Patrick Horvat, exec chef of Venue, on silly chemicals, egos and being "Master Frodo"
This is part one of my interview with Patrick Horvat, executive chef of Venue.
Most chefs are quirky -- or at least have quirks -- and Patrick Horvat, the executive chef of Venue, is no exception. Horvat is obsessed with argyle socks, and admits to shoving a pair on his feet every day. And you can't help but notice, because his pants -- today they're khakis -- are always rolled up. "I've got a bunch of argyle socks," confesses Horvat, who rides his bike to work every day and figures, why not give people something to look at while he's dodging in and out of traffic?
But while his socks are certainly a conversation piece, Horvat would rather focus on cooking. Born in Cleveland, he was one of four kids, and his parents both worked in restaurants to supplement their income, or, as Horvat puts it, "to make some extra cash to keep us all in private schools." Horvat attended a small, private liberal arts college in Ohio, but during his freshman year, his dad gave him an ultimatum: Get your act together or else. Horvat took the "or else" route and ended up at Cleveland State University -- and cooking at night at a local restaurant where he was once a dish mutt. "The chef asked me if I wanted to learn how to cook, and since I didn't have any other direction, I was like, sure, why not?" recalls Horvat. "I loved the energy and action on the line, and cooking was a hell of a lot more interesting than washing dishes." By the time he left, more than two years later, he'd worked every station.
And then, when he turned 21, he took off to Vail for a ski vacation, went back to Ohio, didn't show up for work -- "It's the only time I was a no-call, no-show," says Horvat -- and instead packed his bags. "I needed to get out of Ohio -- Cleveland, in particular, and I wanted to go culinary school at Johnson & Wales, so I moved to Denver," recounts Horvat, who graduated from the classroom in 2007 -- and immediately started doing time on the line.
"I got a job at the Grand Hyatt as a line cook, but the corporate scene wasn't my deal, so I left after six months and got a job cooking with James Mazzio at Via Trattoria, an Italian restaurant downtown," remembers Horvat, who stuck around until Via shuttered. He then spent nearly two years as a line cook at Il Posto while simultaneously tapping into the prepared-foods arena at Marczyk Fine Foods. But working two jobs was exhausting, so when he saw a "sous chef wanted" Facebook post from James Rugile, the former executive chef of Venue, Horvat got on the horn. "I staged there for three or four days, and James offered me the job," says Horvat, who was promoted to the exec-chef position when Rugile left last year to work with Frank Bonanno.
"We're really turning the corner and dialing in our food, and we're getting a lot of good response and return customers, which is awesome," says Horvat, who in the following interview weighs in on wieners without beans, his competitive gardening streak and why potatoes are like gold nuggets.
Six words to describe your food: Seasoned to taste and cooked with love. More to the point -- and more than six words: It's crucial to taste your food as you're seasoning it. I try to stress the importance of tasting every dish Venue puts out -- otherwise, why even cook? I know it seems like a simple concept, but sometimes even the simplest things are overlooked, and that can be disastrous in this business. I try to emphasize how important it is to cook your food with love and respect. Treat the ingredients with the respect and love that they deserve, and your guests will taste the difference.
Ten words to describe you: Husband, friend, honest, loyal, ball-buster, dreamer, jokester, passionate, laid-back and carless. And, yes, that's carless, not careless.
Favorite ingredient: Anything grown in my own back yard, in Jake, my sous chef's back yard, or in the back yard of Adam, one of our servers. We're all kind of nutty -- and very competitive -- about gardening and growing vegetables, so it's always fun to try different veggies that come from each other's gardens, plus they're super-fresh and grown with pride. And the look on a gardener's face when he sees someone else enjoying what he grew and harvested himself is priceless. It all goes back to the cooking-with-love idea; gardening follows much of the same lines.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: Verde Farms microgreens. Josh Halder and Adam Atencio do amazing things down at their farm in Larkspur, and their micros add amazing color and flavor to many of the dishes on our menu. Our kitchen crew had the chance to check out their operation last spring, and it was really cool to see firsthand how it all goes down, plus Josh and Adam are super-down-to-earth and knowledgeable. They answered a ton of questions for us, which was great.
Best recent food find: Banh mi at Ba Le Sandwich on South Federal. These things are amazing, with their crusty French bread, awesome pickled vegetables and endless array of meats to choose from. As an added bonus, they're around three bucks -- that's a deal -- and the deli usually has some sort of weird fruit drink that I've never heard of.
Favorite spice: I was recently given a traditional Saudi Arabian house-spice blend by a friend of my sister-in-law, who came to my house and cooked us a traditional Saudi dinner. He brought his family's spice blend with them, and I'm telling you, this stuff is off the hook. It's got coriander, turmeric, cardamom, cinnamon and black pepper. I know I'm missing a few more spices, but this stuff was just so intense and rich -- words really can't do it justice. Besides the flavor, the history behind the blend adds so much more to the story, and the fact that his family has passed that spice recipe down for hundreds of years -- that's pretty awesome.
Most overrated ingredient: Silly chemicals. Chefs are trying to get way too crazy with all that silly molecular gastro shit, and while some of that stuff has its place, for the most part I feel like chefs are trying to squeeze it onto menus in unnatural ways.
Most underrated ingredient: Potatoes. I'm Irish, German, Polish and Czech -- and I'm from Ohio -- so meat and potatoes were a staple in my house. That said, I'm still amazed at how many different ways they can be used in the professional kitchen -- plus, digging them out of the dirt is pretty awesome; it's kind of like finding nuggets of gold buried beneath the soil.
One food you detest: Eggplant. It's the combination of texture and flavor. The eggplant and I just never hit it off.
One food you can't live without: Dill pickle spears. I just love them, always have and always will. There really is nothing better than the balance of salt and vinegar, the freshness of the dill and the crisp of the spear.
Rules of conduct in your kitchen: Come ready to work, and respect your fellow cooks, your ingredients and your equipment. I don't yell and scream in the kitchen -- that's not my style -- so it's important that everybody works well together and respects each other. At Venue we're a team, and we all strive to achieve the same goals: Put out good food in a timely fashion, work smart and work hard.
Biggest kitchen disaster: In my first professional kitchen, I was changing the deep-fryer oil and had the old oil sitting in pots on the range. I thought it had cooled enough during the thirty minutes I'd spent cleaning the fryer, but I was wrong: I was outside when both jugs ruptured and a shower of hot fryer oil began to blast both my ankles. Luckily it was winter in Cleveland, and the spilled oil congealed rather quickly in the snow on the patio, so the immediate cleanup was relatively mild. But when the snow finally melted in May, the true damage to the patio was obvious, so I spent a good few days scrubbing the crap out of that patio with a deck brush and degreaser before my shift. I think I ended up renting a power washer, and it was still never the same. Lesson learned there.
What's never in your kitchen? An ego. I try and make sure that everyone stays modest and grounded -- and understands that there's always more to learn in the world of cooking; you'll never know everything. And everyone understands that we all make mistakes. Just make sure that you learn from them and don't make them again.
What's always in your kitchen? A radio or music-making device. I love music; it goes hand-in-hand with food. It's great when you're prepping for service, it can set the tone during service, and it's a nice bonus when you're cleaning up after service. Music brings people together much like food: A kitchen without music is like wieners without beans.
What do you cook at home that you never cook at the restaurant? I usually don't get too involved with cooking at home. I'll make quick and easy things like grilled bratwurst and sausages. We don't have a grill in the kitchen at Venue, however, so I fire mine up at home whenever I get the chance.
Favorite food from your childhood: My mom's lemon meringue pie. It's my dad's favorite dessert, so she always made it for his birthday, which is in July. Not only was the pie awesome, but it brings back great memories: enjoying the pie on the patio behind our house on a muggy July night; watching fireflies going off like crazy in the backyard; being allowed to stay up late because it was the summer and Dad's birthday; and, best of all, we were all hopped up on sugar.
Favorite dish on your menu: The hanger-steak beef stew with smashed new potatoes. It reminds me of something my mom would have made, something that I probably ate a hundred times growing up, and something that I still love now. It's simple, straight-up, no-nonsense, hearty Midwestern cuisine, and it's killer with the cold weather creeping up.
Weirdest customer request: I had an interesting fellow come up to me at a kitchen in Cleveland calling me "Master Frodo." The Lord of the Rings movies were just coming out, and I guess he thought I looked like Frodo. I vividly remember him coming up to the pass and saying, "Whatever fare Master Frodo wishes to cook for me, he may. I am his loyal servant." I looked at my chef, who shrugged and said, "Cook him whatever you want." The weird part was that he sat at a table that had a direct view to the kitchen, and I don't think he ever took his eyes off the kitchen -- not once. It was kinda creepy.
Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: Barbecued duck feet from China Jade on South Federal.
Last meal before you die: A grilled cheese sandwich with American and bacon, a bowl of my wife's tomato soup, a can of Newcastle, "Sugaree," by the Grateful Dead, blasting on the radio, and my wife by my side.
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