This is part two of my interview with Enrique Socarras, executive chef of Cuba Cuba. In part one of this interview, Socarras raps on integrity, stomaching raw bacon and his new Boulder restaurant.
Best food city in America: I'm going with Denver. We have amazing talent and local products, our culinary scene is sincere and warm, and we don't need celebrities to validate it. Plus, some of the best dishes I've ever had have been right here in Colorado. Troy Guard, from TAG, did an amazing uni crème brûlée at a recent FIVE event that was so creative -- just fantastic. I even caught myself sneaking more off his plate. He used the kind of ingredients that you would never think of pairing together, but whatever he did, he made it work. And the red salsa at Taco de México? Jesus Christ. That stuff is so, so good.
Favorite restaurant in America: Alabama Jack's, an old biker bar in Florida, on the way to the Keys on the old road. It's right over the water, and they have the best seafood and key lime pie. It's not pretentious, and the food is really simple, but it's just amazing. It's island life at its finest.
Favorite Denver/Boulder restaurant(s) other than your own: Sushi Sasa. Chef Wayne Conwell isn't fucking around when it comes to pairing flavors and textures. Don't miss his incredible uni risotto.
What you'd like to see more of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: More late-night dining joints that serve really good food. Most of the people I know don't get off of work until midnight -- and options are severely limited at that hour. And I'd love to see more Cuban food. I'd welcome the competition.
What you'd like to see less of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: Horrible bar food -- it's mostly crap. If you're going to serve food -- any food -- take the time and effort to make it something worth serving. If you can't do that, just serve bags of chips, for God's sake. That's a lot better than frozen jalapeño poppers.
Current Denver culinary genius: I'm not sure there's just one that outshines the rest, but I have immense respect for Frank Bonanno. He's able to run a business -- and cook -- and he lives for his trade. He's married to his family, but he's also married to his job. While he's not out there just trying to make money, he is making money and he's doing very, very well -- and that's genius. His restaurants are full, his food is great, and the cooks and/or chefs who work for him leave as better cooks and chefs than they were to begin with.
What's the best food- or kitchen-related gift you've been given? A couple of cookbooks from my daughters. They bought me an out-of-print Michel Bras cookbook that they found on eBay, along with the complete instruction manual of Easy-Bake Oven recipes. We just made s'mores this morning. I'm a pro now, but, God, do the recipes suck.
One book that every chef should read: I find myself reading anything that keeps my mind off work. I loved Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential. Truth be told, I'm not a big reader, but I plowed through that in a day and a half. It really speaks to the reality of working in the industry -- the sweat, the tears, overcoming the hurdles of being in a kitchen and working with a bunch of psychos. There's no fantasyland in that book. And I love that Bourdain was a chef's chef. It's just too bad that he no longer cooks.
You're making a pizza. What's on it? Tons of cheese and anything else I can fit on the pie.
You're at the market. What do you buy two of? Six-packs of Heineken. It's what I grew up drinking, and drinking it takes me back to when I was fifteen, doing things that I shouldn't have been doing.
Guiltiest food pleasure? Coke...the soft drink. I rarely order wine with food, mostly because I feel it clouds my palate, but a nice cold Coke goes well with everything.
Favorite dish to cook at home: Ham and Swiss on white bread. When I was young, my mother struggled to put food in the fridge, but there was always ham and cheese. I think it's one of those comforting things that remind me of how far I've come.
Favorite dish on your menu: The slow-roasted, pan-seared pulled pork. It's my twist on Cuba's most traditional Cuban pork dish, lechón asado.
If you could put any dish on your menu, even though it might not sell, what would it be? Braised oxtail. We've tried to sell it a few times, but I think it scares the shit out of people. Their loss, I guess.
Best culinary tip for a home cook: Just have fun, and don't let food intimidate you.
What show would you pitch to the Food Network, and what would it be about? It would be a show that depicted real life in the restaurant industry -- a cameraman following all of the debauchery of a line cook's professional and personal life. No more fairytale kitchen bullshit. Charlie Sheen has nothing on most line cooks. They work hard -- and play even harder.
If you could cook for one famous chef, dead or alive, who would it be? Michel Bras. I admire the way he integrated food and art, without forgetting that at the end of the day, it's just food. Plus, I can only imagine what it would be like to cook in his kitchen overlooking the French town of Aubrac.
Favorite celebrity chef: Alton Brown. You've got to respect anyone who's really dedicated themselves to their trade. I often find myself taking notes during his show, and while I admit that he's pretty corny, the guy totally knows his stuff.
Celebrity chef who should shut up: Rachael Ray. Her voice drives me up the wall, but even worse, can someone please explain why she's considered a chef?
Are chefs artists, craftsmen or both? Both. All the elements of fine art are used in creating great food, and any profession that requires tools, thought, dedication and long hours is definitely a craft.
What's your favorite knife? Any knife that has a sharp edge.
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Hardest lesson you've learned: I used to think I knew it all, but then I realized that what I really know is limited. I learned to be a student of my trade -- and anything learned is beneficial.
Last meal before you die: A mile-long spread of Cuban food prepared by my mom and shared with all my friends and family.