Round two with chef Kevin Taylor
This is part two of my interview with Kevin Taylor, executive chef of Restaurant Kevin Taylor, Prima Ristorante, Limelight, Kevin Taylor's at the Opera House, Palettes at the Denver Art Museum, and Rouge, in the Teller House in Central City. Part one of my chat with Taylor ran yesterday.
Culinary inspirations: An always-evolving food scene; great design; luxury in anything; the simple details -- like a table that's completely square; travel; fashion; cooks and waiters; anyone who's creative; and anyone who has passion for what they do.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef: Opening my first restaurant -- Zenith American Grill -- at the age of 25. It was just the newness of it. Everything was on the line, and opening your first restaurant really defines who you are -- and who you're going to be in the future.
Current Denver culinary genius: Alex Seidel. He's turned down so many offers to do more restaurants, and he's stayed true to himself, his passion, his farm and his restaurant over expansion
What you'd like to see more of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: Smaller menus and fewer choices. Large menus are hard to execute well and staff, and while more ingredients equal more things, it doesn't necessarily equal more things done well. I'd love to see more tasting menus with only one choice of starter, entree and dessert, but I don't think we're ready for that in this country. That said, we just started a tasting menu at Restaurant Kevin Taylor that's six courses -- and only six courses. You get what you get. If you can control what people eat, you'll have a much better restaurant, and diners will have a much better experience, because the execution will be perfect.
What you'd like to see less of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: Hamburgers and budget/discount programs like Groupon. The discounts are so unbelievably steep, and the companies that offer those coupons keep half of whatever they sell. The discount programs are creating a whole different kind of customer -- a one-time customer that's only coming because they have a coupon. And then people get angry when the coupons have expired -- after six months -- and they still want to use them. In no way is it good for the industry.
Favorite restaurant in America: Gotham Bar and Grill in New York. It's always perfect food in an amazing city, and there's no pretense from anyone. The architectural food, dirty sidewalks, sketchy neighborhood -- all the hustle and excitement and amazing food to match. You know you're truly in New York when you're dining there.
Best food city in America: New York. The discipline and execution required to have a successful restaurant there is so unbelievably hard that customers truly get more value than anywhere else in the country. Restaurants have dropped their prices so low in New York -- just to survive -- that it's cheaper to go out than to cook at home. It's truly the best restaurant city in every category: French, Italian, sushi, pizza...and on and on.
Favorite Denver/Boulder restaurant(s) other than your own: Marco's Coal-Fired Pizzeria. Mark Dym and I are neighbors, and despite so little time and so many new restaurants, I still want his incredible pizza, and I love that Marco's is such a fun and casual place. Mark isn't from the business, and yet he's succeeded in a new neighborhood, and he's got the most incredible standards for quality and ingredients. He once made my pizza three times, and then he made me wait...because it wasn't perfect. I can eat pizza every day, so to go there, over-order and know I can eat for a week is always great.
One book that every chef should read: Marco Pierre White's White Heat. Marco was the first Michelin-starred chef to really tell the story of what it's like to be a tortured chef -- not the glossed-over version. He proceeded to give Michelin back the stars he'd earned, and then he closed most of his luxury restaurants to open profitable, approachable places. He told the real story of the obsession and conflict between himself, diners and critics and the terrible toll it took on him over the years he drove himself to get the stars -- only to then give them back. No one in his time, or even today, has told what it's really like to work in this business and the personal sacrifices that you've got to make when it comes to family, health and the stress that comes with cooking professionally.
Favorite music to cook by: Bob Marley or Wyclef.
You're making a pizza. What's on it? San Marzano tomatoes, basil, mozzarella di bufala, olive oil and chile flakes.
You're at the market. What do you buy two of? Cans of baby clams.
Weirdest customer request: Someone asked if we could prepare food that they brought from home and then eat it in our restaurant. Oh, and since they brought it from home, could they not pay? Really?
Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: Crispy suckling pig snout in San Sebastian, Spain. It was delicious.
Best culinary tip for a home cook: Salt is your friend. Season the pan with salt -- not the fish, meat or vegetables, as it just draws out moisture -- when it's hot. Salt also adds an additional layer, so things don't stick to the pan. Also: Cooking is a waiting game, so patience is the best tip to learn for anyone who wants to cook.
What's the best food- or kitchen-related gift you've been given? Ceramic Kyocera knives, which are super-easy to pack and travel with. Always take your own knives whenever you travel, especially if you're cooking, because the knives in other restaurant kitchens are never sharp.
What's your favorite knife? A ten-inch, white-handled Henckels chef's knife. It's really rare, and I've never seen another one like it. When I opened my first place 24 years ago, a Shamrock salesman gave me a set to thank me for my business. Imagine that happening today.
If you could cook for one famous chef, dead or alive, who would it be? Michel Guérard. The most transforming food and restaurant experience I've ever had was in Eugenie les Bains in 1995, which is where Guérard's restaurant/hotel is located. After a ten-course, three-star meal, I was sitting on the patio the next morning, hung over, watching twenty-year-olds -- yes, kids -- iron and re-iron the linen for two hours, only to be told it was shit and do it all over again. This type of restaurant and service is vanishing, and it made me look at what kind of restaurant Kevin Taylor should be. I've tried for the last fifteen years to keep those standards and traditions and to pass them on, and I would love to cook for the father of nouvelle cuisine who inspired this madness. To him I say, "Thanks."
Favorite celebrity chef: Ferran Adrià, who's the greatest cooking mind of our generation. He had to innovate with every season and carry that pressure, and the fact that, at the top of his career, he closed El Bulli to make a foundation for creativity is remarkable. And yet...he was having more fun than anyone, and he passed that on to his staff, customers and anyone else who would participate. It's not encouraged to have a good time in those kinds of restaurants, but they had fun there. He proceeded to document every recipe and share it with anyone who wished to see it. The most avant-garde techniques and processes changed the food world forever, changed the dining experience forever in how we see it, and his dedication and commitment to execute the best they could, even when they were hemorrhaging money for many, many years -- that is truly an artist and one committed and talented person.
Celebrity chef who should shut up: It's really hard to say, because no matter what anyone says about the food business, celebrity chefs have pushed people to go out to eat more often. Because of them, there's a better supplier/ingredient chain, more jobs and more people willing to try new things. Okay, Rachael Ray should just stick to the talk-show gig and stop calling herself a chef -- or did someone else call her that?
Are chefs artists, craftsmen or both? To be a great chef, you first have to be a great craftsman -- and it takes a lot of years to get to the point where you don't have to think about your movements. To be a true artist, you've got to realize that it's all of the combined senses that really make art. There are so many struggling "artist" chefs out there, and since what we do has to be done in fifteen minutes from start to finish -- and then it's consumed -- does it really count as art? The Internet has greatly reduced the time it takes to learn the craft, especially since so much information is readily available -- but the required life experience is still necessary. The amazing part is that with so much information available, amazingly knowledgeable young chefs are ensuring that the public gets much better food and execution. Young cooks still have to do the work and put in the time, and they should travel as much as they can, work with as many great people as they can, and work as much as they can to speed the process along. Most artists have some sort of an art-focused education, and chefs and cooks also need education -- real, in the classroom, or both. The school of hard knocks still hurts the same. Being exposed to food creates a better scene for the future of food everywhere, and as we glean more knowledge, our "art" continues to improve.
What's next for you? Hopefully the economy will turn around and we can return to something better than this new normal. I'll definitely continue to spread the knowledge that this industry demands and that the public continues to push for. I've done nothing but cook for the past 35 years, and I believe that our youth are the future, and I'll continue to promote that, too. I'm hopeful that at some point in the future, my son, Ryan, who's also a chef, will carry the torch so I can do much less.
Last meal before you die: Dinner at Le Jules Verne, Alain Ducasse's restaurant at the Eiffel Tower in Paris. I'd eat foie gras, roast chicken and chocolate while looking out over the view of Paris.