Round two with Dirk Holmberg, exec chef of Cafe 180
What you'd like to see more of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: More Mexican seafood dishes -- that would be a good start. But I'd also like to see more ethnic seafood dishes in general.
What you'd like to see less of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: With all the Latin American influence here, I want to see a different overall menu rollout in the ethnic culinary kitchen. Let's see more establishments doing things the way they're done in the kitchens in Mexico, Brazil, Italy and Vietnam -- the real authentic way. That would make me happier.
Favorite Denver/Boulder restaurant(s) other than your own: Centro Latin Kitchen & Refreshment Palace in Boulder. I had the grilled corn and mushroom ancho chile relleno plate, and it was very rewarding.
Favorite cheap eat in Denver: Waffle House. I like the Southern menu and its history. I also have immense respect for short-order cooks; they're a breed unto themselves, and they have a true God-given gift. It's simply amazing to watch them work, especially when all the orders are called in and nothing is written down. I'm sure there are other kitchens that might be more authentic, but I grew up with Waffle House
If you were visiting Denver and had 24 hours to eat, where would you go? I'd start the day by going to the Egg and I and ordering either the corned beef hash or the sunrise chile rellenos, followed up with a double espresso. From there, I'd hit up Brothers BBQ for the pulled-pork sandwich. I came across Brothers after being given a challenge from a female friend of mine. She had spent some time in Nashville, and wanted to know if I could do a Southern-style pulled pork. I'd had a conversation in the past with some fellow Southern chefs, and they all seemed to agree that anyone born west of the Mississippi doesn't know their way around a grill -- period. But I wanted to impress the Southern belle, so I researched barbecued pulled pork and found that it originated in North Carolina during the settlement of the colonies there. She recommended that I try Brothers BBQ since it was the closest to what she was looking for, and I have to admit that their hot vinegar sauce is worth the travel in and of itself. I'd also have dinner at Jax Fish House, where I'd start out with fresh shucked oysters before moving on to the catfish or shrimp po' boy.
Best thing about cooking in Denver: The fact that everyone seems ready to try something new.
Most memorable meal you've ever had: Houston's in Chicago. I went there in high school with my high-school sweetheart, after we sneaked out of the hotel where we were staying and ran across the street for a night out at a "high-class" restaurant. We were treated like royalty. It was really fun.
Favorite childhood food memory: It's a breakfast dish called a "Top Hat." You take a piece of bread and, using a glass, cut out a circle in the middle. Then you place it on a hot griddle and crack an egg into the section that's cut out. After it's cooked a minute or so, you flip it over and finish cooking it to whatever temperature you want it. My mom used to make this for me all the time when I was a kid. Once, around the age of seven I think, she taught me how to make it, but I lost interest. It was one of those things that can only come from Mom.
Favorite junk food: Little Debbie Swiss rolls.
Favorite dish on your menu: The French dip.
Biggest menu bomb: We tried running mini-burgers. That didn't go over very well.
Biggest compliment you've ever received: While I was a chef at the Macaroni Grill, there was a food critic who visited the restaurant and had the grilled salmon. She wrote on the paper tablecloth that she had sampled salmon all over Denver and this was by far the best she'd ever tasted. She called me the "Salmon King of Denver."
Best recipe tip for a home cook: It helps to pre-prepare all of the recipe ingredients -- even measuring out and placing ingredients in separate bowls. I also suggest sticking to the recipe, at least the first time, because certain combinations are purposeful in balancing the overall palate, and to change it too much might throw everything else off. Regardless of how much you might like -- or don't like -- a certain ingredient, it exists to complement one of the other ingredients.
One book that every chef should read: Any one of Patricia Cornwell's Scarpetta series. She's an excellent writer who does a great job of bringing the reader home. The main character, Kay Scarpetta, is always having a day from hell, but then she comes home to a kitchen that would make any chef jealous. Some of her comfort foods that she whips up after a long day at the office are just amazing. Of course, Cornwell is no stranger to the kitchen and has published her own cookbooks. Her specialty is Italian.
What's the best food- or kitchen-related gift you've been given? My current boss, Cathy, gave me a mandoline that's pretty fun to use. I still prefer my knives, but nonetheless, it's cool to try different gadgets.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef: Doing what I'm doing right now. I like being able to cater to multiple walks of life as well as work with a diverse group of co-workers.
Favorite celebrity chef: The late Justin Wilson has always been one of my mentors. From an early age, I'd watch his shows. He taught me the importance of having fun and enjoying making good dishes. He also had a way of making it easy. Cooking really isn't as complicated as it seems.
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 his or her own opinion, but I honestly don't really follow reviews.
What's your biggest pet peeve? People who don't know how to clean up as they go, especially when it's people who have culinary experience. The first requirement in my kitchen is to know how to clean up after yourself; it's a necessity to keep your station clean and sanitized.
What's one thing that people would be surprised to know about you? I can have a pretty mean temper. It's the Irish in me, though I usually do a pretty good job of keeping it in check. It very rarely comes out, although those closest to me have experienced my stubbornness...and I've been known to throw things.
strong>What's your dream restaurant? It would be a multiple ethnic kitchen where each "ethnic" dining experience would have its own separate theme and sous chef.
What's next for you? For right now, I'm staying put. We have a few things in the pipeline, though, including planning a guest-chef series here that kicks off in June with Tyler Wiard from Elway's.
Last meal before you die: Maybe my own sushi chef to keep me entertained until I pass.
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