Robert Alfaro, chef of Atticus: "You have to wash the grime off and come back swinging the bat"
1125 East Evans Avenue
This is part two of my interview with Robert Alfaro, chef of Atticus; part one of our interview ran yesterday.
What do you enjoy most about your craft?
Making people happy with good, wholesome food. Happiness comes from seeing a smile or someone telling me that their food was great. That's always a fulfilling thing to hear, and likely one of the reasons I've been in this craft for so long. That said, you have to accept the criticism and negative comments as well. If a customer is unhappy, your ability to keep them smiling is another art.
What are the most challenging aspects of being a chef?
Trying to balance a family life of five kids and an amazing wife, who has a job and does everything else while I work long chef's hours. She also has to cope with me talking about the demands of running a kitchen or two, but this career is what it is. It changes daily, and you have to wash the grime off and come back swinging the bat every day.
What piece of advice would you give to an aspiring chef?
Learn patience, because patience is interrupted by all kinds of things every day. You have to learn to adjust, be patient and work things out calmly and smoothly.
What skills and attributes do you look for when hiring kitchen staff?
Confidence, culinary skills and abilities, efficient knife skills and people who can take a joke. Kitchens are high-stress, and laughter is a good way to break the pressure.
Kitchen rule you always adhere to:
Food temperature and sanitation are both extremely important. We're responsible for monitoring our cooks and staff and explaining to them the importance of hand-washing, what to clean our cutting surfaces and utensils with, and teaching them to cook or heat food properly. The food you're serving needs to be thought of as something you would serve your grandmother.
Kitchen rule you're not afraid to break:
Pushing the rules of food pairing and allowing creativity -- and input -- from the kitchen staff so that the styles of cooking can vary.
Would you ever send a dish back if you were dining in a friend's restaurant?
I wouldn't send it back, but I would tell them what I thought. If it's my friend, he or she should understand that I'm trying to be helpful and not hurtful. I would expect the same from them. We strive to sell the same plate to everyone, and believe me: Criticism can come from anyone.
Weirdest customer request:
I love the people that get the plain, unseasoned burgers for their dogs. There was a lady at LoHi SteakBar who fostered dogs, and if they were sick or on their way to a new home, she would stop at the restaurant and buy them a steak.
Favorite dish on your menu:
Our butcher's choice, which is three different meats or seafood. It gives me the chance to create three simple dishes all on one plate, and I like offering different experiences in small portions to showcase our food.
What dish would you love to put on your menu, regardless of how well it would sell?
Tacos de lengua, or beef-tongue tacos. It really doesn't fit our menu, but maybe I can put it on a secret menu, available only by word of mouth.
If you could make one request of Denver diners, what would it be?
Don't be so fussy; ask questions before you order so you're not surprised by what you're getting, and if the wording on your menu isn't clear, ask your server to explain.
What do you expect from a restaurant critic?
I expect a critic to be honest about their experiences and give us honest feedback, both negative and positive. We look at the comments and see if we can adjust the food or service to make it better. And serving a critic is just like serving a normal diner. I don't like it when servers come back and tell me that the owner or a friend or a critic is in the house. Everyone deserves the same high quality, no matter who it us.
What's your biggest pet peeve?
Picky people. We can only do so much to try to accommodate guests, and some people just aren't ever satisfied.
Your best traits:
I'm a family man, which grounds me and makes me honest.
Your worst traits:
Loathing picky people and a low tolerance for stupidity. If you don't have the knowledge to talk about a subject, then don't talk about it.
Which talent do you most wish you had?
I'd like to work more with pulled sugar and learn the artistry of sugar-making. I've played around with it, but I'd love to put more time into learning more about it.
Best recipe tip for a home cook:
Just continue to keep trying new things, and if something doesn't work the first time, keep at it until you feel it's right. Try different recipes, herb or spice combinations and different measurement variations to achieve what you're looking for. Persistence pays off.
If you had the opportunity to open your own restaurant with no budget constraints, what kind of restaurant would you open?
A place where I could have my family by my side, some boats, fishing rods, sun and a cabin off the beach, where we could sell tourists their chingadera tacos -- and sell the real deal to the locals.
If you could have dinner, all expenses paid, at any restaurant in the world, where would you go?
I tried out for Hell's Kitchen once -- I wanted a taco shop in Mexico. And to be honest, if I could dine anywhere, all expenses paid, I'd want beachside fish tacos in Mexico.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef:
The number of restaurants I've had the privilege of being a part of, whether it's a place I've designed or opened. The time I've spent doing what I love -- that's the biggest accomplishment.
Biggest moment of euphoria in the kitchen:
Opening day of Traditions Family Restaurant, the restaurant my wife and I opened on our own in 2006. Opening your own restaurant is the biggest dream of any chef, and unlocking the door for the first time and waiting for customers is exhilarating.
What's been your worst disaster in the kitchen?
Nothing too disastrous -- just the normal hand cuts, burns, small fires, fire-extinguisher cleanups, larger fires, and employees not showing up for work the day you open. Chefs know that no day is ever the same.
Biggest mistake a chef can make on the line:
Yelling or cursing at employees if something's wrong or you're in the heat of the rush; it always leads to no good. I like to build up my staff, not break them down. We have a lot of expectations of line cooks, dishwashers, etc., and to me, it's better to discuss situations that need to be addressed when we're in a calm environment.
Craziest night in the kitchen:
The first Saturday night we were open at Atticus, which also happened to be the first night of Denver Restaurant Week.
It's your night off and you're starving. What's your go-to quick fix?
Taco Bell. It's just one of those greasy favorites I grew up with that's continued to stick around.
If you could dress any way you want, what would you wear in the kitchen?
Shorts and a T-shirt, year-round. It's so hot in the kitchen, and while I've lived in all sorts of different climates, the kitchen is always the same: hot.
What's one thing that people would be surprised to know about you?
At one time I was a clown, performing mostly for children's birthday parties. I also dressed as the Easter Bunny and Santa Claus.
Last meal before you die:
I'm half Mexican, and I crave our family taco night. At least once a week, my family fries taco shells, tostada shells or tortilla chips, makes pintos and our version of what my kids know as "old lady" rice. I was raised near a Latino urban support system called the League of United Latin American Citizens -- it was on my grandparents' land -- and there were these old Spanish ladies who would sell their food on weekends, at funerals or weddings or whatever, and the rice was amazing. I covet some of the recipes I learned from them.
What's next for the Denver dining scene?
Reconnecting families with food and family recipes; simple, back-to-the-basics cooking; and hopefully family-style dinners, plate-passing-and-praying meals, the kind where families all sit down together with the kids and just enjoy spending time together.
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