Round two with Duncan Smith, exec chef of Dazzle
Part one of my interview with Duncan Smith, exec chef of Dazzle, ran yesterday; this is part two of our conversation.
Rules of conduct in your kitchen: They're really quite simple. First, show up clean and ready to work before your shift starts; second, show respect for your fellow employees; third, follow the direction of the management; and fourth, teamwork achieves our goals, so work as a team. I find if people follow these simple rules, everything else just falls in line.
What's never in your kitchen? Bad attitudes. The kitchen is no place for negativity, and I'm a firm believer that negativity is the one single ingredient that will destroy a whole service. One rotten apple in the bunch can destroy the flow of a tight-knit kitchen crew. It's an ugly thing that produces equally ugly food.
What's always in your kitchen? A dash of humor. Life is just too short to sweat the small stuff, and Lo knows, it's already hot enough in the kitchen. Busy kitchens bring out stress and high emotions, and humor is important to keep things light. Laughter has always been an important part of the kitchen vibe, and without a sense of humor, most chefs wouldn't fit in with the great guys and girls I work with.
If you only had 24 hours in Denver/Boulder, where would you eat? I'd I go to Snarf's. I'm such a sucker for their subs, which really are one of a kind. I haven't traveled a whole lot, but I've been to enough places to say that I have yet to find a sandwich shop that rivals Snarf's.
Favorite restaurant in America: Dazzle. I know there are a lot of fantastic places to eat in America, but none of them have demanded so much from me. I guess people can equate it to having a child: Regardless of all the other options, this one is mine, and I love it.
Favorite cheap eat in Denver/Boulder: The burritos from the coolers you find around Coors Field. Yeah, I know that eating out of a cooler is kind of throwing caution to the wind, but the Denver area does the best cooler burrito. The whole meal is cheap, fast and yummy.
What you'd like to see more of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: More interaction between restaurants. I think we can all learn a lot by working together. Guest-cheffing in other restaurants, for example, would benefit those who get tied down with their own day-to-day monotony, and I think a swap program would build a stronger culinary unity among Denver chefs. It'd be a great advantage, given that our culinary scene is seeing such a great boom.
What you'd like to see less of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: Fewer food trucks. When the latest food-truck craze blew up, it seemed like there was a new truck every day. I love the fact that accessible, fast, affordable food is now available via a truck, but I prefer a seat in a building. I don't want to see the trend end completely, but it would be nice to see fewer restaurants on wheels.
What's the best food- or kitchen-related gift you've been given? Hands down, the barbecue charcoal grill my father passed down to me. It's a simple charbroil grill, but it's my absolute favorite piece of equipment to cook with. The grill is as old as me, if not older, and the cooking grates are heavy, which goes to show they just don't make grills like the used to; all the frills and extras they sell on barbecue grills these days aren't needed. It's one of the simplest forms of cooking, and my grill allows me to do just that: keep it simple. Oh, and please let my boss know that my favorite new gift is the brand-new six-burner he bought for the kitchen. Thanks -- we love them, Donald.
Favorite childhood food memory: Picking through vegetable gardens with my mom. In North Dakota, fall always means full gardens, and fall gardens means lots of produce ripe for the picking. Pulling fresh carrots from the ground and eating them on the spot is one of my fondest memories. I also remember this time of year as canning season. My mother was always canning vegetables and fruits, and the smells of cooking tomatoes and dill pickles were always strong in the house in the fall. She still makes the best salsa around. Thanks, Mom.
Favorite junk food: All things candy. It's always been a weakness of mine. I love sweets, from hard candies to decadent chocolates. I could skip right through dinner for a box of Mike and Ikes.
One book that every chef should read: Kitchen Confidential, by Anthony Bourdain. I think it just gives people an insider's look at the so-called behind-the-scenes life of a chef. And it's entertaining to read.
Weirdest customer request: I was working at a small cafe years ago, and we had a dish on the menu called a hamburger steak, which was essentially a half-pound burger patty with vegetables and potatoes. A customer requested that I simply put their hamburger steak in the microwave for a quick five seconds. When it came out, it was no more than a pile of cold, raw hamburger, aka tiger meat. The customer ate the entire thing and complimented me on the dish. I'll always remember that as extremely weird.
Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: Canned walleye. It's a little different from most pickled herring and pickled fish varieties you can get at the store. This is a bit oily, has a pronounced fishy taste, and any ladies standing near you won't be around for long. The fish wasn't bad served on simple saltine crackers, but it's definitely weird.
Best recipe tip for a home cook: Use recipes as a shopping list rather than a guide (unless you're baking). Once the basic fundamental preparations of a dish are realized, don't get caught up in following the recipe step by step. I think lots of amazing things can happen when you toss a little of your own personality into food preparation. I found that when I first started cooking: I'd pay too much attention to the words in a recipe book rather than concentrating on the actual actions of cooking. Trial and error -- not precisely following recipes -- is the pathway to being a great home cook.
What are your biggest pet peeves? Tardiness. I put a lot of effort into planning the day's production, and when an employee is late, it jeopardizes the flow. No-call, no-shows are also at the top of that list. I like to have a plan, and when I have to deviate from that plan to cover someone who didn't show up for a shift, it makes me angry. And just like the Incredible Hulk, you wouldn't like me when I'm angry.
If you could cook in another chef's kitchen, whose would it be? Matt Selby's, at Vesta Dipping Grill. I think Matt has done some great things with the Vesta concept, and he's just one of those names that comes up more often than not when you talk about good food in Denver. On a national-celebrity level, I'd like to work in one of chef Gordon Ramsay's restaurants, just for the opportunity to see if he's really that big of an asshole. I'm always amused by his shows, and I'd love to see his persona when the cameras aren't on. That would be interesting.
Culinary heroes: My dad; my mom; my grandmas; Patty Heisler, my old babysitter; and my kitchen staff. I don't spend much time making heroes out of celebrity chefs. I could go on and on about all of the great chefs throughout the world, but to be an actual hero of mine takes more of a personal connection.
Favorite celebrity chef: Jacques Pépin. I find most celebrity chefs to be fake and insincere, but Jacques always makes cooking look so tranquil and fun, and let's not forget the man makes classical techniques look quite simple. While surfing through the TV channels, stumbling across a Jacques Pépin cooking cooking show is like stumbling across a Bob Ross painting show. I'm just extremely mesmerized and unable to turn the channel.
Celebrity chef who needs a muzzle: Emeril Lagasse. I respect the man for what he's done for cooking on television, but I'm completely done with him. I saw him on one of the morning news programs, and he just came off as being more interested in selling his line of merchandise than actually creating and being innovative with food.
What's your best piece of advice to culinary-school grads? Graduate with some enthusiasm. Nobody is going to make sure you have your homework done, so it's up to you whether or not you excel. Culinary degrees are a great asset to have, but that fancy piece of paper means nothing if you don't prove yourself. It's simply a building block.
Biggest compliment you've ever received: When my older sister was in town, we came to Dazzle for dinner and a show, and we heard a lady at the table next to us tell the server to let the chef know how wonderful her food was. The server looked at the lady and said, "Actually, you can tell him yourself, because he's sitting right there." I guess it was just one of those unexpected moments that throws you for a curve.
Most humbling moment as a chef: The restaurant owner's family came in for dinner one night, and one of the guests in the party received a lovely piece of glass in her salad. It was one of those freak accidents, but you think to yourself, "Great, it's the owner's family; how do you explain that?" I've never felt so sick to my stomach. I wanted to shrivel up and die. It was a definite lesson learned, and easily the most humbling experience of my career.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef: The charity work I've had a chance to be involved with. I find great satisfaction in cooking for a good cause; those are the moments when I truly feel satisfied. My accomplishments are focused more on who I can impact rather than who I can impress.
What's your dream restaurant? A sixty-seat waterfront bistro. The menu would reflect seasonal and local ingredients as well as my personality, so it would need to have a smokehouse attached, where I could produce a lot of the finished product for my restaurant. It would have a small garden of herbs and vegetables to help sustain product during the growing season, and it would also have a perfect staff that was happy all the time. You said it was a dream, didn't you?
What's one thing that people would be surprised to know about you? I suppose people might be surprised to know that when I'm not in the kitchen, I like to be in the garden. Not too typical for a guy my age, I guess.
Last meal before you die: A bacon cheeseburger with Gouda. It would have all of the fixings and come with a side of perfect crispy fries. I'd also have an enormous piece of German chocolate cake, and I'd wash it all down with a Budweiser and a shot of Jameson. What can I say? It's the simple things in life that please me.
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