Round two with Ian Clark, chef at BRU: "Yelling gets you nowhere"
5290 Arapahoe Avenue, Boulder
This is part two of my interview with Ian Clark, exec chef and head brewer of BRU Handbuilt ales & eats; part one of our chat ran yesterday.
Your favorite smell in the kitchen:
I have a couple, but my top few would be toasted cumin and chiles, and, at BRU, the smell of burning oak and maple when we fire up our oven. And since our brewery is basically attached to our kitchen, I'll throw in the smell of fermenting beer or just-mashed grain.
Favorite dish on your menu right now:
Our pizza. Sounds kind of boring, I know, but it's all about our dough. I started growing our starter almost two years ago with a lambic yeast-culture blend from Belgium. Our sourdough starter has brettanomyces and lactobacillus in it, and it's constantly changing. The older it gets, the more pronounced the flavors get, and I love tasting it a couple times a week just to see how it changes from day to day.
What dish would you love to put on your menu, regardless of how well it would sell?
Cao Lao, a noodle dish from the small fishing town of Hoi An, Vietnam. My wife and I recently went there and loved it, and I ate as much cao lao as I could. The noodles can only be made in that town, and from the water of a specific well dug during the Cham Dynasty, probably due to the alkalinity of the water there. It was incredible: chewy noodles, pork boiled in five-spice and soy sauce, super-fresh greens and crispy rice crackers. I'm getting hungry right now just thinking about it.
Most noteworthy meal you've ever eaten:
That's a toss-up between eating enmoladas from a street vendor in Guanajato, Mexico, and the cao lao from this little old lady cooking out of a giant cast-iron pot over an open fire on the side of the road in Hoi An. There was no refrigeration, and both were cooking the one dish they'd been perfecting their entire lives; both experiences were incredible. There's something very special to me about dining in foreign countries; they're experiences we just can't get here in the United States.
Weirdest thing you've ever put in your mouth:
I braised a moose heart when I was in culinary school. It's a weird ingredient that most people don't get a chance to cook, let alone eat.
What specific requests would you ask of Denver diners?
Be open-minded. We miss out on great dishes because we refuse to get out of our comfort zone.
Best recipe tip for a home cook:
Recipes are just guidelines, unless you're in my kitchen, which means you follow my recipes. Don't follow them to a T; make them your own, and cook the way it feels best for you.
What should every home cook have in the pantry?
Fermented foods. Right now, I'm fermenting my own kimchi and always have yogurt going. It's super-simple, because the yeast and bacteria do all the work for you.
What's always lurking in your refrigerator?
Housemade salsa, pickled vegetables from our garden and some of my home-brewed beer. Oh, and copious amounts of honey from our beehive.
Most underrated Denver restaurant:
Tacos y Salsas on East Colfax. It's badass Mexican food in an unexpected location.
Who's the most underrated chef in Denver?
Joe Troupe from Lucky Pie. I don't think he's really underrated, but his food is delicious and craveable.
Would you ever send a dish back if you were dining in a friend's restaurant?
No, never. But I would tell them about it later.
What do you expect from a restaurant critic?
Anonymity isn't important to me, but I expect restaurant critics to be unbiased and honest, to see the food for what it is and the passion and energy that goes into each dish -- and, of course, to come into the restaurant multiple times. Every restaurant, every server, every cook has their off days -- we're all human, after all -- and that's what makes the food, the drinks and the service have true character.
What advice would you give to an aspiring young chef?
It's a long road, so be ready to work hard and don't expect what you see on TV. If you're passionate, stick with it and figure out how to make your dreams become a reality.
What skills and attributes do you look for when hiring kitchen staff?
Cooking knowledge is always a plus, but what I really look for is humility, drive and passion. I can teach people to cook, but I can't teach those attributes.
What's your biggest challenge as a chef working in Denver?
The fact that I can only get awesome, seasonal Colorado produce between April and October. I'd love to live somewhere like California, where you can get great vegetables from local farmers all year round.
Biggest mistake a chef can make on the line:
Yelling gets you nowhere. You can get your point across without raising your voice.
Your biggest pet peeves:
I can't stand dirty floors. It's the most used, stomped-on piece of equipment in the kitchen. You wouldn't let your knife get that dirty, so why would you let your floor get dirty?
Your best traits:
My wife tells me it's my humility, my passion and my eagerness to never stop learning. I would say it's my willingness to try anything, even when I have no idea what I'm doing.
Your worst traits:
My impatience. I'm like an eager child...I guess I never grew out of that.
If you could cook in another chef's kitchen, whose would it be?
Rick Bayless. The man is the godfather of Mexican cooking in this country, and I love Mexican food.
If you could get a free ticket and free dinner anywhere in the world, where would you go?
I would go back to Hoi An, Vietnam, and eat cao lao and banh mi off the streets. The food culture there was unpretentious, unassuming and absolutely delicious. In a word: incredible.
If you left Denver to cook somewhere else, where would you go?
I've cooked in Maine, Vermont, California and Hawaii, and at one point I was determined to move every six months so I could cook in a new kitchen, in a new part of the country, but once I got to Colorado, I fell madly in love with a girl, married her and never left.
If you had the opportunity to open your own restaurant with no budget constraints, what kind of restaurant would you open?
I'd probably do almost the same thing I just did with BRU, although I would have a lot more toys in the kitchen and brewery than what we currently have.
Biggest moment of euphoria in the kitchen:
Opening night at BRU. Having my own restaurant has been my goal since I was eighteen, and after planning for over four years, spending months building each table and each booth, seeing it all come together that night -- that was amazing.
Craziest night in the kitchen:
It was early morning, or night, depending on how you look at it. Either way, it was when I was asked to be on the Cooking Channel's Unique Eats to feature my brunch program, and we had to come in crazy-early to film. It was extra-crazy in the sense that it was wildly different from any other experience I'd had up to that point in my career.
If you could dress any way you wanted, what would you wear in the kitchen?
Are you kidding me? We basically wear sweatpants. What could be better than sweatpants and slip-on shoes all the time?
Greatest accomplishment as a chef:
Opening my own restaurant. This is what every chef dreams of. I happen to be lucky enough to have had that dream come true.
What's one thing that people would be surprised to know about you?
I'm also a professional brewer.
Last meal before you die:
it's all about simplicity and comfort. Roasted chicken and mashed potatoes with pickled greens would leave me with a grin on my face.
If you hadn't become a chef, what would you be doing right now?
Carpentry. I love working with my hands, and I love building and creating things. I actually worked as a carpenter as a second job when I was cooking in California, and it's a hobby that has always stuck with me.
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