Pete List, exec chef of Beatrice & Woodsley, on handling customer complaints, the pitfalls of social-network review sites and the feathers that flew in his kitchen
"If I could get away with putting shit on a shingle, I would." Pete List, the executive chef of Beatrice & Woodsley, is reminiscing about growing up in a family of formidable home cooks, who had no qualms about serving "shit on a shingle" -- military slang for creamed chipped beef on toast, a dish that List, who also admits to a fetish for bread pudding, pot roast and slow-cooked meats, says was a dinner-table ritual. "We had chipped beef on toast once a week, on Sundays. It was a typical Sunday supper," he says.
Several of the dishes he cooks at Beatrice & Woodsley to reflect the food of his youth -- at least until he turned sixteen, and his parents gave him the boot. "I was an obnoxious, rebellious kid and had my fair share of childhood problems, so my parents kicked me out," confesses List, who trudged his butt up to Keystone, where he got his first dose of restaurant life by diving into the dish pit and then climbing his way up to pantry. "While I was working pantry, I discovered I had a natural ability to cook, and that's when the whole kitchen thing took hold," he says.
He eventually moved back Boulder -- "I didn't like living in employee housing," he confesses -- and made amends with his parents, then got serious about his career, snagging a job as a line cook at the long-gone European Cafe, where he worked alongside Radek Cerny, who now owns L'Atelier, for five years, before heading down to Denver as the opening sous chef of Papillon Cafe, which Cerny opened in 1996 and shuttered in 2002. "Radek was very particular about his standards for food, and he had a very defined vision of what he wanted his food to be, and to his credit," says List, "he's never wavered from that."
He learned a thing or two from Cerny, too, including temper control. "Radek can be one of those chefs who flies off the handle and screams and yells, and because of that, I've never been a yeller or screamer -- and I've never thrown anything out of frustration or anger," says List. Instead, when his blood begins to boil, he steps off the line. "I can count on one hand, in the three years I've been here, the number of times I've raised my voice," he notes, "and when I do raise my voice, there's a damn good reason, and people listen."
After four years at Papillon, List listened to his own inner voice, which told him that it was time for a change, so he stuffed his bags and headed for Chicago. "My brother already lived there, and I wanted to try my hand in a big city," explains List, who spent seven years in the Windy City, doing time on the line at a "succession of restaurants that began with the letter 'S.'"
He was becoming a success, working at some of the better restaurants in the city, when his father passed away. "I packed a suitcase and headed home to Boulder to help my mom," recalls List. While pondering his next gig, Jim Cohen, the chef/owner of Pizzeria da Lupo in Boulder, was just beginning construction on the Empire, his restaurant in Louisville, and he enlisted List to assist with the demolition, while also helping out in the kitchen. "I was getting by," says List.
But then he heard about a chef position at a restaurant that would soon open in Denver: Beatrice & Woodsley. "After many tastings and interviews at Beatrice and Woodsley, we came to the conclusion that it was a good fit -- and it continues to be a good fit," says List, who, in the following interview, talks about handling customer complaints, the pitfalls of social-network review sites and the feathers that flew in his kitchen.
Six words to describe your food: Creative, thought-provoking, original, grounded, global and evolving.
Ten words to describe you: Shy, funny, thoughtful, even-tempered, quiet, down-to-earth, reserved, focused, conflicted, and young at heart.
Best recent food find: Fresh chamomile. It adds a touch of summer whenever you use it.
Favorite ingredient: Fresh huckleberries. They have, all at the same time, a tartness, sweetness and earthiness to them that makes them unique and versatile. Unfortunately, they have a short growing season, and they're hard to get. Needless to say, when I can get them, I get them all.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: Goat-milk yogurt from Ugly Goat Milk Company in Elizabeth. The owner, Michael, makes it in small batches for me, and it gets better every time. His milk and ricotta are excellent, as well.
Most overrated ingredient: The heavy use of chemicals that are being used these days to change the composition of food. In the hands of someone skilled, chemicals work well and make sense, but the problem is that it's become a fad, and too many chefs are using them just so can they can say that they've done so. I'm a bit old school and tend to do things the old-school way. If it ain't broke...
Most underrated ingredient: I actually have two: salt and acid, which go hand in hand. I often find that if food tastes a little flat, a pinch of salt or a few drops of the proper acid will do wonders. I find this to be particularly true in baking and pastry, where salt is often the forgotten piece of the pie. It's not a revelation -- just a personal pet peeve.
Favorite spice: L'espelette. I could be accused of overusing this spice, which adds subtle heat and a bit of smokiness and sweetness that's wholly unique to this one specific spice.
One food you detest: I'm not a fan of okra. I'll cook with it, and I pickle it, but I just can't eat it. It's the snot factor: Slimy food just doesn't resonate with me, and the more you work it, the worse it gets. The stuff makes me gag.
Favorite music to cook by: It depends on the time of day. During prep, I lean toward bluegrass, which drives my cooks nuts. During service, old-school metal is always good, because it keeps me focused, happy and energetic.
Rules of conduct in your kitchen: I'm relatively laid back. What I do require is for people to be on time and ready to work. Respect for co-workers, both front- and back-of-the-house, is of paramount importance. We have a small kitchen and a small staff, so mutual respect is required. Aside from that, always cook with passion and purpose and work clean. And taste, taste, taste.
Biggest kitchen disaster: A long time ago, when I was cooking at the European café in Boulder, I was working lunch, and when I came in to open, the first thing I did was turn on the hood fan. There was this horrible grinding noise, and then a second or so later -- poof! There were feathers everywhere, not to mention blood and bones. The clean-up was awesome. I thought it was a freak occurrence, until two or three weeks later, when it happened again, this time right before service. It seems that the birds were nesting in the fan intake, and every so often, one would get sucked in.
What's never in your kitchen? Chicken, beef or fish bases, bouillon powder, or any kind of paste. I refuse to use that stuff; it's a shortcut that, in my humble opinion, is unnecessary and lazy. Build flavors from the beginning, let them develop over time and you'll have a better product every time.
What's always in your kitchen? Spoons. Every station has them in copious amounts: big ones for tasting, smaller ones for quenelles and even smaller ones just to be a pain-in-the-ass. I'm lost without my spoons.
How do you handle customer complaints -- and what should customers do when they're peeved about a dish? When a guest has an issue with the food, I'll go out of my way to make it right. Mistakes happen, and the guest has the right to request that their food be prepared to their liking. Where I run into issues is when there's a complaint, and the customer has already finished his food, or when it's something that can't be changed or fixed to the guest's liking. There are some people you just can't make happy. If you've got a food complaint, let your server know as soon as you can -- and please be polite: The server didn't cook your food. You can be certain that we'll do our best to fix it, but being an asshole in a full dining room solves nothing, and it can ruin the experience of everyone around you...not to mention how it makes you look.
What are your thoughts on social review websites, like Yelp, Opentable.com, and Urbanspoon? Everyone is entitled to their opinion. Some people are better at giving it than others, however. It gets to the point where the reviews often don't really reflect the restaurant, or even the reviewer's actual experiences. Everyone has the freedom to post their opinions, but it's very difficult for us, as restaurants, to respond: That just opens a new can of worms. Here's what I'd like to tell people: Give us the opportunity to make it right at the time you're actually having dinner or brunch with us before posting a negative review. By and large, I've just quit reading social review websites. All too often, they make me mad.
Biggest compliment you've ever received: I've had a couple of marriage proposals, but mostly, the best compliment I ever want is returning guests and people who leave happy and satisfied.
What's the best food- or kitchen-related gift you've been given? A few years ago, the kitchen staff got me a Peugeot pepper mill. It's something that I use every day and keep in my knife kit. It's not an expensive or extravagant gift, but it's one I appreciate immensely.
Best tip for a home cook: Whenever possible, use only fresh, quality ingredients. The difference in even the simplest dishes is worth the extra price.
What's your favorite knife? I have a big-ass Dexter cleaver that's known in the kitchen as "Dex." It's a gateway knife, and I only use it when I'm breaking down a whole animal, which leads to many more knives.
Your last supper: That's a tough one. Foie gras to start, and maybe some good bread, followed by a perfectly roasted veal chop with chanterelle mushrooms and Palisade peaches; or a ginormous bowl of ice cream and a Quattro shot of espresso; or a perfectly built BLT, along with the ice cream and espresso, of course.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Denver dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.