Round two with Mitch Mayers, exec chef of Black Pearl
1529 South Pearl Street
Part one of my interview with Mitch Mayers, exec chef of Black Pearl, an yesterday; this is part two of our conversation.
Favorite restaurant in America: Morimoto, in New York City. When I ate dinner there, Morimoto was actually eating at the table next to me, having a few too many sakes. But the meal was just perfect, with great service and impeccable food. Morimoto's use of different techniques and presentations is something every aspiring chef should experience: The man is a master of his craft. With all the restaurants to choose from in that city, I still want to go back there every time I'm in New York.
Favorite Denver/Boulder restaurant(s) other than your own: Sushi Sasa. I could probably eat sushi four or five times a week and never get sick of it. When I moved to Denver, I was surprised to find so many good sushi restaurants, but Sushi Sasa has the most unique menu, and the execution is spot-on.
Favorite cheap eat in Denver: El Diablo. I know it's not the cheapest Mexican joint in town, but I love Mexican food and they're open late, which is a necessity. Plus, it's two blocks from my house, which makes it very convenient.
What you'd like to see more of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: Our culinary scene is heading in a great direction, and a lot of restaurants are pushing the envelope, but I want to see us taking more risks and using more unique ingredients to introduce customers to things they've never heard of.
What you'd like to see less of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: I think there's been a bit of a shift to try to turn our dining scene into something similar to New York City's, and while I love the restaurants and the food in New York, we should be striving to create an identity that's uniquely Denver. Denver is never going to have the same vibe as New York, so we need to create our own identity and be proud of that.
What do you enjoy most about your craft? The people. I've worked in kitchens all around the country, and the people who work behind the line are amazing, unique individuals. Every day is different, and I love the rush of cooking and kicking ass. Plus, I never could have worked in an office, and being a chef means I get to spend the majority of my day on my feet. Even now, I still hate having to do paperwork in the office; it's the only part of the job I don't like.
Describe the biggest challenges facing today's chefs: Two things. First, trying to run a successful kitchen that makes a profit. With rising food costs and the economy being where it is, there's pressure to keep prices down for the guest, but on our end, the cost of goods is rising and fuel charges are being added. The other part is finding quality staff. There are so many culinary schools popping out of nowhere, and yet the value of culinary education has gone down.
What's your biggest pet peeve? Insincerity and laziness. Being a chef is about being true to yourself, to your own style and to your favorite flavors, but it's also about pushing yourself to develop and evolve creatively. Seeing people who are simply unwilling to do the best job they can really bugs the shit out of me.
Biggest compliment you're ever received: As chefs, we thrive on positive feedback, because everything we do is so personal. The food we create and the dishes we put out to our guests are a product of our time and efforts. Every compliment is huge, but we have had a couple of guests say their meal was the best they've ever had in their life. That's been great to hear; it's compliments like that that keep me doing what I do.
What's the best food- or kitchen-related gift you've been given? I got a pasta machine from my parents when I was in high school, and we still use that same pasta machine every day in the restaurant.
What are your favorite wines and/or beers? I love 90 Shilling by Odell and the Yeti stout by Great Divide. When it comes to wine, I lean toward pinot noir.
One book that every chef should read: I think chefs should read as many cookbooks as possible. I love all of Thomas Keller's cookbooks, and I think The Herbfarm Cookbook is a great resource for chefs who want to better understand all the different herbs we have and the unique ways of using them. And Michael Ruhlman's books, The Making of a Chef and The Soul of a Chef, give great insight into what it takes to follow this career path.
Best recipe tip for a home cook: Use ingredients that excite you, and the first time you try a recipe, follow it exactly. After you've successfully executed the dish according to the recipe, take a few risks and put your own twists on it.
If you had to grab one piece of kitchen equipment to take with you into a steel-cage match to the death, what would it be, and how would you use it? An industrial-sized Hobart mixer -- the old-school kind. They scare the crap out of me, because they'll rip everything right off. They won't stop; they keep on going. I'd just hide behind it and let it do its thing -- you know, just roll it toward my competitor and let it go.
If you could cook in another chef's kitchen, whose would it be? Ferran Adrià of El Bulli. That guy has such a unique perspective on food and the enjoyment of a meal. Even though I'm not really that into all of the molecular-gastronomy stuff, I'd love playing around and experimenting with all of the different tools he has.
Favorite celebrity chef: Alton Brown is just a badass. He takes cooking down to the molecular level, since it's so scientific for him, and in a lot of ways, when I'm writing a new recipe, it's like an equation for me, in that I'm trying to find the last piece that will make everything fit together.
Celebrity chef who needs a muzzle: Bobby Flay. How many fucking shows does that guy have? And, more the point, why?
Greatest accomplishment as a chef: Becoming the executive chef of the Black Pearl at age 23 was a huge accomplishment and extremely humbling for me. I'm still young and know I have so much more to learn and achieve. I never want to become complacent or satisfied with what I've done so far.
Most humbling moment as a chef: Working at the Herbfarm in Seattle. I got to cook with the most talented people I've ever worked with in my life, and however good I may have felt about my skills going into that job, I felt like an idiot after one day. While I was there, I realized just how much more I had to learn, and I did everything I could to soak up everyone's knowledge.
What question should I ask the next chef I interview? How often do you go to the grocery store strictly for yourself, and what do you buy?
What's your dream restaurant? I've always joked that my retirement plan is to open a gourmet pizzeria and salumeria called the Kosher Pig, and because I'm a Jew, the irony is a big draw. My actual dream restaurant is a casual place with great food and beer -- the kind of place where I'd want to hang out and eat every day with my friends and family.
Last meal before you die: Clucks and fries with ranch dressing from Red Robin. I know it's probably not your typical answer, but Red Robin was started in Seattle, so I grew up eating there all the time for birthdays and family meals. I know it isn't gourmet by any stretch of the imagination, but it has a special meaning for me.
If you hadn't become a chef, what would you be doing right now? I'd likely be a chemist working in a lab somewhere. If I hadn't gone to culinary school, I probably would have ended up at Claremont McKenna in California, getting a degree in chemistry.
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