the staff to be attentive, and if I ask you to do something, I sure as hell don't want to babysit you to make sure it gets done.
Which chef has most inspired you? There have been many, but Tom Douglas and Erika Tanaka in Seattle really stand out. I learned so much about food and the ability to take care of both employees and patrons from them, and I hope to bring that philosophy to Denver.
What piece of advice would you give to a young chef? Invest time in the kitchen and develop a great work ethic. Both are equally important and will serve you well in the years to come.
What skills and attributes do you look for when hiring kitchen staff? The ability to listen and multi-task; eagerness and curiosity.
Biggest mistake a chef can make on the line: Mishandling big issues during the middle of a service. You have to let it go in the moment and move on quickly, or things can get ugly. But always go back and address what happened so the same mistake doesn't occur again.
You're stranded on a desert island. Which chefs would you want to have with you? Jake Martin from Genoa in Portland; Adrienne Lasko of SeaTown and Etta's in Seattle; and Zach Chamberlain from Prosser Farm in Seattle. They're all my best friends, and having that much killer culinary talent on a desert island would mean we'd eat like kings. I'd also want Steve Smrstik, from Pink Door in Seattle, there, because he's my mentor.
If you could cook in another chef's kitchen, whose would it be? Francis Mallmar, author of Seven Fires, because all of his cooking is done over an open fire. My favorite type of cooking is always over an open fire and hopefully outdoors -- better yet, done while backpacking in Argentina.
If you had the opportunity to open your own restaurant with no budget constraints, what kind of restaurant would you open? I'd love to open a small, intimate restaurant with no more than forty seats -- a restaurant that would allow me to draw on my knowledge from working for talented chefs and cooks to create a very unique dining experience. I'd like to create a space where there's music, a community feel, support for local businesses and farms, and a place for cooks to come and learn. Mostly, I want to create a space where I'd like to hang out.
Describe the challenges facing today's chefs: It's incredibly hard to find balance, especially if you're in a relationship and/or have kids. Your weekends and nights are shot, and you're usually asleep when everyone else is awake. The kitchen requires everything from a chef -- creativity, time, connection, money and soul -- and even when it's closed, you still have to be there.
Biggest moment of euphoria in the kitchen: While working for the Tom Douglas Restaurant Group, we did some work with the development team of the Modernist Cuisine book. I got to know a couple of the guys, and after their book release, they came to the Palace Kitchen, where I was the sous chef. We styled the whole team out -- I think I sent out like fifteen to twenty dishes. They invited me to join them, and I had such an incredible time. It was great to share my food with such a talented group of chefs.
Craziest night in the kitchen: It was 4:45 in the afternoon at Union Pacific in New York, and the kitchen was buzzing right before service, when all of a sudden, the lights went out and no one was really sure what to do. We tried to work by candlelight and flashlight, expecting the power to return at any moment...but it never did. It was about a year after 9/11, and there was fear that it could be a terrorist attack; somehow the power was out in all of Manhattan and most of the Northeast. It wasn't a terrorist attack, of course -- just antiquated infrastructure -- but it was crazy. All of the refrigeration had gone kaput, so we spent a few hours getting creative with how we were going to save all the product. We bought as much ice as we could and opened the coolers as little as we could. The power was out for two days, and we had a hell of a time prepping the restaurant back up. Still, while it was one of the craziest nights I've ever had, the relief that came from finding out it was only a power failure had the whole city in a euphoric state.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef: Training cooks and seeing them succeed. At Z Cuisine I had great cooks, but when I started, they were so green. It was incredible to see the transition, and to be present the moment a cook truly gets it and you realize that they have the skills to be successful. They have since moved up and on to some great positions in some excellent places.
What's one thing that people would be surprised to know about you? I can sing and play guitar, and my old band had a record contract.
What's always lurking in your refrigerator? Salami, Beecher's cheddar cheese, Valencia orange juice and every Asian condiment imaginable.
If you hadn't become a chef, what would you be doing right now? Writing and playing music.
What's in the pipeline? We just launched our Whiskey Wednesdays, where we invite a distiller or ambassador into the restaurant every week to educate our guests about a specific spirit, which we pair with several small plates. We're really seeing a huge increase in the interest of American-made whiskey, so we're planning to host a handful whiskey-pairing dinners this summer and fall.
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