Round two with Jose Guerrero, exec chef of ViewHouse
This is part two of my interview with Jose Guerrero, exec chef of ViewHouse Eatery, Bar & Rooftop; part one of our chat ran yesterday.
Favorite Denver/Boulder restaurant(s) other than your own: Oak at Fourteenth. The pickles, kale salad, flavored spritzers and my son and I sitting at the exhibition kitchen bar: That's a perfect night out for me.
Favorite cheap eat in Denver: I really like Amerigo for its quaintness. When I go, I usually have a salami sandwich and turkey noodle soup for the bargain price of just $7.50.
If you could change one thing about the Denver dining scene, what would it be? Denver's dining scene is on the right track. There's a nice blend of concepts in all of our unique neighborhoods, but I'd still like customers to be more critical at the table by holding operators to their promise of a quality dining experience. It's so much easier to hear a sincere compliment then the same old "Everything was good."
Most memorable meal you've ever had: It wasn't an entire meal, but more the moment that really sticks with me. A friend created this roasted butternut-squash soup that had this delicate thyme aroma and was finished with toasted pumpkin seeds. The execution was so on-point and proved that when you cook from the soul, there are no obstacles.
Biggest moment of euphoria in the kitchen: My son, Diego, had just been born and I moved to Puerto Vallarta to take the role of corporate chef of a very well-known restaurant group, so my emotions were high. I stepped into the walk-in for pork belly and had a sudden rush of excitement due to the fact that even though I was so far from Diego, he would be able to experience different cultures because of my career. Understanding different cultures is the foundation of my cuisine.
Craziest night in the kitchen: St. Patrick's Day at the ViewHouse brought hordes of peeps. We had five line cooks, two prep cooks and two dishwashers on the schedule, and when the first ticket rolled in around 9 a.m., it came in as fast as it went out. Just to put the chaos into perspective, we had about 9,500 people through the door, and we didn't step off the line until about one in the morning. It was a madhouse, but I always want my craziest night to be tonight; otherwise, what's the point?
Biggest mistake a chef can make on the line: This actually reminds me of a joke. Why did the chicken cross the road? "Because you didn't fucking cook it!" Use a thermometer if you're not sure. They cost, like, $1.39.
What are your biggest pet peeves? Dirty plates, hot food on cold plates, cold food on hot plates, wet plates, scratched plates, broken plates, soups without undercarriage plates and a kitchen that's not selling plates.
What piece of advice would you give to a young chef? When you get in the kitchen, keep your head down and only open your mouth if you're calling back orders. Then, when you get home, look at yourself in the mirror and say, "I want to be happy. Where are my limits?"
What skills and attributes do you look for when hiring kitchen staff? I'm always looking for someone who can recite recipes at will.
What do you enjoy most about your craft? Conceptualizing a dish, followed by the process of failure, and then, finally, the achievement of creating something that's satisfying for everyone. It's such an intangible moment when it all comes together, and, as chefs, we all experience it.
What recent innovation has most influenced the restaurant industry in a significant way? Frictionless media and the ability to see what every chef across the globe is doing at any given time.
Best food- or kitchen-related gift you've been given: I love my ten-inch carbon Masamoto knife that was given to me by a former chef of mine, Bryan Nagao. I've had it for ten years, and that thing is so scary when I hone it.
Biggest fantasy splurge: My fantasy splurge would be to participate in Ferran Adrià's elBulli foundation as a grantor so that young and aspiring chefs could participate in the most provocative form of culinary creativity.
Favorite cooking show: I'd rather read about food and execute it myself. I'm not drawn to all that drama, although if I were actually a contestant on one of those cooking reality shows, I might feel different.
Best recipe tip for a home cook: Don't be afraid to make small adjustments to measurements, and remember, you must always be conscious of temperature.
What was the last cookbook you bought, and what recipes are you cooking from it? The Sweet Spot: Asian-Inspired Desserts, by Pichet Ong, is a masterpiece. I'm truly guilty of having his banana recipe memorized.
Which chef has most inspired you? Bryan Nagao, who was my exec chef at Mao. His intensity seemed to tame any situation, but most important, his ability to orchestrate flavor and composition on the plate was astounding. The newfound Denver dining scene is ready for Bryan Nagao. So if you're reading, Bryan, we're waiting.
If you could have dinner with three chefs, dead or alive, whom would you choose? Jacque Ursetta, Marie-Antoine Carême and Thomas Keller. Jacque, who unfortunately passed away, was a recipient of a best Philly cheesesteak award by Westword and also one of the best butchers in Denver. Not only was he an excellent chef and father, but he also holds the true secrets that would reunite me with the love of my life. In order to extract this information, I'd hit him where it hurts and prepare hand-rolled meatballs, his red sauce and fresh, hand-cut linguine. Marie-Antoine, whose work was catalogued by Escoffier, would be next, so that I could thank him for the true enrichment of a great cuisine and also have him sign my book. Last but not least would be hosting Thomas Keller at the ViewHouse; I'd create a rich stout beer menu for him followed by a game of bocce ball.
If you could cook in another chef's kitchen, whose would it be? The one, the only David Motherf***ing Chang. There's no sign on the front door, and, in fact, no true front door to speak of, and yet it's always sold out. He's such an innovator who demands excellence. He's the only chef I would ever work for.
If you had the opportunity to open your own restaurant with no budget constraints, what kind of restaurant would you open? Two words: Hawker Centre. It's an open-air food and amazing seafood center in Singapore with hundreds of different styles of cooking and dishes. You roll up to it, step inside this incredible warehouse, and when you go in, you have a bunch of competing food stands, all of which vie for your business. It's seriously the most awesome thing ever. I wish we had something like that in Denver.
Describe the biggest challenges facing today's chefs: Food prices are continuing to rise, and sadly, after a year of floods, droughts and hurricanes, food prices are set to rise even further in both the United States and the U.K. -- and elsewhere, too. It's yet another reason to stick to my resolution to budget better in 2013.
Most humbling moment as a chef: Realizing that ten pleased palates are better than my one palate. In other words, if I opened a restaurant and I never made adjustments to my menu based on guest comments, then eventually I'd be cooking for no one but myself.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef: Perfection is a journey, not a destination. Every day, if I can make myself or someone else better, that's an accomplishment. My advice is to never become complacent.
What's one thing that people would be surprised to know about you? I'm allergic to lobster and I have a boxing obsession.
If you hadn't become a chef, what would you be doing right now? I'd probably be developing some sort of system to feed children in need. To that end, contact me if you're part of any organization that's playing an active role in such activities.
What's in the pipeline? Baseball season in the Ballpark neighborhood is going to be the ultimate test of volume and consistency.
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