Round two with Annabelle Forrestal: Matt Selby, markets and mussels
This is part two of my interview with Annabelle Forrestal, exec chef of Vine Street Pub in Denver and Mountain Sun Pub & Brewery and Southern Sun in Boulder. Part one of my interview with Forrestal ran yesterday.
What you'd like to see more of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: More markets. I grew up walking down to our local farmers' market just about every day to eat, play, socialize, observe and just hang outside. When I was fifteen, I turned from customer to employee and continued to work there every summer for six years. I developed great relationships with the customers, and I had regulars who would come in to discuss what to cook for the week, or what to serve for a dinner party. They would ask me to pick melons that would be ripe on a certain day down the road, and since I ate all the produce myself, I knew what it should look like, smell like and taste like. I provided only the best for my customers, and each week they would return wanting more. It's all about local, seasonable and good-tasting food provided by a knowledgeable person who cares.
What you'd like to see less of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: Overpriced burger joints.
Which chef in Denver/Boulder do you most respect? Matt Selby seems like a pretty cool guy. The EatDenver Harvest Week event was one of the coolest things I've ever been a part of, and Matt seemed honest, direct and a genuine leader. He also kept his cool after a butane explosion -- a sound similar to that of a gunshot -- in the middle of dinner. I'm also intrigued by the culinary path he's taken, his connections to chefs in Denver, and the fact that he runs two very successful and fun restaurants. He gives me hope and determination that I, too, can one day cook at the James Beard House.
If you could cook in another chef's kitchen, whose would it be? Fio Antognini, who's a very close friend to my family and owned a fine-dining French restaurant in St. Louis called Fio's LaForchette. My mama worked there when my sister and I were babies, and we frequented the restaurant often, and I learned what classic French food tasted like. I loved every bit of the restaurant, so when I turned sixteen, I asked for a job from Fio, because I wanted to experience the working aspect of the restaurant. I worked as an assistant to one of the waiters, filled water glasses, cut bread, reset tables, and, most important, got to hang out in the corner of the kitchen watching Fio lead his team. Every once in a while, Fio would step off the line and hand me a spoonful of something. I never asked what it was; I was smart enough to just eat it and be overwhelmed with amazing flavors. Unfortunately, I never got to actually cook with Fio before he sold his restaurant.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef: Cooking the entire classic Thanksgiving Day meal for my friends this year. It's a lot of pressure, because everyone has their own ideas of what they like, there's a lot of anticipation leading up to the day, and you definitely don't want to let them down. Friends can be your harshest critics, especially when they're hungry and missing their families. I think this year was a success. Favorite celebrity chef: Julia Child is classic, and she had a pure understanding of food. Celebrity chef who should shut up: One chef who's always bothered me is Emeril. I don't like the whole BAM! thing or how his audience oohs and aahs at the ingredients he uses. It distracts from the fact that he's actually a good chef.
If you weren't a chef, what would you be? I went to Parsons School of Design in New York for architecture and graduated with my degree in 2006. Being an architect is what I grew up thinking that I wanted to be, and I may still try to attain that goal. I've always loved architecture and have admired buildings and built spaces. I think that I tend to look at the world in a very spatial and observational manner. Life is about experiences, and what emotions those experiences evoke. I love the way some beautifully designed buildings make you feel. Food is like that to me, too. Dining experiences, certain flavors, smells and textures can all trigger specific emotions and memories from my past in the same way a building can.
Biggest compliment you've ever received: Getting invitations to participate in culinary events around Denver, teaming up with great chefs from amazing restaurants and just running in the same circles as other amazing chefs who I look up to -- and even being asked to participate in this Westword interview. I never imagined myself in this position, and I still pinch myself daily. I rely on my own taste and opinions to create my food, and the fact that other people enjoy my creations and come back for more is a huge personal compliment.
What's the best food- or kitchen-related gift you've been given? A friend made me the most beautiful cutting board for Christmas one year. It's smooth, heavy and stunning, and composed of many different wood varieties laminated together. I adore it, and I use it every day.
What's your favorite knife? A Shun eight-inch chef knife. It's sharp and petite, and it fits me and my size. Thanks, Dad.
What do you cook at home that you never cook at the restaurant? I've always considered myself "not a good baker," because I tend to eye a lot of measurements and rely on instinct when cooking, which doesn't lead to being the best baker. That said, I've been practicing at home these days, working on pies, breads and cookies. Once I get it down at home, maybe I'll bring my skills to the restaurant.
What are your favorite wines and/or beers? A French brut Champagne. My father always told me, the smaller the bubbles, the better. I remember visiting Champagne Mumm in France as a child, and my sister and I ran laps around the castle, running to our parents to taste the bubbly champagne drink. I remember feeling amazing. Champagne still evokes those elated feelings today. I've never been a huge beer lover -- I'm more of a wine/Champagne drinker -- but working at a brewery and drinking Belgian beers has really helped me bridge the gap from wine to beer. Belgian beers have a dryness and fruity aroma and flavor that I really enjoy, similar to that of a crisp Champagne.
One book that every chef should read: The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho. It's a book that has really helped me put my life into perspective. It's about following your heart, and it explains that if you really want something, the universe will help you achieve it. It gives you an introspective view of who you are and why you're here. Follow your dreams, and do what you love. Sometimes, as chefs, we're constantly in high-stress environments and we work really long hours, but if we step back and see the beauty and happiness that we bring to people, we'll be happier ourselves. I never thought that I would be where I am today, but I know that I'm very happy doing what I'm doing.
You're making a pizza. What's on it? Provel cheese -- it's a blend of white cheddar, Swiss, Provolone and liquid smoke -- plus classic red sauce, oregano and basil on thin crust sliced in squares. It would be my attempt to replicate the best St. Louis-style pizza, because there's nothing out there quite likes it.
Guiltiest food pleasure: I've loved mussels ever since I had my first one as a child at a friend's French restaurant in St. Louis, and I've been obsessed ever since. The mussels at the restaurant were served in an unbelievable mustard sauce, and for my sixth birthday, I asked for the mussels instead of a birthday cake. Le Central has delicious moules et frites.
Weirdest customer request: I get a lot of requests to make items gluten-free, which has led to me having to specify or clarify the menu and, when possible, hold out on the gluten. In my opinion, it's getting a bit out of hand. Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: Guinea pig, while studying architecture in Ecuador. Best culinary tip for a home cook: Buy fresh, good ingredients; taste as you go; and cook for your friends.
What's next for you? I continue to learn something new every day, and I'm determined to soak up as much knowledge as I can. I want to be good at what I do, and I never want to stop growing. If I ever stop pushing myself and become stagnant, that's when I know I should move on, and I'm aware that I still have a lot to learn, and I'm extremely willing to do so. I would love to do some stages at different restaurants around town. I think that it would be beneficial to study under different chefs and not only witness how they manage and run their shifts, but also observe their thought processes when it comes to putting dishes and menus together.
Last meal before you die: A steamed artichoke with lemon butter, a crusty loaf of good French bread, late-harvest olive oil, cornichons and English farmhouse cheddar cheese, please and thank you.