This is part two of my interview with Hunter Pritchett, exec chef of Luca d'Italia. Part one of my chat with Pritchett ran in this space yesterday.
Favorite restaurant in America: I just had an amazing meal at Red Medicine in Los Angeles. It's heavily Asian, with a modern American slant and pure, clean flavors coupled with beautiful foraged produce elevated by great high-acid wines. The heirloom rice porridge with Santa Barbara uni, duck-fat-poached egg yolk and wild broccoli about knocked me out of my seat.
Favorite Denver/Boulder restaurant(s) other than your own: Chef Wayne and his crew at Sushi Sasa always do it right for me. In fact, I'm convinced that they're trying to turn me into a sea urchin.
Last restaurant you visited: Dong Khan Saigon Bowl, aka "The Dong."
Which chef in Denver/Boulder do you most respect? Frank Bonanno. The man never stops, he kicks ass on the line, he's always thinking and always going a million miles an hour, but he still manages to have a wonderful, normal life. I'll always be grateful for the chances he's given me and the faith he's shown in me.
What you'd like to see more of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: More late-night dining options that don't suck. Thankfully, Denver is becoming less of a 9-to-5 town, and don't get me wrong: I love late-night tacos and burgers, but sometimes I just feel like getting a meal with some green vegetables that won't give me a food hangover the next day. Some places are trying, but it's always easier to throw some shit in the fryer than to do something with a little bit of skill and imagination, and I think a lot of the late-night options fall victim to that.
What you'd like to see less of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: More knowledge and demand for quality. There are only so many great restaurants in Denver that do excellent dishes while maintaining the highest standards of quality. But there are hundreds of mediocre places that sling slop to anyone they can scam into coming in. This is a highly educated and well-informed community that shouldn't have to settle for mediocrity. I'm not demanding that people come in and do the seven-course tasting at Luca every night, but don't wait for three hours in the drive-thru at Steak 'n Shake to eat shit. The Denver dining scene is oversaturated with mediocre, uncreative, copycat restaurants, and the proliferation of mediocrity and the lessening of the standard have flattened the culinary landscape here. It needs more peaks.
Biggest compliment you've ever received: It's always comforting to have native Italians eat at Luca, stick their heads into the kitchen and tell us that the food really reminds them of home or times past. My food is contemporary Italian, with tons of creative licensing, and it's always mind-blowing to hit those neural pathways in people whom I've never met before.
What's the best food- or kitchen-related gift you've been given? At my first company holiday party, Frank Bonanno gave the kitchen crew Japanese single-sided knives. They were razor-sharp, brand-new and a helluva gift for a crowd of drunk cooks. My outlook on knives and knifework totally changed after that. I had always struggled with big, clunky German Wüsthofs, and that fine Japanese blade, which is relatively easy to maintain, made me a better chef.
What do you cook at home that you never cook at the restaurant? I rarely cook at home, but when I do, it's Asian. I spent a lot of time in Malaysia and the Philippines while I was growing up and have a true affection for that kind of food. The cuisine of Southeast Asia emphasizes so much freshness, flavor and balance, and I'm saving up to fly back to revisit everything my angsty early teenage mind blocked out.
Favorite food from your childhood: Roti canai with daal, which I used to eat when I lived in Malaysia.
Favorite dish on your menu: Right now, it's the squid-ink chitarra with sea urchin butter, Nantucket bay scallops, chiles and cilantro. It's sex in a bowl.
What are your favorite wines and/or beers? Italian wines all the way. As I see it, no other country produces such a vast variety -- or has more variation -- when it comes to wines. I've been lucky enough to do some great wine dinners with our sommelier Jim Herbst; our last wine dinner was with Bastianich, which was huge for us. And I've got huge respect for Ales Kristancic, a Slovenian winemaker. We did a dinner with him that really blew my mind, thanks to his out-of-the-box, almost violent, zen-like party-animal approach to winemaking.
One book that every chef should read: Kitchen Confidential. The scandals, partying and drugs are all fine and entertaining, but the book does a great job illustrating the necessity for hard work as a chef. You're making a pizza. What's on it? Chèvre, eggplant, red onions, my homemade hybrid prosciutto/Virginia ham, herb salsa verde and Manni olive oil.
Guiltiest food pleasure: Salumi and burrata.
Best culinary tip for a home cook: Practice as much as you can, remember that cooking should be fun and keep your knife sharp.
Are you affected by reviews at all? What's your opinion on food writers and social review sites like Yelp, OpenTable and Urbanspoon? They're fine, and they serve a purpose: to consolidate ratings. Through the years, I've developed a pretty good filter for reviews, taking them for what they're worth and using them to improve. If they're personal or overly mean, I ignore them. We always try to solve problems at the table through great service, and rarely do people leave unsatisfied. If they do, there will usually be a gift certificate in the mail.
What's your favorite knife? A ten-inch, Western-style silver steel Japanese blade, from Tetsuya-san, an awesome Japanese knife broker. His knives are versatile and razor-sharp, and when he's in town, I'm guaranteed to spend half my paycheck.
If you could cook in another chef's kitchen, whose would it be? Massimo Bottura, the chef at Osteria Francescana in Modena, Italy. His menus, philosophy and food have consistently shown me that Italian food can be contemporary and precise but still retain emotion and beauty. I hope to stage there in May for a couple weeks.
Favorite celebrity chef: Massimo Bottura.
Celebrity chef who should shut up: Guy Fieri is pretty insufferable, but everyone always says that.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef: Making people happy every night. I also cooked at the Jean-Louis Palladin tribute dinner at Alize in Las Vegas, with my then-chef Andre Rochat. It was an awesome experience that benefited a great charity, and I was able to learn about a landmark French chef who died before I really started paying attention to seasonal food. That's a beautiful memory.
What's one thing about you or your restaurant that people would be surprised to know? I was born with a beard and the ability to perfectly filet a Dover sole.
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Hardest lesson you've learned: Be nice, for Christ's sake. I've worked for some seriously difficult people, from screaming, punching lunatics to the most passive-aggressive, demeaning fucksticks out there. Granted, they were great chefs who taught me valuable lessons in technique, but more important, they taught me what not to do. Whenever I see myself even resembling a shadow of them, I know it's time to chill out for a second, look at the situation and then defuse it.
What's next for you? I'm teaching a rabbit-butchery class, planning our seven-course Valentine's Day menu, getting through Denver Restaurant Week(s), planning a trip to Europe to see my dad, hopefully doing a stage in Italy, and I'm attempting to get rid of all the overgrown mint in the Luca rooftop garden.
Last meal before you die: A couple of Sazeracs and spicy char kuey teow in a loud and sweaty night market, with stray cats running over my feet and scooter exhaust in the air and my fiancée, Katie, by my side.