Round two with Paul Nagan, exec chef of Zink Kitchen + Bar
This is part two of my interview with Paul Nagan, exec chef of Zink Kitchen + Bar; part one of our interview ran yesterday.
Favorite dish on your menu: I like our housemade lamb sausage. We grind Colorado lamb and mix it with a merguez spice blend, and we plate it with eggplant caponata, saffron aioli and Jumpin' Good feta from Buena Vista. It has great flavor, and it's a good mix of local and global.
Biggest menu bomb: Version one: I'm more into F-bombs and Jäger bombs than menu bombs. Version two: This summer we put Mexican paletas -- fresh-frozen fruit popsicles -- on the dessert menu. One flavor was mango and ancho chile, and the other was raspberry and coconut. It seemed like a refreshing, healthy summer treat, but nobody wanted them -- I mean nobody. I think we sold two orders total.
One food you detest: A while back, someone brought balut into the kitchen. It's a fertilized duck egg that's hard-boiled, except that there's actually a baby duck with feathers and a beak inside the egg. This was the first time I'd ever seen it, so I'm not sure if this one was still good. The smell was off, and when we cut into it, a bunch of brown liquid poured out. A couple of people tried it, but no one could keep it down. No thanks...I'll pass.
One food you can't live without: Chiles. I'm not a heat freak, and I don't like to stop and wipe my forehead after every bite, but I do like a little kick. Chipotles, poblanos and Hatch chiles are my favorite; they can be bold or subtle, smoky and savory, tart or sweet. I just love their flavors and versatility.
Most memorable meal you've ever had: There are two experiences that influenced me significantly. In the mid-'90s, a couple of my roommates and I -- we were all cooks -- took a two-week road trip all over the western United States. We spent a few days in Napa and San Francisco, and I was blown away by the amount of local products: All of the fruits, vegetables, seafood, cheeses, oils and vinegars were amazing and ingredients that were simply not available outside of that specific area. It was farm-to-table before it was cool, and it was an eye-opening moment on how fresh and simple great food can be. The other one occurred just after moving to Portland in the late '90s. There was a restaurant in my neighborhood called Wildwood that everyone was talking about -- it grabbed your attention as soon as you walked in. There was a raw bar serving shellfish and sashimi, and the line was completely exposed, with a counter and stools running the length of it. But it wasn't your typical line. It had a tandoori oven where the cooks were making fresh naan and roasting meat and seafood on giant metal skewers; they had a wood-burning grill; and they had a plancha and other equipment that wasn't standard-issue at the time. The ingredients were seasonal and sourced locally, and they were creating refined dishes with cultural influences from around the world. It really redefined the boundaries of a restaurant for me.
Favorite childhood food memory: My mother came from a large family of seven kids, my grandmother was Irish-Catholic, and my grandfather was Jewish. They all fought a lot, but on Sundays, everyone decided to get along -- it was a thing of beauty. All the kids and grandkids would go to church with my grandmother, while my grandfather would stay behind and cook brunch. When we all returned, there would be a full spread of Swedish pancakes, blintzes, eggs, Danishes, bagels, smoked salmon and latkes. He did bacon and sausage as well, but that was on the down-low, and he also taught me how to grill. The lake trout and walleye fillets cooked in foil with butter, garlic, lemon and fresh dill were my favorite. He was definitely the person who got me hooked on cooking.
Favorite junk food: Good chocolate and good pizza.
Favorite Denver/Boulder restaurant(s) other than your own: I haven't been out that much since my son was born, but I try to stay current by reading up on new openings, new chefs and menus. I do love Rioja -- love Jen's flavors, her style, and she's just an awesome chef. I haven't been there yet, but the new Squeaky Bean seems to be oozing with passion and creativity. They're really pushing it and doing things you just don't see anywhere else. I need to get over there.
Favorite cheap eat in Denver: I always enjoy a visit to Chicago on West Colfax. The Italian beef, Chicago dogs, Italian sausages, attitude and accents make me nostalgic.
If you could change one thing about the Denver dining scene, what would it be? Maybe a little more national respect. I'm not claiming that the Denver dining scene is on par with New York, Chicago, San Francisco or L.A., but similar cities, like Portland, Minneapolis, Austin and San Diego, seem to get a lot more press than us. I think it's Denver's year.
What's the best food- or kitchen-related gift you've been given? It seems that people are intimidated to buy kitchen gifts for chefs, which is probably why I usually end up with a gift card. That said, an old chef of mine gave me a bottle of 1990 Château Lafite when I left that job. It was tasty.
What was the last cookbook you bought, and what recipes are you cooking from it? My go-to cookbooks are Culinary Artistry and The Flavor Bible, but I just bought Eat With Your Hands, by Zakary Pelaccio, the chef of Fatty Crab and Fatty Que in New York. It's kind of like Southeast Asia meets low-country Southern food. I like his style, and there are a ton of exotic ingredients I look forward to working with. I just haven't had time to try anything yet.
Best nugget of advice for a culinary-school graduate: Know what you're in for; have realistic expectations; work hard; take pride in yourself and your product; make friends, not enemies; don't think any task is below you; learn every station; continue to educate yourself; and read everything you can on the subject.
Weirdest customer request: When I first started cooking, I got a room-service order from a guy who wanted a side salad and an order of fettuccine Alfredo with chicken -- but that wasn't the unusual part. The server went on to explain that the guy had just had major dental surgery, so he couldn't open his mouth or chew. He wanted to know if we could put everything in a blender, pour it in a glass and send it up with a straw. No problem, but it was the first and last time I've made a chicken fettuccine Alfredo/side salad milkshake.
Weirdest thing you've ever put in your mouth: When I was cooking in Vail, we did a lot of wild-game dinners. My chef at the time was an avid hunter -- a "kill it and grill it" Ted Nugent kind of chef. Thanks to him, I've had bear, moose, rattlesnake, antelope, ostrich and alligator. I think he even got a mountain lion once, but I don't remember if I tried that or not.
Best recipe tip for a home cook: Practice, practice, practice. A lot of recipes won't work out, but with practice, you'll eventually become good at fixing them. Not to be sarcastic, but it really is a trial-and-error process. As Thomas Keller says, "You don't own a dish until you've made it 100 times."
Which chef has most inspired you? I can't say that I've had one specific mentor who's molded me into what I am today. I think a better question would be, which three chefs would you like to go out to dinner with? For me, that would be Marco Pierre White, Anthony Bourdain and Jose Andres -- that would be one hell of a guys' night out.
If you could cook in another chef's kitchen, whose would it be? Ferran Adrià. I know El Bulli is no longer open, but it would've been amazing to work there. I saw a documentary about it that was fascinating. The kitchen was more of a laboratory than a kitchen, and there had to have been fifty to sixty cooks in there. I believe they said everyone in the kitchen, with the exception of Ferran and his two or three sous chefs, was interning for free. These were not culinary students; they were all accomplished chefs who were donating months of their time to learn this chef's techniques. His menus consisted of at least thirty courses that played tricks on the eyes, the nose and the tongue. He fused cooking with art and science like never before or since. I'm not well versed in molecular gastronomy, nor do I know what its role will be in the future, but chef Ferran is probably a once-in-a-lifetime prodigy.
Biggest mistake a chef can make on the line: After working in hotels for as long as I can remember, I think the biggest mistake chefs make is not being on the line. I think hotels are where the term "office chef" was coined, quickly followed by the phrase "hotel food," which really bugs me. But I get it: I've seen a lot of bad hotel food myself, and the thing I don't get is that hotels have the same equipment and access to the same ingredients as other chefs. Actually, hotels usually have more equipment, space and labor than most independent restaurants. It's just laziness and complacency. If cooking isn't your thing, or if you're burnt out, just do something else.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef: The hotel was recently awarded the Food & Beverage Excellence Award by Hilton, which is only given to one Doubletree Hotel in the country every year, so I'm super-honored that we were chosen. It's really a testament to the entire staff at the hotel, both front- and back-of-the-house. Everyone works so hard and puts a lot of effort into what they do. They're true professionals.
What's one thing that people would be surprised to know about you? My three-year-old son, Connor, has never eaten a single thing I've ever cooked. He's an insanely picky eater. I think the entire list of foods he's consumed is still under ten, and his diet mainly consists of yogurt, fruit roll-ups, soft pretzels, french fries and Totino's party pizzas, with an occasional apple or banana. It's a little demoralizing when your own son won't eat your food.
Last meal before you die: I can't even decide what's for dinner until I wander around the grocery store for a while. My wife gets pissed because there's never any food in the house. I tell her I'm not sure what I'll be in the mood for tomorrow. Just drop me off in San Francisco, and I'll wander around until I find something. What's in the pipeline? I work for a great company and with great people, and I've realized how important that is to my happiness and success. I'm not just saying that; I've had some jobs that sounded great, but the environment was toxic and I was miserable. This hotel has a lot of projects in the works, so I'm staying put to see where it leads me.
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.