Round two with Madison Street's Rob Michaels
1222 Madison Street
This is part two of my interview with Rob Michaels, chef de cuisine at Madison Street. In part one of this interview, Michaels dishes on dumbing down menus, the pitfalls of parsley, and pork heaven.
Favorite Denver/Boulder restaurant(s) other than your own: I love the comfort food at Steuben's -- plus I only live two blocks away; the best mussels I've ever had are from Root Down; the duck rillettes at the Squeaky Bean rock; Euclid Hall is awesome for late-night food and, oh, man, the boudin noir; and everything at Lola blows my mind, plus their tequila selection makes me do bad things.
Favorite restaurant in America: Lola, right here in Denver. I've been blown away with everything I've eaten there. I really enjoy the comfort food at Steuben's, too, and there's this little brewery -- Half Moon Brewery -- in Half Moon Bay, California, that I really enjoy, especially since it overlooks the ocean. And I really love the original Smith & Wollenksy in New York.
Best food city in America: Undoubtedly, New York, but Denver is the underdog city that's blowing up the culinary scene. We've got so much talent here, and our local ingredients are just amazing. I've been to New York a few times, but I can honestly say that I think Denver can take on New York any time and any day.
What you'd like to see more of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: I'm from the Philippines, and there's such a dearth of Filipino food here, which is so sad. Hey, Denver, we really need to work on that.
What you'd like to see less of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: Subpar chicken wing places. I've been here for more than a year, and all I've found are chicken wing places that suck.
Current Denver culinary genius: Geez, they're going to get a huge head, but Troy Guard, along with Jensen Cummings, have been my mentors here in Denver and have changed my cooking completely. It's because of their patience that I'm where I'm at today. Mark DeNittis, for sure, the chefs and mixologists at Steuben's, chef Jamie Fader at Lola and Jennifer Jasinski from Rioja.
What's the best food- or kitchen-related gift you've been given? My Shun Classic ten-inch chef's knife that was a birthday gift from my girlfriend. I literally slept with it, because it's really that amazing. It's my workhorse, and I use it 95 percent of the time.
Favorite dish to cook at home: Anything that I can grill outside, and I also love to make pulled pork. I recently got a grinder, so I'll soon be heavily entrenched in the salumi hobby. I took a class at Il Mondo Vecchio with Mark DeNittis, who I think is secretly a unicorn. You should see what he wears while he's butchering: It's mithril, which is this chain-link vest that prevents sharp objects from piercing your skin, and it's got a long chain for a belt. I'm not going to lie: He's kind of a badass.
Favorite dish on your menu: Pork-belly tacos. How can you go wrong with pork belly?
If you could put any dish on your menu, even though it might not sell, what would it be? Chicken adobo and fried rice. It's a Filipino dish -- and yes, I know it would sell, so it's just a matter of time until I get it on there. I'll start it out as a special.
Rules of conduct in your kitchen: Treat your food with the utmost respect and never, ever waste. It's our responsibility as chefs to hold every ingredient with the highest regard, and it really upsets me when people waste food. I also get up in arms when people burn food. Everyone in my kitchen has to use the timer on the oven, which sounds like a fire alarm every time it goes off. Saying hello, fist bumps and handshakes are mandatory, too, before anyone starts working.
You're making a pizza. What's on it? Chinese five-spice barbecue pork belly, caramelized red onions and arugula. It doesn't get any better than that.
You're at the market. What do you buy two of? Cartons of eggs. I love eggs and use a lot of them. I make my own ice cream here and at home, and I always use eggs -- and I put fried eggs on everything. Fried eggs make everything taste better.
Weirdest customer request: Well-done anything. It makes me cringe every time that temp comes through the kitchen.
Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: Popcorn-flavored Jelly Belly. I'm still not sure if I love them or hate them.
Guiltiest food pleasure? I have the worst diet, so I indulge in smoked-cheddar cheeseburgers with an egg and bacon from the Cherry Cricket and finish with two scoops of ice cream from Liks.
One book that every chef should read: The French Laundry. Suffice it to say that it'll change your life.
What show would you pitch to the Food Network, and what would it be about? I have no idea; I don't watch the Food Network.
If you could cook for one famous chef, dead or alive, who would it be? Thomas Keller. I want him to break it down for me so that I can learn what goes on in his head while he's eating my food.
Favorite celebrity chef: Michael Symon. He just seems so off the wall and like he'd be a blast to cook with.
Celebrity chef who should shut up: Sandra Lee. She dumbs down her food, and her voice makes me cringe.
Are chefs artists, craftsmen or both? You've got to possess both qualities in order to do what we do.
Best culinary tip for a home cook: Just go with your heart. If it sucks, find something else to do with your time, like supporting your local independent restaurateurs. We'd love to have you dine with us.
What's your favorite knife? My ten-inch Shun Classic. It gets the job done every time.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef: I'm still waiting for it, but I'm working on it. I've been very fortunate to work for Troy Guard and Jensen Cummings at TAG, and their continuous mentorship has really helped me develop my talents. I was an executive chef at a hotel restaurant before I moved to Denver, and I had no idea how little I actually knew about food. I definitely still have a lot to learn, but I suppose having the satisfaction of seeing a guest when they're eating my food with that "I'm blown away" look on their face is a big accomplishment. I don't know how many times I've heard people say that if they weren't in a public place, they'd lick their plate clean. One gentleman recently told me that while he'd lived in New York for ten years, one of our dishes topped anything he'd ever eaten in the famous restaurants there. We encourage plate-licking -- I just want to put that out there. Chefs never get offended over a clean plate.
What's next for you? The future holds so much, but I see myself hopefully becoming a partner with the TAG Restaurant Group. We're taking over Denver, man! Someday, I also want to have a place I can call my own, but one step at a time.
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