This is part one of my interview with Pete Marczyk. Part two of our chat will run tomorrow.
Bread head, wine geek, cheese gigolo, butter junkie. Ask Pete Marczyk, the chef and co-owner of Marczyk Fine Foods (and Marczyk Fine Wines) what moves him, and he'll point to the golden baguette, blot of Brie and smear of Plugrá butter that's his late-afternoon pick-me-up. The wine comes later, usually at home with Barbara, his wife and the market's "queen bee." The two of them met more than a decade ago at the Wynkoop Brewing Company, where Barbara was a founding partner; Pete, meanwhile, was a "garden-variety broker selling stock" at Merrill Lynch.
"Now I sell chicken stock and veal stock," quips the 45-year-old market guru, wild-mushroom stalker and unapologetically acerbic East Coaster, who was born and raised in rural western Massachusetts, where he lived on a 10,000-square-foot lot that doubled as a farm. "My mom was hard-core about buying, raising and growing good food, and we had a huge garden, fruit trees, berries and chickens and rabbits -- as pets and for food -- and it was growing up in that kind of environment that got me in this business," says Pete. "We were eating the kind of food that we're still eating and making now -- food that's local and seasonal. I'm still nostalgic for all of those tastes."
His first (and only) job in the food business before he and Barb opened their original market in 2002 (a second Marczyk's opened last summer on East Colfax) was tossing pizzas and creating soups at a pub in East Hampden, Massachusetts, a gig that also introduced him to the finesse of shucking oysters. "It was a cool job, and it gave me some foundation for what I do today. I've always been an avid cook, and food, in many ways, defines who I am," says Pete.
Still, he admits that cooking was "my avocation, not my vocation." After three summers behind the line at the pub, he went to the University of Vermont, where he "baked bread with hippies whose parents lived in communes," he recalls. After graduating, he worked in construction until he moved to Denver in 1990 to "flee from a girl."
But while he ditched the female, he never strayed far from the burners, and the whole time he was hustling stocks, he had a game plan to open a neighborhood market. "I grew up with them, and when I met Barb, we laid out a plan to build it, jumped in the deep end and never gave up, but I'm not going to lie: The first two years were really tough, and we had to retool the business," he reveals.
"There are tons of challenges, but I love working with Barb and Paul, my brother, and we have an incredible staff of really bright people and great customers, which is so incredibly gratifying," he says, then jumps up to retrieve a cart from a woman stacking groceries in her car.
When he returns, he turns his attention back to the baguette, nodding his head in approval. "Paul and I have been baking bread now for about the past eight weeks, and I'm telling you, this is good shit," he insists, tearing off a piece, smearing it with Brie and pushing it across the table. "Look, we hand-roll our pie crusts -- restaurants do that, but not markets -- we render our own lard, we're baking our own breads, we know our customers by name, our staff are rock stars, and if you want to know what really separates us from other markets, just taste the potato salad," he urges. "It's New England Saturday-afternoon-picnic potato salad, and it's amazing."
Pete ponders the baguette for another moment, assures a guy that he'll guard his bike while he goes inside to shop, and declares: "I love my job, I love the competition and the challenges, and I enjoy pushing my staff, and I enjoy getting pushed. And I really love saying 'Don't forget to feed the baby.'" He's talking about the bread starter.
In the following interview, Pete talks about his beef with parents who feed their kids food pimped by "cartoon characters," explains why he calls his staff "grinders" and sounds off on why the regulation of food makes him want to throw his baguette.
Six words to describe your food: Keep it simple. Make it great.
Ten words to describe you: Relentlessly and often unappealingly adamant, old-fashioned, passionate, enthusiastic and difficult.
What are your ingredient obsessions? I really like hard-to-get, limited or ephemeral super-local foods -- ingredients with the word "heirloom" in them, or anything that someone took the care and time to produce or forage. Ramps, really wild mushrooms, Alex Seidel's cheese, backyard honey, the little lettuces my wife grows. I love sharing passion through food and telling a story about it. I went through an Anson Mills grain kick recently; we sell them in our freezer because they're milled with bran and germ, which adds a bunch of flavor, but they spoil more readily at room temperature. I made polenta from the red trentino flint polenta integrale about two dozen times over the last few months; it tastes like sweet corn mush, and it's an absolutely incredible product. I think about food ingredients the way a lot of people think about wine: Who is the winemaker? What farming techniques are employed? Where exactly is the vineyard? What makes it special? What clones? Irrigated? Fertilized? We rarely ask these questions about our ingredients, and yet better ingredients make better food, and better farmers make better ingredients. Oh, and right now I'm obsessed with bread flour from Colorado organic hard red winter wheat. It makes some really tasty baguettes.
What are your kitchen-tool obsessions? I like simple, well-made tools that work -- things like the Robot Coupe and my Hobart mixer. They do what they say they're going to do. I also have a short list of knives that go everywhere with me. I'm literally obsessed with well-made shit.
Most underrated ingredient: Olive oil. Taste some really good olive oil, then tell me how often you get that same taste when you're at home or at restaurants. I think people generally, and unfortunately, cheap out on olive oil, but when you buy good olive oil, it's such a big bang for the buck, and it's a simple upgrade from the crap -- only pennies per portion. If you look at olive oil like you look at wine, you get it. I've heard that there's a product available which is 80/20 canola oil blended with some kind of olive oil. This is anathema to me. Buy good olive oil and use it liberally.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: I have two: fresh porcini mushrooms that I pick somewhere west of I-25 -- my specific spots are secret -- and anything grown by Elaine Granata, our local culinary superstar at Marczyk Fine Foods.
Favorite spice: I like cloves with boldly spiced carne asada and pork dishes, but a little goes a long way. Cloves are one of those spices that you can taste just a little, but still make you say, "What is that?" Bay, too, but that's a leaf that qualifies as an herb. Still, the same advice applies.
One food you detest: Breakfast for dinner; it makes me feel unfortunate, and it's just wrong. Plus, cereal and wine do not pair well.
One food you can't live without: Speck, prosciutto, guanciale, country-style ribs, bacon, ham, lard...porchetta -- wait, I know! Pork! You can do so much with pork; it's so versatile, and I'd be lost in the kitchen without it. At the markets, we use exclusively non-confinement fresh pork for all of our recipes. Taste our green chile and you'll get it.
Food trend you wish would disappear: The idea that it's okay to feed kids different food from what adults eat, which isn't a new trend, but it keeps growing. I'm appalled by the fake processed food kids eat at home in the name of convenience and mood management. Take the time to feed kids real food and eat good-quality, real wholesome food at mealtimes. Think about what you're teaching your kids by feeding them that "special" kid food with the cartoon characters on the tube. If anything, our kids should be eating better food than adults. Look at the stats on Type 2 diabetes -- almost totally environmental and totally avoidable. If you aren't outraged, then you aren't paying attention.
What you'd like to see more of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: We -- and the world -- need more neighborhood markets. I got into this business ten years ago because I was distressed by the homogenization of our ingredient choices. We're still fighting to create better local supply chains and bring better quality to our neighborhoods, but it's still way cheaper to buy mesclun that's grown, washed, packed, labeled, shipped, warehoused and re-shipped from California than it is to buy it in bulk from a farm in Brighton. We've got to get this sorted out. Charging $8 a gallon for gas would solve that.
What you'd like to see less of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: Less fear and regulation around food. Cigarettes and booze are legal, for God's sake! How bad can raw milk, salami, a rare burger or fresh mozzarella really be? Please don't even get me going on this. Smoke and drink all you want, but for Christ's sake, do not even think of keeping fully cured meat at room temperature in Denver. Our regulations are totally out of whack and designed for crappy-in-the-first-place factory food. Let's allow people to make their own decisions about what they want to eat, damn it. We know for certain that cigarettes kill hundreds of thousands of people a year -- and yet they're legal. Think of the hue and cry if the government tried to outlaw them. Well, that's exactly what's happening with food.
What are your biggest pet peeves? People who don't know their burger temperatures. Rare equals red; medium equals pink; well-done equals brown. And that leads to the notion that for food to be safe, it has to be "cooked through." Look at the USDA guidelines on cooking temps. They're basically admitting that we have a tainted food supply; it's disgusting. As a society, we're moving toward a culture of literally sterile food. I'm sorry that we live in an age when a pregnant woman is worried about eating a hamburger that's cooked medium. The whole regulatory system is designed for ConAgra and JBS Swift. They have their place, but the system is there to support them to the exclusion of small-scale producers, and it's totally jacking with our food culture in this country.
Most humbling moment as a chef: Almost anytime I eat in one of the restaurants whose "kitchen I'd like to cook in."
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Greatest accomplishment as a chef: I'm still working on it, but I'm really proud of our team, and it always amazes me to hear them talk so passionately with our customers about our food and products.
What's your dream restaurant? Simple food, dinner only, three or four dishes, open four nights a week, in Telluride.