This is part two of my interview with Mike Peshek, exec chef of Lou's Food Bar. Part one of my chat with Peshek ran earlier this week.
Favorite restaurant in America: Pizzeria Regina in Boston. The service is terrible, the lines are always long, but the pizza is so worth it. I think they've expanded into multiple locations and maybe lost some of the original luster, but the first location in the North End will never disappoint. If you're ever in Boston, you also need to go to Toro, a restaurant that utilizes the whole animal in a truly masterful way.
Favorite Denver/Boulder restaurant other than your own: Osteria Marco. I know it's cheating, because we belong to the same restaurant group, but it's the restaurant where my wife and I feel the most comfortable and have had consistently great food. Even if we never see anyone we recognize, we're always treated to outstanding service. Even the basics, like my water always being filled and always having clean silverware, are never overlooked, and it's those small details that can really make or break a dining experience. I also love Duo -- the food, the space and the warm service always measure up to a great time.
What you'd like to see more of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: When I lived in Boston, we used to do dinners with -- and for -- chefs, a "chefluck," if you will. I'm not talking about events like Chefs Up Front; I'm talking about dinners for chefs by chefs, in a fun and casual forum where we get together and talk about Colorado products, new trends, microbrews or whatever. It's always great to cook for the public, but as chefs, we rarely get to sit down and enjoy each other's food together, and while it's fun to do events, we're always worried about cleaning, or making sure our equipment is ready to go, which kind of takes away from the social aspect of the event. I respect so many chefs in Denver and would love the opportunity to sit down with them and eat and learn about what makes them who they are. I like my peers, I wish them the best, and would love to discuss what makes their food so damn good.
What you'd like to see less of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: Now that I've finally entered the technological era, I see a lot of comments on social networking sites that disparage chefs and restaurants. Sometimes people are quick to criticize our food, our restaurants or us without fully appreciating what we're trying to accomplish. Opinions are valuable, but as members of this Colorado culinary club, we should support and encourage each other as much as possible rather than engaging in trash talk and writing negative comments about a restaurant based on a one-time experience. Sites like Yelp can discourage the creation of a positive restaurant scene in Denver, and sometimes we're all -- myself included -- too quick to judge. That said, I've met a lot of good people who are helping to change my outlook.
Last restaurant where you ate: The Wooden Table, a new restaurant in Greenwood Village, co-owned by my friend, Brett Shaheen. It's a beautiful restaurant with beautiful food and top-notch service, and it's definitely worth the drive from downtown Denver; I'd recommend it to anyone. I love the menu, because it's rare that my wife and I can both find multiple dishes that we'd like to share. They've done a wonderful job with creating a space that feels warm and unpretentious, and Brett is just super-talented; his food completes the space.
What do you cook at home that you never cook at the restaurant? Aglio e olio con pomodoro. It's spaghettini with olive oil, garlic, San Marzano tomatoes, crushed red-chile flakes and salt and pepper. When the sauce comes to fruition, it shines and coats the noodles just perfectly, and there's just enough sauce for about two swipes of bread. I know it sounds super-simple, but the flavors are so complex. I love it.
Favorite wines and beers: I used to love an almost-freezing bottle of Bud. We just did a great wine dinner with Hugel & Fils Vineyards from Alsace, France, and I really love the crispness and complexity of their vast collection of white wines.
Favorite food from your childhood: Pork chops and sauerkraut were a staple at our house. My mom would lightly flour and then brown the chops in a bacon-grease-and-blended-oil combo, throw them on top of some kraut, bake them and serve it all with green beans and smashed potatoes. My mom is such a good cook, and she spoiled us with every meal she made. She's the reason I do what I do.
Favorite dish on your menu: Any of our pâtés. Our chef de cuisine, James Mussetti, has damn near mastered the art of pâté, and we've really adapted a nose-to-tail approach to utilizing the entire animal and getting creative with the parts that most people would typically discard. It definitely gives us a sense of pride knowing that we're using as much of the animal as we can while producing a great product. We're also doing an amazing mousse trio of rabbit, pheasant and duck.
You're making a pizza. What's on it? Sausage, housemade ricotta and rapini.
Guiltiest food pleasure: Duck-liver mousse sandwiches. I eat them at work all the time, and sometimes, I'll even throw a thin slice of meatloaf in between the slices and use the mousse as a condiment. I know...it's gross. Let's just say it easily fulfills my daily caloric intake.
What's the best food- or kitchen-related gift you've ever received? My brother sent me a Virginia ham, and I about died from pork inhalation. I ate the whole bastard in six days, and even though I was living alone and really poor, I decided to buy some good mustard rather than a twelve-pack of beer. I still think it was the right call. When it comes to kitchen equipment, Frank, or I should say the Bonannos, gave me one hell of a filet knife for Christmas that had my name engraved on it. It was more than a gift; it was like the ultimate thank-you.
If you weren't a chef, what would you be? A standup comedian. Nothing makes me happier than to hear people laugh.
If you could cook in another chef's kitchen, whose would it be? Alice Waters at Chez Panisse. Growing up in Nebraska, we relied on the protein to carry the plate, and Waters has given me a deeper appreciation for the vast number of vegetables and fruits that outshine proteins and really make a dish incredible. Frank always says that anyone can cook a steak to medium-rare, but having the best possible potatoes and vegetables on the plate is what really finishes the dish. A lot of restaurants charge exorbitant amounts of money for small portions of meat, but the old steakhouse style doesn't match the new culinary era, which is more focused on offering the diner a chance to experience fresh, vibrant produce.
Which Boulder/Denver chef do you most respect? Hunter Pritchett at Luca D'Italia. From the moment he came into the kitchen, he helped elevate the status of Luca to an incredible restaurant. It was always exciting to see the development of whatever dish he was creating, because he never takes the easy way out, and he's never satisfied with a dish until the final product matches the vision in his head. He's never complacent, and he made me a better cook by questioning the status quo and doing new things with food that I never thought were possible. He's a great teacher and a great friend. I'm also lucky enough to work with a talented staff at Lou's, including our chef de cuisine, James Mussetti. He really understands the science behind cooking, and puts it to good use when he's making cheeses, meats and pâtés. He truly can make cheese better than anyone I've seen, and he's an encyclopedia of food knowledge.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef: That's a hard question. It might be the first time someone called me a chef. I still remember that day, and it almost freaked me out. In a weird way, it felt right, like this was my calling, and I really knew that this is what I wanted to do with my life. Going to college without a clue as to what I wanted to do was scary, and I felt like I wasted a lot of money, but when I stepped into the kitchen, I immediately felt at home. When I was first called a chef, I knew this was it for me. It's that gesture from my peers that gives me my greatest satisfaction.
Favorite celebrity chef: David Chang. Is he a celebrity? Maybe, but I sure don't think he wants to be. He not only has multiple great restaurants, but he publishes his own magazine, went to Japan to learn the intricacies of ramen, and he's done it right by working his ass off. I also like Gordon Ramsay, and I love Kitchen Nightmares. The look on his face when he walks into a restaurant is priceless, and I love and appreciate his kick-ass attitude and how he just shreds places apart and builds them back up.
Celebrity chef who should shut up: Guy Fieri. I have a love/hate relationship with that blond bastard. I can't fathom how such a goofball can get his own show, have a traveling circus and get paid millions of dollars for the crap that comes out of his mouth. I wish it were that easy for the rest of us.
Favorite music to cook by: Right now, it's Lynyrd Skynyrd or the Pixies, but I'm really looking forward to non-stop Christmas music after Thanksgiving. I drive my kitchen crazy with all the holiday music, but it makes me happy and feel like a kid again.
One book that every chef should read: The River Cottage Cookbook, by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall. Pick an animal -- any animal -- and he'll tell you how to raise it, kill it, butcher it and cook it. He's gone the extra mile to really understand what his animals are eating, how they're being treated, how they're handled before slaughter, and the proper way to utilize the animal products in the best way possible.
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What's your favorite knife? I use a Koroko Japanese-style chef's knife, made locally, that's as sharp as any knife out there -- plus, it's engraved with my name in Japanese, and it fits my hand better than any store bought knife I've ever found.
Last supper: My mom's pork chops and sauerkraut, and a handful of Hot Tamales.