Round two with Mike Sullivan, exec chef of Devil's Food Bakery and Cookery
This is part two of my interview with Mike Sullivan, executive chef of Devil's Food Bakery and Cookery. Part one of my chat with Sullivan ran in this space yesterday.
Favorite restaurant in America: May's Restaurant in Frederick, Maryland. They serve all-you-can-eat blue crabs and pitchers of beer. It just doesn't get any better than that.
Best food city in America: The ethnic food that exists in Chicago is just amazing. Granted, I haven't traveled to all the places on earth that I'd like to, but the food in Chicago has really impressed me, and everything I've eaten there makes me want to go back again.
What you'd like to see more of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: Smaller, family-owned, intimate restaurants. Devil's Food has 36 indoor seats, and about twenty more on our quaint, garden-style patio. There's something inherently nice about cooking food for a smaller crowd, which allows me to pay more attention to the quality of food that leaves our kitchen. We're able to oversee every aspect of every dish, from prepping to cooking to plating -- and that's something that you don't get at a whole lot of restaurants. We like to build long-term relationships with our customer, not one-night stands.
What you'd like to see less of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: People who refer to themselves as "foodies." If you're a true "foodie," you don't need to tell the rest of the world. As chefs, we love to hear feedback -- positive or negative -- about our restaurant, but we don't want to hear about what so-and-so does at some other random place, followed by the question: "Why don't you offer this dish like they do?"
Favorite Denver/Boulder restaurant(s) other than your own: Il Pastio in Boulder makes the best homemade pasta I've ever had. It's a complete hidden gem in a town with a lot of hype, but they've proven that you don't need to have a million-dollar kitchen to make incredible food, or a sixty-page wine list.
Current Denver culinary genius: I have to give it to Alex Seidel and his staff at Fruition. Those guys are sick in the kitchen and super-laid-back, the food is delicious food, and the atmosphere is great -- essentially, it's everything you could hope for in a restaurant.
One book that every chef should read: Cooking for Kings: The Life of Antonin Carême, the First Celebrity Chef. His food and cooking techniques were so far ahead of his time, plus he was the personal chef to European monarchs and the elite by his early twenties -- and he did it all without the Food Network.
What's the best food- or kitchen-related gift you've been given? Being sent to culinary school by the owners/chefs who I worked for in Maryland. They're awesome people, and I thank them dearly for what they did for me.
What's your favorite knife? Any knife that's made from Japanese forged steel. They stay sharp and last a lifetime.
Best culinary tip for a home cook: Don't stress the recipes, follow your instinct, try to be creative and just have fun with it. If it turns out to be incredible, you can brag about it; if it didn't turn out the way you wanted, you can still blame the cookbook. People worry way too much about trying to perfect this or that and following recipes word-for-word in their favorite cookbook, but what they should just do is think about what they really enjoy eating and do their best to make it happen. Baking, on the other hand -- I can see recipes being a bit more critical, hence the reason I'm not a baker. I just don't have the patience. Cooking is give and take: You put in a little of this, add a little of that...that's the beauty of it.
What show would you pitch to the Food Network, and what would it be about? The Food Network needs a show that shows the fun side of cooking, without having a host that looks like they're trying too hard. You don't have to be -- or act like you want to be -- a standup comedian to have fun cooking. When I'm watching the Food Network, I don't want to see puppets or pratfalls. I do want to see someone who can teach me something about food and help me evolve into a better cook while still showing off the fun side of being in a kitchen.
If you could cook for one famous chef, dead or alive, who would it be? Grant Achatz, the owner and chef of Chicago's Alinea. Any chef who beats tongue cancer is remarkable to me, let alone being named Best Chef in America and owning one of the top ten restaurants in the world.
Favorite celebrity chef: Eric Ripert. He's most likely the best seafood chef on the planet.
Celebrity chef who should shut up: It's a toss-up between two celebrity chefs: Rachael Ray and Guy Fieri. Whether or not they're good chefs isn't the issue; I'm sure they are both talented in the kitchen. It's what they choose to do outside of the kitchen that's so bothersome. Hosting a talk show or a game show doesn't make me want to pay attention to you. It does quite the opposite, actually. If you want to be a celebrity outside of the kitchen, that's fine -- take the money and run. But if you want to be known for your food, then shut up and cook.
Are chefs artists, craftsmen, or both? Both. At first it's a craft, and then you slowly start to master the craft, and somewhere along the line, you became an artist. The need for creativity and expression draws it out of us. I can't paint or draw, but I can make a plate of food look just like a painting.
Culinary inspirations: Jim Crooks and Matty Bersen, two of my best friends -- both of whom have passed away -- who had great culinary minds and were truly inspiring chefs who paved the way for me to get where I am today. They were both really good teachers who taught me a lot.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef: From a purely professional standpoint, it was proving that I had the talent to run the kitchen at Devil's Food. When you've been given the reins to run a kitchen by a restaurant owner, it's an undeniably great feeling. From a love of cooking, family and friends point of view, it was creating the most memorable Thanksgiving feast for twenty of my closest friends.
Hardest lesson you've learned, and how you've changed because of it: Give as much respect to the front of the house as you do to the back. If you don't, some day, it'll come back to bite you in the ass. I speak from experience. When I was working at L'Atelier, the front of the house thought I was difficult to work with -- and they were probably right. When I left L'Atelier and then tried to go back, Radek said no -- that I couldn't play well with others.
Last meal before you die: Tons of blue crab drowned in clarified butter and pitchers of beer.
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