This is part two of my interview with Brandon Foster, executive chef of Vesta Dipping Grill. Read part one of my Brandon Foster interview.
Favorite restaurant in America: Chez Panisse. I've been there twice, once for lunch and once for dinner. The dinner was -- and still is -- the best dining experience I've ever had. I remember everything that I ate, and as I talk about it now, I can still taste it. The service, the setting and the food were off the charts. I can only think of a handful of meals that I've had over the years that managed to showcase all three of those things, and that dinner is at the top of the list.
Last restaurant you visited: Lola. Jamey, Duane and Drew are doing some really awesome things over there, and the food is always good. They have the best happy hour in town -- except for Steuben's, of course.
What you'd like to see more of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: Better late-night food. Euclid Hall is crushing it with the late-night crowd, but it would be sweet to see more of the food trucks out and about late at night, too. We occasionally see a few downtown, but not frequently enough. There used to be a few good street vendors out and about, but they've really declined in number.
What you'd like to see less of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: Steakhouses. There are way too many in this town, and only a few really live up to the hype.
Favorite Denver/Boulder restaurant(s) other than your own: El Noa Noa, El Taco de México and Jose's in Littleton. El Noa Noa is an outstanding sit-down spot to take the family; get the combination grande plate. El Taco de México is, well, El Taco de México. And Jose's is a restaurant on Main Street in Littleton that's been there for more than thirty years. When I was younger, my father worked at the Town Hall Arts Center, just a few doors down, and he befriended the owners, Joe and Phyllis Trujillo, right away. They're still the owners, and their children help them run the place. When we moved away from Denver when I was young, we'd come back during the summers to visit family, and we'd always go to Jose's, and he'd pack up burritos and chile for us for our drive back to Pennsylvania. They're wonderful people, and if you've never been, you owe it to yourself to go.
Favorite food from your childhood: Here's the truth: I didn't like much of anything as a child. I know we all say that, but anyone who knew me as a kid knows that I was one of the pickiest eaters on the planet. But if I had to pick, I guess it would be cereal, cinnamon toast and eggs. Despite all of my weird dislikes, breakfast was the one meal that I loved no matter what.
Favorite dish on your menu: Our cured-meat and cheese plate rules. I dare you to find a better one in the city.
What do you cook at home that you never cook at the restaurant? Baby food. No, really, baby food. We made baby food for our first daughter, Amelia, and we're going to be starting soon with our youngest daughter, Ella.
What's the best food- or kitchen-related gift you've been given? Before I moved to Denver, Aaron, my brother, gave me my first chef knife. I made a "sheath" for it consisting of two pieces of cardboard, a kitchen towel and duct tape, and for three years, it was the only knife I owned. It's been everywhere with me -- in every kitchen, at every event and on every trip. Am I being too sentimental about a knife? Maybe so, but I'm fine with it.
What are your favorite wines and/or beers? Any wine from Wind Gap. The winemaker's name is Pax Mahl, and he used to have his own label, but he's now producing his wines through Wind Gap Estates. There isn't a single thing they do that isn't amazing. As for beer, I'm a big fan of anything from Oskar Blues, but at the end of the day, I'm most comfortable with a can of PBR.
What's your favorite knife? My slicer. It's super-old and not very good quality, but it belonged to my grandfather, it's sharper than anything I own, and there's no better knife for skinning a fish.
One book that every chef should read: Setting the Table, by Danny Meyer. Josh Wolkon, the owner of Vesta, gave me a copy a couple of years ago, and it's proved to be quite insightful. It's all about hospitality and truly taking care of your guests. In order to be successful as a chef, you've got to have hospitality as a driving force behind what you do. It changes the way you look at things as they happen in your restaurant, and how you deal with them, as well. After all, if we're not doing everything we can to give people the absolute best that we possibly can, what's the point of doing this?
You're making a pizza. What's on it? Pepperoni, jalapeño and pineapple. It's simultaneously sweet, salty and spicy.
Guiltiest food pleasure: The cheeseburger Big Bite from 7-Eleven with jalapeños and extra cheese sauce. It's a cheeseburger "dog" that has an intriguing grill flavor, even though it's never been grilled on anything except steel rollers. Don't judge me. Best culinary tip for a home cook: Season and taste your food. When adding salt or seasoning to whatever you're cooking, remember that you're adding these ingredients to round out and enhance the flavors you've already created. You don't necessarily want to taste salt or pepper or lemon juice. Instead, you want to use them to help enhance the true flavors of the dish.
Are you affected by reviews at all? What's your opinion on food writers and social review sites like Yelp, OpenTable and Urbanspoon? Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, and I do pay attention to our reviews, but I think you have to make an effort to not let them keep you up at night. I may not always like what I read, but I'll always listen to whatever anyone has to say.
Biggest compliment you've ever received: I got to cook for my grandfather at Vesta for his 81st birthday last summer, and after dinner, he gave me a hug and told me how proud of me he was. Tears start to well just thinking about it.
If you could cook in another chef's kitchen, whose would it be? Fergus Henderson, who runs St. John restaurant in London and is the author of a couple of my favorite cookbooks: The Whole Beast and Beyond Nose to Tail. His recipes have verbiage in them like "Place in a gentle oven" and "When you're happy with the state of things..." Someone who writes recipes like that has got to be fun to hang out with in a kitchen. Plus, he's the master of all things offal.
Which Denver/Boulder chef do you most respect? This is a tough one. Nah, not really. I'm going with Matty Selby. He emulates so well what a chef should be: He runs his two kitchens -- Vesta and Steuben's -- very well, and has a presence in both; he's earned the respect of his co-workers and friends; he never forgets where he came from; he doesn't get caught up in the hype; and he's committed to his city and his community and spreading the word about Denver dining -- and it shows. I wouldn't be the chef I am without his guidance and advice.
Favorite celebrity chef: I'm not much for the celebrity chef thing, but I really like Mario Batali -- and I love his food. I used to watch Molto Mario all the time on the Food Network, and it was really the first cooking show that interested me, because I always found myself wanting to eat whatever it was that he was cooking. I like Paula Deen a lot for the same reason: It's fun to listen to her talk about food. You can tell by the way they speak that they're both totally in love with food, and that makes a huge difference.
Celebrity chef who should shut up: Gordon Ramsay. He's an uptight English dude who only gets away with treating people the way he does because he's on TV. He may be a talented chef, but he makes his money off of his persona. Lame.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef: Earning the current position that I have. In 2001, I came to Vesta for the first time as a guest for dinner on my mother's birthday. I was still living in Summit County at the time, and my brother recommended it. I remember being totally fascinated with the place, and I had an awesome dinner that I still remember well. I never could have guessed at that time that I'd be in this position ten years later. It's pretty cool.
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If you weren't a chef, what would you be? Probably a ski bum. I wanted to be a photographer at one point, but that never really worked out. I was a ski bum when I started cooking, and I often wonder if I would have left the ski town had I not fallen in love with cooking.
What's next for you? Something awesome. Truthfully, I'm totally content right now. I love Vesta, the family and the fun that we have, and I wouldn't trade it for anything. I do have some things in mind for down the road, but those are for me to know and for you to hopefully find out in the future.
Last supper: Hands down, my mom's chicken enchiladas.