Round two with Patxi Azpiroz, exec chef of Patxi's Pizza
3455 South University Boulevard,
185 Steele Street; 303-331-1000
This is part two of my interview with Patxi Azpiroz, exec chef/owner of Patxi's Pizza; part one of our conversation ran yesterday.
Favorite Denver restaurant(s) other than your own: I'm still exploring and trying all of the great places in this city, and so far I've really enjoyed Euclid Hall and what Jorel Pierce is doing with the menu there. The atmosphere is warm and relaxed, and the food is delicious. I love that they're trying new things, and you can tell that the staff is super-excited and proud to work there. It's truly great hospitality.
Favorite cheap eat in Denver: Tacos Rapidos is cheap and always open. Being from California, I'm really digging the Mexican community and food here in Denver.
Most memorable meal you've ever had: Bar Txepetxa in Donosti, Spain. It was there that I had my first true tapas experience. The weather was beautiful; the people -- both the staff and customers -- were awesome, too; and the food was fantastic. I was young and don't speak Basque, so I don't remember any of the exact dishes, but it was exciting to see, feel and taste the culture and be immersed in the place my father came from. The pintxos were predominantly seafood, with bacalao, anchovy, squid and calamari, and they all were amazing.
Favorite childhood food memory: I spent a few weeks on a dairy farm in Chino, California, when I was about fourteen years old. One weekend, all of the local people got together for a large meal outdoors, and everyone who attended brought or prepared foods that they specialized in on their own farm. I still remember the fresh bread, lamb, salads and the festive aspect of the whole experience. It was a great meal, and since the family I was staying with at the time had their own dairy farm, we brought some cheese that we had made to the gathering. My dad was also a sheepherder -- he was born in the Basque Country -- and whenever we'd go to visit family in Nevada, he'd dig a hole in the ground in my uncle's back yard, make a fire with sagebrush, and then he'd take a Dutch oven, put risen bread dough in there, put the oven back inside the hole, and cover it with dirt. It was very pastoral.
Favorite junk food: I can eat Reese's Peanut Butter Cups all day long. I can't keep them in the house, though, because I don't stop until the bag is empty. It's a problem.
What do you enjoy most about your craft? The response I get from people who truly enjoy my pizza. There's nothing better than someone telling you that your pizza has changed their life, right? I think -- and would hope -- that most chefs get into this business for that reason: feeding people and making them happy with your food.
If you could change one thing about the Denver dining scene, what would it be? I'd like to see a more diverse selection of ethnic restaurants, but since I'm new to the Denver food scene, I'm open to suggestions of hidden gems I haven't found yet.
What's the best food- or kitchen-related gift you've been given? My business partner and friend, Bill Freeman, bought me a Blue Star gas range and oven when we first started developing our product. This thing is awesome, and I still have it. It holds heat like no other oven and even accommodates a full-size sheet pan.
What was the last cookbook you bought, and what recipes are you cooking from it? Rytek Kutas's Great Sausage Recipes and Meat Curing. I've recently started making sausage, and my ultimate goal is to perfect a true, fresh Basque-style chorizo...but it's easy to get sidetracked making bratwurst, kielbasa and all the others.
Best recipe tip for a home cook: "Mistakes are the portals of discovery." I love this quote by James Joyce. It's one that I've carried with me since my years in college, and it rings true over and over again. I can't tell you how many recipes on our menu today have come from accidentally doing something "wrong" in a recipe, or taking a risk and trying flavor combinations that I thought maybe wouldn't work but did.
What's your biggest pet peeve? Messy kitchens and people who don't clean as they work.
Describe the biggest challenges facing today's chefs: Climate conditions and changes scare me the most, and I think they pose some of the greatest challenges for chefs today and will continue to do so in the future. Procuring ingredients will become more difficult and more expensive with time if things don't change. With that said, these same conditions will also challenge chefs to be even more creative, by finding alternative ingredients and techniques.
Which chef has most inspired you? My aunt Margie. Some of my earliest memories of food and cooking are of her measuring with her hands, using handfuls and pinches of seasonings and tasting as she went along. She grew her own vegetables, raised animals, made sausages and incredible pastries. She came from the old country, and I don't think she had a written recipe in the house. It was a great way to gain an appreciation for food, ingredients and history.
Which three chefs, dead or alive, would you most like to have dinner with? Jacques Pépin, Alice Waters and Thomas Keller are arguably the chefs that have had the most influence on the culinary style in the United States, and I'd love to have dinner with all of them. Can you imagine? They've turned us on to flavors and ingredients that have helped develop our palates by introducing us to ideas and ingredients most people hadn't even heard of as recently as ten or twenty years ago. Plus, have you ever seen Jacques Pépin cut an apple? YouTube it if you haven't -- it's a revelation.
If you could cook in another chef's kitchen, whose would it be? Thomas Keller. He's so meticulous about his kitchen; it would probably be like being a kid in a candy shop -- an OCD kid in an OCD candy shop, so it would be awesome.
Most humbling moment as a chef: The opening night of our first restaurant really opened my eyes as to how important it is to surround yourself with great, talented, passionate people. It also taught me to always give 100 percent to what you believe is of utmost importance.
Biggest moment of euphoria in the kitchen: With each new restaurant, I have that moment of euphoria. It's like opening night of the theater, and really, a bustling kitchen is live theater in a way. Before the opening night, I always have this inkling of uncertainty as to whether the pizza is going to cook correctly. This was actually a huge uncertainty -- more than normal -- in bringing our pizza to Denver because of the altitude. We came out for a week and rented a test kitchen to make sure the dough would hold up and our Denver guests would get the same Patxi's dough our guests were getting in San Francisco. At a new restaurant, it's not until that first pizza of the night comes out of the oven cooked perfectly and you have the chance to taste it [that you] can you feel the euphoria course through your entire body.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef: Having Michael Bauer, the executive food-and-wine editor and restaurant critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, validate the fact that we made great Chicago-style pizza.
What's one thing that people would be surprised to know about you? I think people would be surprised to learn that I'm not a classically trained chef, nor have I attended culinary school. I was actually an English literature major, and I love English poetry, especially Keats. In fact, I originally wanted to be a poet, but I wasn't great at writing down my thoughts. And while I'm still an avid reader, I've always loved cooking and food, and food is such a strong current in literature that I get the best of both worlds.
Last meal before you die: It would have to be something truly decadent. I'd start with a Green Goddess salad and Dungeness crab cakes, then I'd follow it up with an aged ribeye cooked to a perfect medium rare, served with pan-roasted crispy potatoes and creamed spinach. I'd wash it all down with a Pliny the Younger, a great IPA from the Russian River Brewing Company.
If you hadn't become a chef, what would you be doing right now? I think I'd probably be a carpenter, cabinetmaker or furniture maker of some sort. I like the idea of working with raw materials and creating something aesthetically pleasing and useful.
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