Round two with Daniel Ramirez, exec chef of Gaetano's
3760 Tejon Street
Part one of my interview with Daniel Ramirez, exec chef of Gaetano's, ran yesterday; this is part two of our chat.
Favorite food city in America: San Francisco is unrivaled when it comes to food diversity, and it's also the home to some of the country's oldest and best Italian restaurants. In 1999, I went there for the first time for a two-day manager meeting and got to eat at some of the old-school Italian restaurants there, including Fiore d' Italia in the Hotel San Remo. It was amazing.
Favorite Denver/Boulder restaurant(s) other than your own: Il Fornaio, because it's one of the few authentic Italian restaurants where the pastas are made in-house, as are the breads, desserts and sauces. I worked there for several years, and when I eat out, I still love to go there.
Favorite cheap eat in Denver: You can get a great burger and a beer for less than $10 at Mead Street Station. The place reminds me of an old-time tavern.
What do you enjoy most about your craft? I know everyone says this, but I love making people happy through my food. When plates come back into the kitchen completely clean -- no food left on them -- it's so rewarding. That's when you know that you've made your guests happy.
If you could change one thing about the Denver dining scene, what would it be? Better late-night restaurants. I really wish there more places to go after a party or a night on the town that served really great food.
Most memorable meal you've ever had: My grandfather used to drive a truck in Mexico, and when I was young, he'd sometimes take me on trips with him. We'd stop to eat at this one restaurant right on the ocean and order fresh red snapper just pulled out of the water. The restaurateur would show me this huge fish before he cooked it, and I remember thinking how gigantic it was. The fish tasted so good and fresh, and the preparation was incredibly simple, the way it should be. Even now, I still love a really well-cooked, simple plate of fish.
Favorite childhood food memory: When I was a kid, my mom would make rice balls with shrimp in a light tomato broth, and I'd always eat a ton of it. She'd cook the rice and grind the shrimp, and then she'd mold them into balls and cook them in a tomato broth with cilantro, onions, garlic and oregano. I couldn't stop eating it because it was so, so good. Back then, shrimp was very expensive and most people didn't eat them often. My mother always made sacrifices to give the best she could.
Favorite junk food: Whenever I have the opportunity to eat tacos, I do. I love that you can just take a tortilla and put anything in it -- meats, seafood, vegetables or poultry -- add some Mexican salsa, and, voilà, it's a taco. They're so good, so simple and totally portable
Weirdest customer request: I was once working breakfast at an Italian restaurant in California and had a diner order four eggs sunny-side up, ask if we could stack them and then, in between each stack, add a different protein -- shrimp, grilled chicken, whatever. It sounded so completely bizarre, and then I saw the plate and thought, "Huh, that actually looks pretty good."
Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: Menudo. I really don't like it, and my sister had a really bad experience with it as a child. She was eating a bite, it got stuck in her throat, and she couldn't breathe. It was incredibly scary for her -- and for me.
Best recipe tip for a home cook: Put your passion into your food and cook food that excites you, and you can't go wrong. If you're reading Food & Wine, and a recipe or a photo catches your attention, go cook that. There's nothing worse than food prepared by an unenthusiastic cook. When that happens, you can always taste it.
Craziest night in the kitchen: My last day of work at Canaletto, in Las Vegas, was definitely the craziest night I can remember. I was stressed because I was moving to Denver in two days and the chef had me prepare dinner for a party celebration of 400 people. I had never worked a party that big before, and I was very nervous -- plus I was trying to move. I was really worried there wouldn't be enough food during the event, but after all that stress and worry, it actually turned out to be a great party with wonderful food.
What's the best food- or kitchen-related gift you've ever been given? A beautiful brick pizza oven and grill from my wife. It's for my back yard, and I'm still working on installing it.
What was the last cookbook you bought, and what recipes are you cooking from it? I bought a beautiful book called Italy: The Beautiful Cookbook, which is devoted to twenty different regions of Italy. I just made a fantastic pesce spada salmogrillo at home, which calls for marinating swordfish for two hours in olive oil, lemon zest and fresh parsley and then serving it with an Italian relish. It's simple and clean, with great, vibrant flavors.
What's your biggest pet peeve? When things aren't organized, everything takes so much more time -- time that should be committed to cooking and making people happy. It drives me crazy to have to spend five wasted minutes looking for a tool because it hasn't been put back in the right place.
Which chef has inspired you the most? Italian chef Giovanni Trapattoni taught me the art of Italian cooking. He doesn't speak English, so he taught me in Italian, and I used my native Spanish to decipher what he was saying. As you might imagine, I learned a lot of Italian very quickly. And most important, he taught me to have self-respect. On the first day of my instruction, he said, "Daniele, I will only explain these things to you once. If you learn these lessons well, you will cook for a long time, and if you don't, that's your own fault." He worked fifteen hours a day, six days a week in a kitchen, not because it was his job, but because it was his greatest joy. He taught me how to lovingly prepare the old recipes from his family, and after all this time, I can honestly say that I learned those lessons well.
If you could cook in another chef's kitchen, whose would it be? I'd go back to that authentic Italian kitchen with Giovanni at Trilussa restaurant in Rome. I have so many questions for him now that I've been creating Italian dishes for so long. He would always tell me that the best school is in the kitchen, and I'd love to go back to his school for a master's degree.
Favorite celebrity chef: Sonia Peronaci, who publishes original recipes in Italian. She also has a TV show that I'd love to be on someday.
Celebrity chef who needs a muzzle: Mario Batali. I don't care for his cooking shows, and I don't think he does much actual cooking.
What do you enjoy most about cooking? Creating new recipes using classic ingredients and new techniques. I also love training new cooks, specifically on Italian culinary techniques and flavors, and providing them with some Italian-language training.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef: I'm so proud of spending such a long time as the chef at Pagliacci's, and when it closed, I wasn't sure where I'd be able to bring my love of Italian cooking. I was honored -- and so pleased -- to get the position at Gaetano's. To have the opportunity to work in two of the longest-standing, most beloved Italian neighborhood institutions in Denver is really, for me, a very proud accomplishment.
Last meal before you die: What else? Really good, fresh pasta with red sauce.
What's always lurking in your refrigerator? Milk, eggs, orange juice, Mexican cheese, white-corn tortillas, chicken, beef and flan.
When you have a day off away from the kitchen, how do you spend your time? Whenever I have free time, I'm with my kids. I have four of them, and my last two are four-year-old fraternal twins -- a boy and a girl -- so I'm a busy dad.
What question should I ask the next chef I interview? If you were a pasta, what shape would you be, and why?
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