This is part two of my interview with Joe Troupe, exec chef of Lucky Pie Pizza & Tap House. Part one of our chat was posted yesterday.
Best thing about cooking in Denver: The food and markets in Denver are pretty awesome. We still have a ton of people farming food from generations ago and doing it in a responsible way. I also think we have a great customer base that keeps us honest. I feel like Denver diners are becoming more educated and more adventurous; they expect great food, but not in a pretentious or obnoxious way.
Favorite Denver/Boulder restaurant(s) other than your own: ChoLon is doing a phenomenal job. Everything that I've had from that restaurant has been exceptional. A friend of mine recommended the kaya toast, which isn't something that would typically appeal to me, but it's one of the greatest things I've ever put in my mouth. On top of that, the cocktails are spot-on and the whole restaurant is beautiful.
Favorite cheap eats in Denver: It's not that cheap anymore, but Jim's Burger Haven holds a special place in my heart. Whenever I go, I have to send a picture message of my malt to my parents to rub it in. To this day, Jim's still has one of the best, greasiest burgers I've ever eaten.
What you'd like to see more of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: More restaurants owned and run by passionate, sincere people. Not many people in the service industry are going to make it rich, and I feel like if you're committing your life to service, there should be some fire and passion; diners shouldn't stand for uninspired food or service. The quality of the restaurants has to increase, and the hype needs to decrease. I've been hearing for years about how Denver's food scene is getting closer to Chicago or San Francisco, but the only way we're going to get there is for diners, chefs and restaurateurs to shun mediocrity.
What you'd like to see less of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: Egos and overpriced food. I know firsthand the cost of operating a restaurant, and I find it appalling how much some restaurants charge for food. Yes, organic, natural, local food is frequently more expensive, but it shouldn't be something reserved for foodies and rich folk. We as chefs, cooks, restaurateurs -- or whatever someone wants to be called -- not only have the opportunity to change our food culture both locally and nationally, but we have a responsibility to do so. Too frequently, a farmer's name or the word "organic" is placed on the menu for no other reason than to raise the check average. That's not what I'm about. It's about getting quality everything to your guests and making sure they have enough cash left over in their wallet to come back tomorrow.
Favorite restaurant in America: Momofuku Noodle Bar in New York. The pork buns are life-changing, although everything that comes out of their kitchen is incredible. They don't use stupid garnishes or a ton of random ingredients. Everything on every plate serves a purpose, and the execution is flawless. And there's something to be said about turning a noodle bar into an empire.
Favorite dish on your menu: Our Cheech pizza is hard to beat. I find that a very simple pizza speaks volumes about what we do and who we are. True, it's just a cheese pizza, but it starts with local organic flour and is finished with cheese that's handmade and smoked in our kitchen. There's nothing groundbreaking about it; it's just simple, clean flavors and love. Other than our pizzas, I have to say that our fried chicken is pretty solid. I think it's something that people aren't expecting when they're handed our menu.
Biggest menu bomb: When I got my first sous-chef job, the importance of maintaining food costs was beat into my head pretty severely. I was taught that everything could be repurposed in some way, and we had to make money off of everything. We had some leftover white-bean bisque, which wasn't great to start with, but we didn't have enough of it to serve as a soup, so I decided it would be a good idea to repurpose it as a sauce for my mushroom ravioli special. Even saying this out loud, I realize what an awful idea it was. The soup was ungodly starchy, and I was putting it on top of more starch...filled with a little more starch. Our GM didn't taste it until after the lunch rush, at which time it was immediately 86'd. I really have no idea what I was thinking at the time, but it taught me a good lesson about the integrity of every plate that you put out. For any business, the bottom line is the bottom line, but did I try to save five bucks and sacrifice the integrity of our restaurant for a day? Yes.
Favorite junk food: I can't keep Doritos in my house. I know they aren't even real food, but there's just something about having cheese-covered fingers and that sweet-salty goodness.
Favorite wines and/or beers: Our bar managers at both restaurants do a phenomenal job of getting amazing beer, so my favorites change every day. Between the two restaurants, we have 48 taps of craft beer, with few repeats. My recent favorite was the Saboteur, from Odell. They do a great job all the way around, but they really nailed this one. It has a touch of sourness, but it's super-earthy, and the oak brings everything together. That said, I can't get enough Blind Pig from Russian River or Racer 5 from Bear Republic. Nothing to say other than that they're effing delicious.
What's your biggest pet peeve? Dirty walk-in coolers make me want to strangle line cooks. Great food can't be neglected at any point, and it all starts in your cooler. When cooks can't keep a large cooler or their station orderly, there's little hope of them producing any food that's worth serving.
Are you affected by reviews at all? What's your opinion on food writers and social review sites like Yelp, OpenTable and Urbanspoon? I learned a long time ago that you are doing a disservice to yourself and your guests if you try to be all things to all people, especially with pizza and eggs. No one can scramble eggs like your mother, and no, our pizza is not like that little place that you grew up next to in Chicago -- we're better. Every guest who walks into our restaurant has their own perception of pizza, but if they can get past the fact that bready, tasteless shit isn't what we serve, then they're usually pleasantly surprised. Most of the complaints I hear are that our pizza isn't like this place or that place and that our pizzas have too few ingredients. That's great. That's not what we're trying to be, and if everyone who walks through our door loves everything we do, then we probably aren't pushing ourselves enough. On the other hand, if people hate an item but don't take the time to let us know about their dissatisfaction either by speaking up or writing about it, then that's a problem -- and that kind of stuff needs to be addressed. I love a great conversation.
Biggest compliment you've ever received: One of my cooks asked if he could write a school project about someone who influenced his life...me. I think it's really easy to get caught up in the day-to-day service, daily specials and next menu and forget that all of the people around us are cooking because they love it. It really made me reassess my priorities and realize what an opportunity we have to make a difference in people's lives -- not just somebody's evening.
One book that every chef should read: Culinary Artistry changed my life. A chef gave it to me for my 21st birthday, and while I didn't realize it at the time, it's a book that every chef should own. It simplifies much bigger concepts for someone who's just starting out, and it teaches the foundations of cooking in a don't-run-before-you-can-walk sort of way.
What's the best food- or kitchen-related gift you've been given? My KitchenAid really reinvigorated my desire to cook at home. You have so many gadgets and tools in a commercial kitchen that it makes you a little lazy at home. But when I got my KitchenAid, I was like a kid in a candy store. I then got the ice cream maker, the sausage stuffer and the pasta rollers, and I've spent a ton of time at home perfecting pasta, which has really helped me out at work.
Best recipe tip for a home cook: Don't spend too much time focusing on the details of a recipe...unless you're baking, in which case disregard what I just said. Cooking is a lot more forgiving than people think. The most important thing as you follow a recipe is to taste your food every step of the way so you can gain an understanding of the ingredients and procedures.
Culinary heroes: My stepdad and all of my grandparents are pretty awesome cooks who really shaped my beliefs, but on a professional level, there are a few chefs who stand out: Thomas Keller has an amazing drive and commitment to all things food, and I love the way he elevates simple ingredients -- and he's done it all without a formal culinary education. I admire Ferran Adrià for the way he pushes the limits of everything, and David Chang is awesome for the way he shoves his beliefs and philosophies down the throat of anyone who will listen. I've never heard him hold back even a little bit.
If you could cook in another chef's kitchen, whose would it be? I would love to step into Alinea and work for Grant Achatz. He has such clear-cut and high expectations. I really admire his commitment, his passion and his drive to produce nothing but the best.
Favorite celebrity chef: David Chang fascinates me. His quest to do everything -- and do it better than everyone else -- is pretty awesome. I've never heard of anyone else being ambitious enough to go from a noodle bar through the gambit to fine dining and polish it off with a couple of pastry shops and a bad-ass magazine. The most amazing part is that nothing he does sucks.
Celebrity chef who needs a muzzle: Anyone who is a celebrity first and a chef second. I'm really thankful for the Food Network era for getting people excited about food, but cooks should be judged by what's on their plate.
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Most humbling moment as a chef: I walked into a high-volume Italian restaurant thinking I was a shoo-in for a lead line-cook position, and during one of my first nights working pasta, it seemed easy enough, but I soon realized I was taking it for granted. I was going through the motions, and though I was putting every single ingredient in each dish, there was no care or concern for each individual plate. For the first hour of service, I didn't touch a tasting spoon until my sous chef appeared on the other side of the line and tasted one of my dishes. He instantly tossed the plate in the garbage and told me to fire another. I double-checked that everything was in the next dish, and again it landed in the garbage. The next thing I knew, my sous chef was standing next to me, throwing every single sauté pan of food I had cooked into the garbage. He then put one sauté pan on the burner and showed me how to make the perfect Bolognese, while tasting the dish at least three times during the process. Meanwhile, the printer continued spitting out tickets and the other sous chef was calling for food. This continued until we had made each dish on my station perfectly...but I was down thirty or so plates from where I should have been. My sous chef bailed me out of the weeds and then sat me down and clarified, in no uncertain terms, that if another dish came out of the kitchen that wasn't perfect, I'd be looking for a new job. This has become the expectation in my kitchen -- and any kitchen in my future.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef: Opening Lucky Pie in Denver has been amazing. I was given the opportunity to work on everything from the ground up, and it was pretty cool to put in all of the work and, a few short months later, look around and see a vision become a reality. Being in Denver is really exciting, and we have a great chance to share our food and philosophies with a ton of people. There's also something about assembling an amazing group of individuals who are here to share in the Lucky Pie values.
What's next for you? I'd like to travel more and spend some more time with my wife and my little one. I've spent most of my time trying to figure out how to get to the next level and skipped some stuff along the way, so I would really like to slow down and fill in the gaps.