This is part two of my interview with Chris Cina, executive chef of Hideaway Steakhouse. Part one of that interview ran in this space yesterday.
Favorite restaurant in America: Zuni Cafe in San Francisco. I worked with Sean Kelly when he first opened Aubergine Cafe in Denver, and he was doing the Judy Rodgers roast chicken from Zuni on Sundays. It was the most comforting food ever. When I went to San Francisco, I went to Zuni Cafe to see the place for myself. The food is simple, rustic and the perfect blend of America, Italy and France. There are tons of restaurants I want to get to, but Zuni is the one place I always want to go back to -- that's how I know it's my favorite restaurant.
Best food city in America: That's so tough to answer. New York and San Francisco are the pinnacles of culinary excellence in the U.S., but with the national food explosion that started ten to fifteen years ago, cities like Chicago, Las Vegas, Seattle and even Boulder are closing the gap. I guess if I were looking to spend a week doing nothing but eating, I would do it in Chicago; it seems like that's where most of the new ideas are coming from lately.
Favorite Denver/Boulder restaurant(s) other than your own: Currently it's Bittersweet, before that it was Tables, and before that, it was Rioja. I tend to fall in love quickly, especially when it comes to dining out. If the food is well executed and took some obvious thought, I'm a quick fan. Olav Peterson, the chef at Bittersweet, makes food that's like that: clean, thoughtful, and done with a purpose. He's probably the most cerebral chef I know.
What you'd like to see more of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: I think Denver, and especially Boulder, have finally gotten to a point where there really isn't anything lacking. Denver has done well nationally with Alex Seidel winning a Best New Chef award from Food & Wine magazine; Frank Bonanno was on No Reservations and Hosea Rosenberg won Top Chef, so I can't say we need more media coverage of what we're doing here. We have great ethnic restaurants, the city is sponsoring efforts for more street-food vendors, and the food-truck craze is well entrenched -- even if the city hasn't made it easy. Most chefs in Denver or Boulder have some sort of connection to local products, so maybe the best thing to say is that I'd like to see more of what's already being done.
What you'd like to see less of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: Less "farm-to-table," "farm-to-fork," "farm-to-city," "farm-to-chef" lingo, claims and classifications. Do we really need to advertise something we should already be doing?
Current Denver culinary genius: Troy Guard has it going on right now. I didn't know anything about Troy until my wife and I went in to Nine 75 just after it opened. We loved that place, and I was really excited when TAG opened, and TAG | RAW BAR seemed like an intelligent, if not natural, progression. I'm still looking forward to getting in there, and since my schedule here is starting to lighten up, I'm assuming that's the next place I'll fall in love with.
What's the best food- or kitchen-related gift you've been given? In 1998, David Steinmann, who used to be a chef at the Fourth Story, gave me a Benriner slicer that he'd gotten on a trip to San Francisco. It's a little plastic mandolin that shaves vegetables paper-thin -- and I used it a ton. I still keep two of them in my kitchen box at all times. I haven't received anything good lately; perhaps everyone thinks I already have everything.
One book that every chef should read: The Flavor Bible is a compendium in analysis of tastes, textures and their interplay from some of the best tastebuds in the world.
What show would you pitch to the Food Network, and what would it be about? I've never watched the Food Network, so for all I know, this show already exists, but I'd pitch a show called A Day in the Kitchen, where there'd be a different chef every week: You'd get up with him on Friday morning and go through his entire day -- staff meeting, service, break down and cooling off. There wouldn't be any of the chefs you've ever heard of before, just guys and girls who do this on a daily basis. A lot of reality TV, as it relates to the food world, doesn't seem very authentic. I've cooked professionally for 25 years, and I can spot a fake.
You're making a pizza. What's on it? Pesto, duck confit, goat cheese and roasted red peppers.
You're at the market. What do you buy two of? Generally something pretty I can take a picture of before I cook or eat it. If there's a baker there, I'll buy bread, and if there is white asparagus? That's the best way to score points with the wife.
Best culinary tip for a home cook: Respect your ingredients; treat them like family, and make every effort to take care of them, because you spent good money to buy them, and chances are you intend to feed them to yourself or your family. You can tell a lot about a chef by the way he organizes his food storage.
Guiltiest food pleasure? I know they're made with meat glue and all the bits and pieces that can't go anywhere else, but I love a hot dog on a toasted bun smothered in yellow mustard.
If you could cook for one famous chef, dead or alive, who would it be? I'd like to see Gordon Ramsay get through a meal without spitting something out, throwing up or bashing every plate that's set in front of him.
Favorite celebrity chef: I'm a huge Gordon Ramsay fan. The reality shows he does here in the States have been so over-dramatized for the American audience. If you watch the shows produced in Europe, they're much more informative and focused on the restaurant than on the temper tantrums. He's got an opinion and he stands his ground, and I respect that fact that he was able to overcome a crap childhood and make something of himself through his cooking and personality.
Celebrity chef who should shut up: I don't know if he's a celebrity chef or not, but I can't turn Ted Allen off fast enough. If there was ever a more elitist food snob, I've yet to see him.
Are chefs artists, craftsmen or both? I'd have to say both. It's the artist that creates the dish, and it's the craftsman that can reproduce -- or teach a staff to reproduce -- the dish over and over each night.
What's your favorite knife? I use my Global Yanagi for butchering all my meat, poultry and seafood, which is not at all a normal practice, but I love the feel of it. The edge holds forever, and I can go from boning to portioning with the same knife. I've always had Globals professionally, and when I went to Europe in 2001, I had to ship my knives over to the chef in Switzerland. I figured they would all laugh at the dumb American with his Global knives, but when I got there, the only chefs who weren't using Globals were the Japanese sushi chefs. Still, one of my cooks has a set of Shuns. I've been playing with them, tempted to make a switch.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef: To date, it's been the ability to stay happily married and raise two daughters while regularly working sixty to eighty hours a week. That wasn't the case in the beginning, but I've learned to prioritize my life as a whole. I love my job and what I do, but the schedule and lifestyle can wreak havoc on family life. My family is the most important thing in my life -- although for a while it wasn't -- but learning how to put my family first has been my greatest accomplishment as a chef.
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What's next for you? I'm hoping this is it for a while. It seems like I've bounced around quite a bit over the last ten years looking for a place to call home. We still have a lot of work to do to get this restaurant where it needs to be, and I'm still training the cooks and teaching them how I want things done. We're still a very young restaurant -- barely two months old -- and we have great strides to make before we can be included with some of the better places in town, but make no mistake, that's the goal.
Last meal before you die: As a pastry chef, my wife's savory cooking isn't one of her strengths, although she has definitely gotten better since we've had our two little girls, and she does all the cooking for them. One of those things she does brilliantly is her spaghetti Bolognese. A big bowl of that Bolognese and a huge chunk of warm garlic bread is what I want before I die.