This is part two of my interview with Noah Stephens, exec chef/owner of Vert Kitchen. Part one of my chat with Stephens ran in this space yesterday.
Favorite restaurant in America: I love French restaurants, and my favorite is Le Bernardin in New York City. I had the most amazing meal here. Everything, from the service to the wine to the food, was absolutely perfect. My favorite dish was this tuna that was pounded paper thin and then laid over lightly seared foie gras that was topped with caviar, olive oil and chives. It was incredible. I wish I could eat it every day.
Best food city in America: I know it's the obvious answer, but New York is great, and I'm never hungry while I'm in New York. To me, it's the food epicenter of America, mainly because it has so many different ethnic foods and there are endless places -- both classic and new -- to try all over the city. There is such a spectrum of restaurant experiences, from the best slice of pizza to Thomas Keller's Per Se. I try to make it out there at least twice a year just to see what's going on.
Favorite Denver/Boulder restaurant(s) other than your own: Some of my favorites are Sushi Den, Potager and Table 6. I always know that I'm going to get a great meal at all of these restaurants.
What you'd like to see more of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: I'd like to see more casual restaurants that focus on simple dishes that take advantage of high-quality ingredients -- places that are affordable, welcoming, really healthy and where I could eat on a consistent basis without feeling gluttonous. I'd love to be able to get a fresh salad and a nice glass of wine without needing a reservation or waiting forever to get in.
What you'd like to see less of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: I'm beginning to see too many hamburger places. They're all kind of the same after a while, and since Denver is one of the fittest cities in America, it just seems crazy to have so many.
One book that every chef should read: Raw: The Uncook Book, by Juliano Brotman. It's a raw-food cookbook that I use all the time for inspiration -- and it's full of really creative and great recipes that are health forward. I ate a raw-food diet for about three months and felt great.
What show would you pitch to the Food Network? Going to the Market, a show about going to markets all over the world and picking out stuff that's in season and calls out to you. In this world of mass food production, it's sad that people don't know what's in season at any particular time. It's all about getting inspired to cook with what's fresh -- and what you love.
Current Denver culinary genius: Justin Cucci. While I've never met him, I really enjoy eating at Root Down and Linger, both of which have really added to Denver's food scene. Everything is interesting and delicious, plus they're fun restaurants that make you want to come back.
You're making a pizza. What's on it? Artichokes, olives, sun-dried tomatoes, burrata and sunflower seeds, along with tons of garlic and olive oil. . You're at the market. What do you buy two of? Serrano peppers. I always have them in my kitchen at home. I like how you can add intense heat in such a fresh way -- especially in guacamole, which I love making at home. I take two avocados, two cloves of minced garlic, one diced Serrano and a pinch of salt and smash it up in my molcajete. It's so easy, and I put it on everything -- grilled steak, fish and even fried rice.
Guiltiest food pleasure? It's got to be potato chips dipped in cottage cheese. I can go through an entire bag without even batting an eye. My whole family eats this, and when we're all together, it's an excuse for my mom to buy tons of potato chips and cottage cheese. I can't have either of them around my house, however, because they're practically gone before I can even put away the rest of the groceries. I've actually turned quite a few friends on to my guilty pleasure; I think everyone should try it
Favorite celebrity chef: I like the Barefoot Contessa. She just really loves to eat, plus I'd love to spend a weekend at her house in the Hamptons. I'll bet it would be so wonderful.
Celebrity chef who should shut up: Rachael Ray. I saw her make a hot dog salad one time that was really repulsive.
If you could cook for one famous chef, dead or alive, who would it be? Clarissa Dickson Wright and Jennifer Paterson, the Two Fat Ladies. I think they'd love whatever you made for them. They always make me laugh, and I wouldn't know what bubble and squeak is without them. I loved them growing up.
Are chefs artists, craftsmen or both? They're both. You have to know how to make the food, and know the skills behind what it takes to produce a great-tasting dish. But it takes a creative mind to execute it well. If you have an image of what you want to make and can visualize and taste it in your mind and then put it all together on a plate, that's art.
Culinary inspirations: I love traveling and have spent a lot of time eating my way around Europe, where the food and restaurants have been a great inspiration to me in my career as a chef. There are so many different ingredients and types of foods to try, especially since each town, city and region has so many specialties, and my menu is entirely inspired by some of the favorite dishes I ate while living and traveling there. A few examples: The curried chicken salad is inspired by the Indian restaurants in London; the tortilla Española sandwich was inspired by a place called Pans & Co. -- the Spanish equivalent of a Subway. They told me I couldn't have my bocadillo de tortilla with Manchego cheese, so I bought two sandwiches and made my own. My turkey sandwich comes from a version of a chicken sandwich I had at a tiny cafe in Maastricht in the Netherlands that was so good, we ordered two. The steak sandwich is a play on my favorite steak frites restaurant in Paris, and the tuna is based on a bruschetta I had while hiking in Cinque Terra, Italy. When I travel to new places and try new dishes, I get a spark that makes me want to figure out how I can make them my own.
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Greatest accomplishment as a chef: Opening Vert Kitchen. When I sat down with my chef at the end of culinary school, he said, "Noah, you will have your own restaurant within two years." I told him no way and asked why he thought that. He said it was because I love what I do so much and always want to cook my own way, and that I didn't want anyone else to tell me how to do it. Vert opened eighteen months later. I e-mailed my chef to let him know about my store, and he said, "I knew you would do it, and you've wowed people even sooner than I had thought." I think he would really like what I've done here, and I know he would approve. He's always in the back of my mind when I cook.
Hardest lesson you've learned: In this industry, you have to depend on yourself and trust that what you're doing is right and that it's all going to work out in the end.
What's next for you? I'm working on getting an organic certification for Vert. It's all part of my commitment to constantly improve upon what I'm already doing.