Pete Ryan from Cook Street School of the Culinary Arts dishes on fat wallets, fair wages and mediocrity
Pete Ryan, executive chef/instructor at Cook Street School of Culinary Arts
Cook Street School of Culinary Arts
1937 Market Street
After a fifteen-month pan-pounding stint at Z Cuisine, in March Pete Ryan became the executive chef/instructor at Cook Street School of Culinary Arts, a move that brought him back to the institution where he'd been a student in the inaugural class of 1999. "I had just moved here from New Jersey and was driving by the school one day and saw the 'coming soon' sign, so I came inside, met Michael Comstedt, the school's director, and a couple of beers later, I had signed up for the program," recalls Ryan, who nearly didn't became a chef at all.
"I got out of high school and had no idea what I wanted to do, but my dad was a Marine and a Massachusetts state cop, so I figured I'd follow in the Ryan tradition and go into the service," he says. But Ryan's best friend made him think twice about that. "I'd gone through all the testing, and everything was ready to go," he remembers, "when my buddy asked me what the hell I was doing, and I just looked at him and said I had no idea." So Ryan walked into the recruiter's office, announced that he'd changed his mind and then broke the news to his dad. "He flipped out and told me that I had to go to college," says Ryan, who attended the University of Massachusetts at Lowell -- and then got the boot with only seven credits left before graduation.
"My mom told me that if you learn how to cook, you can always find work and you'll never go hungry, so I cooked in a nursing home for a while and then moved to Denver and enrolled in the Cook Street program," says Ryan. He graduated on a Friday -- and was offered a stove gig at the school less than a week later. "I was the kitchen bitch," he quips. "I was hired to work twenty hours a week, but I volunteered for another forty and eventually invented a job for myself. I didn't want to leave. I refused to leave." Ryan began teaching recreational cooking classes and became a certified chef de cuisine through the American Culinary Federation.
Seven years later, in 2007, he finally left Cook Street to become a full-time, diploma-seeking student at the University of Colorado Denver. "I got a degree in communications because it was easy, cheap and quick," says Ryan, who graduated first in his class. He contemplated returning to Cook Street then, but instead took a job at Z Cuisine, a job that lasted until he got a tip that the school was hiring a faculty member. "I heard a rumor that one of the instructors had left, and a few weeks later, I was back where I started," Ryan says.
In the interview that follows, Ryan talks more about his journey from student to teacher, his favorite restaurant in the world and fair salaries for the kitchen bitch.
Six words to describe your food: Flavorful, fundamental, correct, grounded, seasoned and inspirational.
Ten words to describe you: Forward, confident, tall, humble, fair, honest, superstitious, knowledgeable, lucky and patient.
Culinary inspirations: The farmers and artisans in Colorado really inspire me to respect their hard work, and I try to do the best that I can with their products. And the students that I've taught over the years who wished to learn how to cook and, more important, how to eat and drink better for the rest of their lives, have inspired me, too. When you take a class here and walk out saying that you really learned how to drink and eat well, I'm inspired.
Favorite ingredient: Wine. It's the most complex "ingredient" out there, and most people don't realize or appreciate how important it can be in enjoying a meal, reliving a moment or creating a memory. Wine elevates a dish, helps to balance flavors, encourages conversation and sometimes loosens buttons.
Best recent food find: Dave Bravdica's Brava Pizza cart in the courtyard next to Lannie's Clocktower Cabaret. He uses fresh local ingredients prepared simply, beautifully and deliciously.
Most overrated ingredient: A fat wallet. You don't need to buy the most expensive ingredients to cook well. Sure, exotic ingredients are great, boutique salts have their place, and funky spices are sometimes cool, but if you rely on them too much to make your food taste good, then you, as a chef, are missing the boat. Olive oil made by blind nuns during a full moon in October is great -- just not on everything.
Most undervalued ingredient: Common sense. I know it sounds silly, but some people/cooks just don't have it. If something is boiling and it shouldn't be, turn it down; if it's not wholesome, throw it out; and if something smells like it's burning, then guess what? It probably is.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: Microgreens from Verde Farms. We used everything from pea shoots to radish greens all the time at Z Cuisine. The peppery baby arugula is gorgeous and packs a punch, and the baby beets and fine herbs were always used to complement our dishes by adding some serious yet simple garnish to the plate.
One food you detest: I don't detest anything, but I'm not crazy about salmon. I'll eat it here and there, and I love the salmon "crack" candy at the Whole Foods fish counter, but for the most part, it's not prepared well in the real world.
One food you can't live without: Ketchup and mayonnaise. I'll put ketchup on anything -- it's my go-to condiment -- and I'll put mayonnaise on a pizza with a little Cholula...or ketchup.
Rules of conduct in your kitchen: Be organized, relax, concentrate and make decisions -- even if they're the wrong decisions -- and don't take yourself too seriously. I would tell my chefs: "Listen, we're gonna spend fifteen hours a day next to each other, so we'd better get along. If you can't take a joke or a little ribbing, or you think I'm an asshole -- most of them did -- then this is not going to work, so lighten up and let's get cooking."
What's never in your kitchen? A dull moment. At Cook Street, there's always something to do or talk about: Students continuously ask about the food, techniques, the region, who's doing what in local restaurants or who to stage for -- all the while producing a great meal that's paired with wine.
What's always in your kitchen? Bad food jokes -- lots of them. I also strive to give reasons for doing something -- to explain the "whys" of cooking, rather than just asking a cook to "do it." I've worked for many chefs who just barked at you to do something without explaining the task. Now, I know that while it's sometimes important to do it right now, cooks also need to be taught.
What you'd like to see more of in Denver from a culinary standpoint: I think Denver, for what it is, is doing great. Hell, we've even got James Beard chefs running around. How about we start paying our cooks a fucking fair wage? A young buck just out of culinary school should make a fair salary, but way, way too many restaurants exploit their staff. If you work hard and work a lot, at least pay your kitchen staff enough money to make their rent. It's pathetic how little cooks get paid.
What you'd like to see less of in Denver from a culinary standpoint: Acceptance of a lousy performance by a restaurant. Everything counts in the hospitality industry, but a lot of diners just accept mediocrity. They'll go out to dinner, shrug and say it was just okay, but then they'll go back again. That needs to change.
Favorite cookbooks: Larouse Gastronomique to reference culinary fundamentals; Karen MacNeil's The Wine Bible to make better sense of grapes; and the Culinaria series to better understand regional, historical, geographical and cultural influences on food and wine.
What show would you pitch to the Food Network? Kind of a play on Steve Martin's Picasso at the Lapin Agile, except instead of Einstein and Picasso, I'd have Escoffier and Gordon Ramsay chat about the nature of all things culinary and maybe throw in Giada de Laurentiis as a scantily clad cocktail waitress. Elvis would still be in the show, too, but not the early Elvis: I want the pill-popping, fat-bastard lounge lizard. He would be money.
Current Denver culinary genius: My colleagues at Cook Street: chefs Dale Eiden, Lexie Justice and John Parks and Debbie Gray, our wine educator. They continue to amaze me with their passion, their dedication and their ability to inspire students to become better cooks. These three have helped to create and shape Denver's dining scene, and the proof of their genius can be found in many of Denver's best kitchens, specialty shops and markets. I am most fortunate to be working with and learning from them daily.
You're making a pizza. What's on it? I've thrown quite a few grilling pizza parties at my house, and there are always a wide variety of cool ingredients, from caramelized onions and fresh pesto to duck confit and even beef heart. I'm a huge fan of the pizza that they make in Northern Italy: thin crust, sliced boiled potatoes, speck, salt, pepper and a cracked farm egg.
You're eating a burrito. What's in it? Everything and anything, especially the shavings from that mysterious "meatsicle." You're at the market. What do you buy two of? When they have it, Abbondanza Farms' garlic bunches. They're sweet, bulbous and were always treasured at the kitchen at Z Cuisine. The patty melts that Colorado Best Beef sells are also dynamite.
What's next for you? Continuing-education classes, an advanced sommelier program from the International Sommelier Guild, which is good for my chefiness, adding a charcuterie class for the public during the dead weeks at school, taking Cook Street forward and maybe some karaoke. I've got a hankering for some "Sweet Child o' Mine."
This is the first part of Lori Midson's interview with Pete Ryan. To read part two, click here.
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