Round two with Brett Shaheen, exec chef of the Wooden Table
This is part two of my interview with Brett Shaheen, exec chef of the Wooden Table. Part one of our chat ran yesterday.
Favorite restaurant in America: Grizzly Bar in Roscoe, Montana. It's located in a podunk town surrounded by cows, so the steaks are unbelievable and the beer is cold. Plus, if I'm there, I've been fly-fishing on the Yellowstone with my best friend Paul.
Favorite Denver/Boulder restaurant(s) other than your own: Sushi Den. I love the fresh fish and all the opportunities to eat so many things in one visit. At a normal restaurant you have three, maybe four courses, but at Sushi Den you can have twenty different tastes.
Which chef in Denver/Boulder do you most respect? Frank Bonanno. Frank not only allows for input on the menu; he expects it. As a cook, that's all you can ask for -- to be pushed, to get better, to grow and to learn. Frank and Jacqueline, his wife, sent me to Chicago to work at Alinea for a week, and then Frank hosted our wedding rehearsal dinner at Luca. I'll always be indebted
What you'd like to see more of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: Everyone says this, but less crap. If you're going to make meatloaf, make a good one.
What you'd like to see less of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: I'm sick of "cute" food, like s'mores on a stick on a dessert menu -- and I can't stand cupcakes. Instead of being cute, try making straightforward food -- and make it well.
Are you affected by reviews at all? What's your opinion on food writers and social review sites like Yelp, OpenTable and Urbanspoon? Everyone wants to have glowing, gushing, five-star reviews, but you can't please everyone. I read our OpenTable reviews and see where we can improve. The bottom line is that you want someone to leave your restaurant happy, because if they're not happy, they won't return.
Biggest compliment you've ever received: When I make something new and let Jane, my partner, try it, I know it's good when she says, "This doesn't suck." That's a true heartfelt compliment.
Biggest pet peeve: I've got a lot: unorganized walk-ins; prep that's not labeled and dated; small amounts in big containers; servers ordering food when they show up to work at 4 p.m. and have had all day to stuff their faces, while in the meantime, the kitchen is trying to get set up for a busy night; modifiers; and maybe the biggest one of all -- people who take their time going through a turn arrow, as if they're the only ones making a turn and there's no one behind them.
What's the best food- or kitchen-related gift you've been given? A Coors can from the 1950s, given to me from our first dish-washer at the Wooden Table, an ex-con gang member from California with a heart of gold, a nasty left hook and really fast racing pigeons.
What are your favorite wines and/or beers? Coors Original, period. Nothing washes off the trail dust like a four-count on a banquet.
What's your favorite knife? A buck knife. You can filet a trout, gut a channel cat, skin a deer, cut rope, or open a beer with it.
You're making a pizza. What's on it? Tomatoes, mozzarella, sausage, green peppers, crushed red chiles and Parmesan.
Guiltiest food pleasure: Cheeseburger on a white bun with American cheese.
Weirdest customer request: I can't remember all of them, but some of the recent ones came from a customer asking for a prosci-utto salad without prosciutto, and another guest who asked if he could taste the crab to make sure it's "not fishy."
Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: Live termites in Belize, and cow brains and eggs at the Oxford in Missoula, Montana, at two in the morning.
Best culinary tip for a home cook: Marry a chef. They always want to cook, especially on their days off. If that's not possible, then adjust the heat of your burners; there are other temperatures besides high, and yet I see burners on high all the time with professional and home cooks, and it's one of my pet peeves. A simmer should be gentle, not a rolling boil. I'm constantly adjusting heat.
One book that every chef should read: Something that's not a cookbook. People need to be more well-rounded. Pick up a novel, or a history book -- anything that doesn't have measurements in it. Besides, most cooks and chefs I know have problems spelling "broccoli" correctly.
If you could cook in another chef's kitchen, whose would it be? I'd like to go play on Alex Seidel's farm and milk some sheep and make some cheese. To harvest raw products like that -- and then use them at your restaurant -- is so cool, and doesn't happen very often these days. Obviously, there's a huge disconnect between the growing and harvesting of food and the actual cooking of it, but Alex is closing that gap.
Favorite celebrity chef: I don't follow "celebrity chefs" much, and pretty much never watch food shows on TV. There are a couple of PBS shows that are watchable, but I seldom do. The best show ever was Great Chefs of the World, on the Discovery Channel -- but that was years ago. A chef speaking in a foreign language would cook a dish or two while a narrator translated it into English. You rarely saw the chef's face, because most of the shots were of his hands, sauté pans and mise en place. But it clearly wasn't flashy enough for these times. As far as actual chefs go, I like the old-school French guys -- the ones who made decadent, wonderful food and tried to do the impossible: be perfect. These days, we all know the "pillars" of French chefdom, who have restaurants in Las Vegas. But there are some lesser-known chefs who are just as good, like the Troisgros brothers. And then there was Bernard Loiseau, one of the most prominent French chefs of the 1990s, who committed suicide after losing one of his Michelin stars. When he got his first star, a dinner was held in his honor, and his first three courses -- black truffle soup, red mullet in a jacket of potato scales, and bresse chicken in cream and cooked in a pig's bladder -- let's just say I'd walk ten miles uphill in duck-hunting waders to eat that last one.
Celebrity chef who needs a muzzle: All of them, but especially Charlie Trotter and Wolfgang Puck. They both want to outlaw foie gras.
Most humbling moment as a chef: Certainly one of them was this past Valentine's Day, which is already one of my least favorite days. We moved out our wooden tables so that we could rent two-tops and pack the place. We overpacked it, and it went downhill from there. We weren't staffed or equipped to do that many people. Fortunately, most guests were understanding and enjoyed their food once they got it, but we did have a couple of tables leave -- and I can't blame them. We learned a valuable lesson that night: Don't be something you're not; stay within yourself.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef: Opening the Wooden Table. When I first thought about opening a restaurant, it seemed, if not impossible, impossibly daunting. But as each step was accomplished, the goal started to come into focus, and one afternoon, I remember thinking that this is actually going to happen. Of course, I'd be selling burritos out of a pushcart if it weren't for my partner, Jane Knauf. She takes care of all the important stuff, like taxes and payroll, so that I can cook.
If you weren't a chef, what would you be? I'd like to be a history professor.
What's one thing about you or your restaurant that people would be surprised to know? The Wooden Table was almost called the "Salty Chicken." Someone clearly much smarter than me knew it wasn't the best name.
Hardest lesson you've learned, and how you've changed because of it: I've had to learn how to let go and trust that others will do a good job. Too often, I'd rather do something myself, but part of being a chef is teaching others how you want something done and setting expectations. To be successful, the kitchen has to run when I'm not there.
Dream restaurant: Is on the banks of an unknown trout stream in Montana. The only way to reach it is by boat or on foot. Fisher-men pull their boats up and come in for great food, cold draughts and to catch the game. Victoria's Secret models dry your waders and oil your fly line. During slow times, I walk out the front and go fishing. This is a dream restaurant, right?
What's next for you? Continuing to work on the Wooden Table. It's still not where we want it to be, and it continues to be a work in progress where we learn as we go. It's amazing what you learn while opening your first restaurant. It's also given me a greater appreciation for what Bonanno does for his employees, some of which I may not have truly appreciated at the time. But I now have a much better perspective on what all that hard work meant -- and how difficult it is. My goal is to have the restaurant be successful enough to tell Denver Restaurant Week thanks, but no thanks. That's how I'll know we've made it. In the meantime, my beautiful wife and I are expecting the latest addition to the Shaheen family in August, and I can't wait to lie on a beach with a book and a couple of cool ones.
Last meal before you die: Anything from Denver Restaurant Weeks.
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