Round two with Ed Kammerer, exec chef of Highland Pacific
3934 West 32nd Avenue
Part one of my interview with Ed Kammerer, exec chef-owner of Highland Pacific Restaurant & Oyster Bar, ran yesterday; this is part two of our chat.
Rules of conduct in your kitchen: We used to have all kinds of rules about what you should have on your station and what you should bring to work, like your own knives, but I've found that as I hire better people and fire those without common sense and general respect for others, the fewer rules I have to make. Experienced cooks know the rules -- although in today's world, there is one thing that has to be addressed constantly: cell phones. I'm not sure when being in constant communication with people you're not in the immediate room with became part of the Bill of Rights, but it's constantly addressed in my kitchen as a privilege that can be revoked at any time. I try to be respectful to responsible adults who get their job done, and I use the phone as a positive tool to gain knowledge when we have a question, or need to find something or get in touch with another employee. But if cell-phone use is abused, the privilege is revoked.
What's never in your kitchen? Waste. We waste very little and we're very efficient with our ordering. I have to give credit to my chef manager, Andy Exell, because he's ruthless when it comes to organization and ordering. We feed our kitchen staff like family, and they respect our products because of it. The only food that gets thrown away from Highland Pacific is the food that doesn't get finished on customer's plates. We're very proud of this.
What's always in your kitchen? I always have some background music on in the kitchen. Music is a big part of my life and helps me put myself in a creative state. Sure, when it's busy, it has to be quiet so we can communicate, but there are also times when we crank it up to release stress and get through the end of the night. It changes from John Coltrane to Rage Against the Machine pretty quickly in our kitchen.
Favorite restaurant in America: The French Laundry. Thomas Keller could be the most important chef currently working in our industry. I ate the best meal of my life there, and I've worked alongside a few chefs that have come from his kitchen. I've also read all of his books and continue to be impressed by his techniques, as well as his ability to not let his success go to his head. His ability to embrace classic techniques as well as push the envelope of creativity simply amazes me.
Favorite Denver/Boulder restaurant(s) other than your own: I don't get to eat out as much as I'd like, but when I do, my wife, Yvette, and I go to Sushi Sasa. I think that chef Wayne does a really great job with product. The restaurant is classy and elegant without being presumptuous and trendy, I always have good food when I'm there, and the waitstaff is well trained, professional and knowledgeable. While there are some other really good sushi restaurants in town, Sushi Sasa does the best job of keeping its focus on the food and service without getting too trendy and caught up in the hype. It's exactly what I expect from a chef-owned restaurant.
Favorite cheap eat in Denver: I go to a small, family-owned restaurant in north Denver called La Cocinita. It's a place where you can absolutely stuff yourself with better-than-average Mexican food for under $10. The same family members are always there, and the food is consistent. Eat in, though, because the food just doesn't travel well on the go.
What you'd like to see more of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: More events where chefs get together and cook individual courses for a captive audience. Years ago we tried to do a progressive dinner in our neighborhood, where customers could walk between a few different restaurants and have a course at each one. It was a great idea, but it never really took off. Still, I'd like to see it happen on a larger scale. Imagine twenty people cruising around Denver in a big bus with cocktails and eating a different course at multiple restaurants. I'd love to see something like that take place.
What you'd like to see less of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: Burger restaurants. I've only eaten at a few that I thought were very good, and people keep telling me about a new one I should try. It's a little overdone. Pizza joints, too, but with pizza, at least, you get differences in origins and crust recipes. The burger thing is just out of control.
What's the best food- or kitchen-related gift you've been given? I received a generous gift from a friend of ours, Heather Donovan, who grew up on Cypress Grove's farms as a little girl. She sent us a gift box that included Humboldt Fog goat cheese, Lamb Chopper, Purple Haze and Truffle Tremor, all of these extremely high-quality goat cheeses. We're cheese freaks.
What are your favorite wines and/or beers? I'm not a big beer guy, but I really enjoy Deschutes Mirror Pond Pale Ale. As for wines, I like the Rombauer chardonnay, and I think La Crema makes an outstanding pinot noir for the price.
Favorite dish on your menu: Our scallops. We pan-sear three large scallops and serve them with a sauté of fresh asparagus, leeks and baby spinach. Then we top that with mashed potatoes and white truffle oil. We finish it with a chardonnay cream sauce and a little parsley oil. It's been the best-selling item on our menu since the day we opened, and one of the only dishes that hasn't come off our menu.
Biggest menu bomb: We don't really have any menu bombs, because we don't put anything on the menu that we haven't already offered as a special with good results. That said, we just recently trotted out a swordfish special, and we only sold three, which is one of the worst performances of any fish variety we've ever tried. I can't figure out why no one wanted to try it out. Maybe swordfish just isn't what people like these days.
One book that every chef should read: I think every experienced chef or culinary-school student should read Kitchen Confidential, by Anthony Bourdain. It sheds light on some of the crazy things and people you'll run into throughout your career, and it makes you feel like all those crazy things you did early in your career are completely normal experiences for chefs. I read it when it first came out and couldn't put it down. I must have bought four copies to give to chef friends, all of whom thanked me, and we still reference it today when we talk shop.
Best recipe tip for a home cook: Learn to season your food properly. It sounds simple, but if you get used to using kosher or sea salt, and get a pepper grinder instead of using the pre-ground stuff, you'll be amazed by how much better things taste. It's a really simple tip, but there are plenty of professional chefs who don't even do this. Also: Season in stages instead of dumping everything in at the end. Seasoning needs time to permeate, and if you do it right, people notice.
What's your biggest pet peeve? Being late to work. This is part of the reason I don't refer to myself as an artist. I consider myself more of a craftsman. As soon as people start referring to you as a culinary artist, you can pretty much bet you'll be late for work. I'm not late for work.
Biggest compliment you're ever received: I don't enter many culinary competitions, but before I opened Highland Pacific, I was talked into entering the Colorado Chef of the Year contest put on by the American Culinary Federation. I mainly did it to get a little press for the restaurant, but it turned out to be quite challenging and fun. I made it to the final four, and while I didn't win, I received a lot of compliments from chefs, and I learned a lot about myself. A certified American Master Chef who watched the whole competition came up to me and asked me if had ever competed in an ACF-sanctioned event before, and when I told him I hadn't -- that I didn't even have time to familiarize myself with the judging criteria -- he patted me on the back and said that I did really well and should enter some more competitions.
What do you enjoy most about your craft? There's nothing better than putting hard work into a special and then walking into the dining room and seeing customers roll their eyes with pleasure. It's instant gratification, and that keeps it fun for me.
Favorite celebrity chef: I enjoy watching Alton Brown. His take on food knowledge and the cinematography of his show are very interesting, plus he's fun to listen to and generally has a lot of useful facts and science to apply to cooking techniques.
Celebrity chef who needs a muzzle: Rachael Ray just needs to just go away. She's not a very good cook, she can barely hold a knife right, and she's obnoxious. I can't believe there hasn't been a movement to get her off TV. She thinks she's the Oprah of the Food Network.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef: Building Highland Pacific from the ground up and keeping it running for the last seven years. It hasn't been easy, and somehow I've raised two beautiful seven-year-old twin girls through the entire process. It was always my dream to open my own restaurant, but it definitely has its challenges. It's true that owning a restaurant is a labor of love, but having the support of my wonderful family and friends has kept us going; they help to keep me focused. It's still a work in progress, but I definitely feel a sense of accomplishment.
Describe the biggest challenges facing today's chefs: The purchasing and procurement of quality, wholesome and safe products, which is becoming increasingly difficult as the economic climate changes in America and in the foreign countries we import food from. The job of a chef is to know where he can find products that he trusts and are safe to serve to his customers at a price that can still be profitable to his business. The resurgence of locally grown food and the ability to get it at a reasonable price gives me hope that we can pull ourselves out of the financial difficulties that we've faced over the past few years. People need to continue to care about their food, be cognizant of where it comes from, and support the neighborhood restaurants that are committed to serving high-quality food.
Most humbling moment as a chef: When I chose to leave a sous-chef position in Austin, Texas, to move to Carmel to become a line cook again. Every cook leaves culinary school with this drive to get the "chef" tag, and I had multiple chef, sous-chef and executive sous-chef titles just because of my degree, but I hadn't really learned what I needed to take the confidence of the title and lead a kitchen or start my own restaurant. I took a pay cut and a demotion so I could learn from chefs and leaders working in one of the most advanced culinary scenes in America. It was tough to do, but it was the smartest move I made in my career.
If you could cook in another chef's kitchen, whose would it be? I'd love the experience of cooking in Thomas Keller's kitchen. From what I've been told, it's that place where everyone knows exactly what they're doing -- and knows what you're supposed to be doing if you get lost. It's a kitchen of respect and professionalism, where simple things take beautiful form. It sounds like a wonderful place.
Last meal before you die: I'd love to go back in time to when I was a cook at the 2000 Masters of Food and Wine event in Carmel and sit down and eat the courses I helped plate with Jean-Louis Palladin, Michael Richard, Julian Serrano, Charlie Trotter and Jacques Pépin. That was one hell of a kitchen experience cooking with all those guys, and I would love to sit and eat that entire meal, course after course.
What's your dream restaurant? I'd like to design a restaurant/music venue with a Cajun theme here in the Denver area and then duplicate it up in the mountains. There's a very real and passionate connection between the people of Colorado and the people of New Orleans, and I'd like to bring that to life in the right setting. I'd also have one in New Orleans and move staff seasonally between the two cities to keep it honest and real.
What's next for you? I don't have any plans for a new concept, but I'm always scribbling notes and ideas for when the right time might arise. I'd say that in the next three years, I could expect to add on to the concept of Highland Pacific in some way, either physically or creatively. We will see what the future holds.
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