Round three with Kelly Whitaker: "Hospitality is about serving people -- not yourself"
3601 Arapahoe Avenue, Boulder
What are your kitchen-gadget obsessions? Cryovac machines and immersion circulators. We don't have stoves or conventional ovens -- only a wood-fired oven, so we learned really quickly that if we were going to keep up with quality and consistency then we would have to have a total understanding of sous-vide cooking. I'd already experimented with it in kitchens in LA, and when I had the opportunity to work with Bruno Goussault, the inventor of sous-vide cooking, in New York, it opened my mind to the endless possibilities. Since then, it's been an integral part of our program. My next investment will be the Thermomix, a blender that can mix, knead, stir, cook and so much more. I know it sounds like a cheesy commercial, but it's the real deal.
What do you enjoy most about your craft? That it really is a craft. It's like sharpening my knife with whetstones. You have to pay attention to get the perfect edge, and it takes work every day to keep honing it. Most of the time my blade is like a flat-head screwdriver because I don't take the time I should to perfect it. There are so many things I could have done, and I feel lucky that I'm doing something that makes people happy -- that makes me happy. I love serving people through the craft I'm developing, so even if I never figure out how to cook everything there is to cook, at least I get to have an impact on our guests every day.
What's the best food- or kitchen-related gift you've been given? My wife got me my first knife bag for my birthday this year. I've been cooking professionally in great kitchens for quite a while, and I've never had a great knife bag, which actually looks more like a doctor's bag, so my team laughs at me a bit...but I love it. Before I got it, I'd literally walk into kitchens with a knife rolled up in a towel. I remember buying my first Misono knife -- that was a huge deal. I used horrible knives for so long because I never felt like I was good enough to deserve the best tools; I felt like I needed to earn them. I guess I'm going to try and be a cook now.
What was the last cookbook you bought, and what recipes are you cooking from it? A friend from California sent me the SPQR cookbook because he said it was similar to what we're doing at Basta -- modern Italian food using sous vide and other techniques to re-create old methods, like braising. There's also a great semolina gnocchi recipe that I would recommend for anyone trying it at home.
Best nugget of advice for a culinary-school graduate: Hospitality is about serving people -- not yourself. If you don't like serving people, then you shouldn't be cooking, and if you believe that cooking is about chef tattoos and crazy nights where you're going down, sandbagging scallops, and you barely get through the night and then go and drink shots of fernet at Squeaky Bean and do it again the next day, then you've succeeded in making this industry about yourself and your lifestyle. Controlling your situation by technique and organization for the guest is everything. If you use sous vide and produce the same lamb every single night and you know it's perfect, then you're now serving the guest, not yourself. It's not like sweating over a grill and pushing on your thumb to see if it's medium or not -- it's about whether you're going to produce the consistency your guests deserve. I never got a job by being a great cook. Every position I've had was based on how I broke down the kitchen and got organized. I was a hack line cook, but I'm really great at cleaning a kitchen. Learning how to cook is a lifelong commitment, and you should have basic organizational and cleanliness skills. In other words, if you don't like scrubbing floors -- or dishes -- you shouldn't be in this industry.
Which chef has most inspired you? There have been many, starting with Jorma Cox, formerly of Pulcinella and Campo de Fiori, who was my first chef when I was a dishwasher in Fort Collins and taught me how to touch pasta and bread and how to clean a pan and break down a kitchen. He also took me through Italy and taught me about wine for the first time. He helped me understand the charm of simplicity. Quinn Hatfield, the chef-owner of Hatfield's in L.A., taught me the basics of the French culinary world. I never went to culinary school, so after touring Italy and working in lots of emotionally passionate kitchens, I felt like I needed to get into a kitchen with a technique-driven backbone and a total farm-ingredient-based kitchen. Quinn taught me big-pot blanching and all the fundamentals, including how to take care of a chef's knife, and he enlightened me about the big chefs of the world. I didn't know who Alain Ducasse or Jean-George Vongerichten was, for example. Hatfield's is where the chefs go to eat, and Quinn inspired me to create the same type of vibe in Boulder. Michael Cimarusti of Providence fame told me about what it takes to open a restaurant. It was the last kitchen I worked in before Basta, and if I could have spent fifteen years in one kitchen, it would have been that one. For me, Providence is the best kitchen in the United States -- not just for the food, but for the people, which is what I care most about.
Describe the biggest challenges facing today's chefs: This industry is hard, and sometimes you sacrifice everything. There's never enough pay for what you do, and the biggest challenge is committing to this idea long enough for the small shot that you actually succeed. The alternative is that you go and work for Whole Foods, which is not a bad idea for most cooks.
If you could have dinner with three chefs, dead or alive, whom would you choose? David Chang, mostly because I feel like I have a similar story and drive. Everyone thinks we're just a pizza place, and I've some identity crises with that, but I've also found that it's been my best asset because of the element of surprise that it can bring to a guest. For Chang, it was noodles. Little did people know how much he would influence the culinary world...with noodles. I shouldn't compare myself to him or what he does, but I'm not going to say that it isn't possible, either. I'd want Mario Batali around, too. I've cooked for him a few times, and he's just fun and doesn't take things too seriously -- and I like that. I would love to crush a big Italian dinner with him and just laugh the whole time. Last but not least, I'd like to hang with Danny Meyer, who's the ultimate in hospitality; his book, Setting the Table, changed the way I look at the industry as a whole. He understands the power of hospitality and why we do what we do. In fact, the day I started Basta is the same day I started Id Est Hospitality Group, or ie hospitality, which was inspired by Meyer. I could talk to him for days.
If you could cook in another chef's kitchen, whose would it be? Cory Lee, who's the chef-owner of Benu in San Francisco. It's an impeccable restaurant that showcases the flavors and style that I love, and it would be really cool to stage there. I'll have to think about that.... It's arguably one of the most creative and best restaurants in the country.
Biggest moment of euphoria in the kitchen: Lighting the fire for the first time at Basta and making the first pizza in my own restaurant.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef: It hasn't happened yet. I still don't totally consider myself a chef, although my goal is to have more restaurants and do them at a very high level. I went to college for hospitality, and I do this work to serve people. If someone can work for me and cook better food, and we can create amazing things together, then that's a great goal. I love a team mentality, and I'll build this hospitality group with a great team of people in mind. As for being a chef with a lot of accomplishments, I'm still far away from that.
Last meal before you die: Wood-fired roasted chicken, perfect polenta and oysters.
What's always lurking in your refrigerator? Sriracha...for everything.
When you have a day off away from the kitchen, how do you spend your time? If I'm not working, I'm with my family, although it's hard to clock out these days. My amazing wife, Erika, runs all of our private events for the company, so we're learning how to balance life with each other and Somi, our five-year-old daughter. It's wonderful how much this has made us stronger, and I wouldn't trade the lifestyle for anything.
If you hadn't become a chef, what would you be doing right now? I'd still be in the hospitality business, probably at a hotel or resort. I love to snowboard, so if this doesn't work out, I could be happy as a food-and-beverage manager in the mountains.
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.