Round two with Pippa Taylor, exec chef of Strings
1700 Humboldt Street
Part one of my interview with Pippa Taylor, executive chef of Strings, ran yesterday. This is part two of our chat
Favorite restaurant in America: At this point, my favorites include Joël Robuchon in Las Vegas, Charlie Trotter's in Chicago and Fenway Franks at Fenway Park in Boston. I've got to be honest, though: I haven't even scratched the surface of the American restaurant scene. There are so many renowned and less-obvious restaurants that I can't wait to try. I see a lot of road trips in my future.
Favorite cheap eat in Denver/Boulder: Jerusalem on Evans. I lived in Cairo, Egypt, for a few years and always get cravings for good Middle Eastern food. "J-rus," as we called it in college, has some seriously good, and seriously authentic, Middle Eastern dishes.
If you only had 24 hours in Denver/Boulder, where would you eat? The Morrison Inn, Tabernash Tavern and Prima. The Morrison Inn and the Tavern are both very unique Colorado staples with delicious and varying menu items, and I couldn't leave Colorado without having the egg ravioli from Prima.
What you'd like to see more of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: I'd love to see more tasting menus. I very rarely get a chance to eat out, and when I do, I want to order everything. Tasting menus allow me to sample more of what the kitchen offers, and it makes me feel like I'm on a vacation from the back of the house. It's a real treat.
What you'd like to see less of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: I'd like to see fewer Groupon and Living Social deals. I feel like they lower a restaurant's standards.
Most memorable meal you've ever had: Ryan, my husband -- who's the sous chef in the kitchen with me at Strings -- and I were married in Scotland. Much like a decorator enjoys touring beautiful homes, we enjoy touring restaurant kitchens. On our wedding night, we were fortunate enough to tour the kitchen of the restaurant that cooked our marriage feast. In the kitchen, there was a bus tub on the line filled to the brim with live langoustines that were fresh-caught less than a mile from the kitchen. They were clattering around in the tub -- and the most vibrant orange color. We ate those langoustines that night for our wedding dinner, and it was the most delicious, and the most memorable, meal and experience I've ever had. Food that fresh is a true delight.
What's the best food- or kitchen-related gift you've been given? I was raised in the U.K. and grew up snacking on the seemingly oddball treats from there. Last Christmas, Ryan ordered my two favorite candy bars from the U.K. -- Mint Aero bars and Cadbury Crunchies -- along with Walker's prawn cocktail chips. The tastes brought me back to being a kid again.
Favorite childhood food memory: My parents took me to Venice when I was young, and I bravely ordered a bowl of mussels, which I'd never tried, but I wanted to prove how grown up I was. My parents warned me that I might not like them, but moments later, I was up to my elbows in garlicky broth and mussel shells, my face lit up from the meal. I was hooked. Then, when I was eight or so, my parents took me to Ciao Baby!, a restaurant in Denver that's now closed. Noel Cunningham gave me my first tour of a professional kitchen. He treated me like a respected colleague, showing me the pizza oven and letting me make my own Italian soda and dessert. I felt so special, and I've had a special connection to the Cunninghams and Strings ever since.
Favorite junk food: I'll never say no to a big bag of salt-and-vinegar chips, or Velveeta shells and cheese. Don't judge.
Favorite dish on your menu: We just launched our summer menu, and I'm most excited about the pan-seared scallops with popcorn purée, smoked pistachios, mushrooms, leeks and saba. When you try the popcorn that the seared scallops sit on, you can't quite place where the nutty flavor comes from, which is the point: The whole dish comes together in such a beautiful, balanced way.
Biggest menu bomb: I made the mistake of trying to change our really popular huevos rancheros into a breakfast burrito for Sunday brunch. The ingredients were exactly the same -- green chile, potatoes, sausage, eggs, pico de gallo and tomatillo salsa -- but we wrapped them all in a tortilla. The menu was published before we had tried it on our diners, and we had a major backlash. We had so many customers upset by the change -- leaving comment cards and giving our servers a hard time -- that we ended up changing it back to its original incarnation. Lesson learned: If it ain't broke, don't fix it.
Rules of conduct in your kitchen: Respect. Be respectful and earn respect. I'm also obsessed with maintaining a clean kitchen. How clean a kitchen is reflects how organized the staff is -- as well as how much they care about their surroundings. Service moves smoother in a clean and orderly kitchen, and it trains cooks to be accountable for themselves and their stations. Cleaning, all the time, no matter how busy you are, is one of the first fundamentals I teach each new kitchen employee.
What's never in your kitchen? Pre-made, frozen or ready-to-eat food. Strings is a scratch-made kitchen, where we make absolutely everything, and I think our diners can taste the difference. We won't use any pre-made stocks, pre-made demi-glace, soup mix, or dressing mix. I won't even let my cooks use bottled sriracha -- we make our own version. Everything we do, we do from square one, so we know the quality is top-notch.
What's always in your kitchen? The Beatles. They're playing in the kitchen at Strings every day. Listening to music while cooking lifts the spirit and adds magic and love to the food you put out. The Beatles make me happy and food makes me happy. It's a perfect combination.
What are your favorite wines and/or beers? My favorites are New Zealand sauvignon blancs and French Vouvray for whites, and chianti and grenache for reds. I really like pilsners and IPAs when it comes to beer, and right now I'm digging Midas Touch by Dogfish Head. Ryan and I are actually currently working on our sommelier certifications. We've taken our first test out of four and are studying for our second.
One book that every chef should read: I don't think any chef should stop at just one; they should read everything they can to learn about different styles, chefs, techniques and the industry. It's the best way to keep learning and growing. One of my favorites is Ma Gastronomie, by Fernand Point. It has all of the fundamentals and classics a chef should master before branching out into more complicated cooking.
Best recipe tip for a home cook: Use recipes as guides, not as gospel. Go with your gut, and taste and adjust the seasonings until you like it. Use vinegar when it's just not quite right.
Culinary heroes: Austin Cueto, the executive chef at Restaurant Kevin Taylor. He gave me my first job in the industry after I left a career in finance. I had no business being in a professional kitchen, but Austin gave me a shot. He taught me all my fundamentals, and he's the reason why I'm the executive chef at Strings. And my husband, Ryan Taylor, is the most talented chef I know. I could eat his food forever, and he's by far one of the most creative minds in the kitchen. It's an honor to work side by side with him.
If you could cook in another chef's kitchen, whose would it be? Barbara Lynch, a chef in Boston, Massachusetts. As a female, I find it so inspiring to see what other women are doing in their kitchens. Her restaurant, No. 9 Park, has a beautiful menu -- very strong yet very feminine at the same time. Women chefs around the world drive my hunger, my passion and my motivation.
Favorite celebrity chef: Gordon Ramsay. I've had the privilege of eating at a few of his restaurants; he's just so talented. I don't watch his shows, but his food speaks for itself.
Celebrity chef who needs a muzzle: Anthony Bourdain. He's so quick to criticize others for "selling out," but really, who's the sellout now?
What's one thing that people would be surprised to know about you? I never went to culinary school. I graduated with a degree in finance and accounting with a minor in economics. I always loved cooking, but was afraid to turn my hobby into my career. After disliking my first few jobs in the finance world, I decided to give cooking a second chance. That said, I find that having a finance background influences many of the decisions I make on the menu and in the kitchen.
What's your best piece of advice to culinary-school grads? The kitchen line is the most important place to learn. You can know your recipes like the back of your hand, but working service will separate the weak from the strong.
What's your dream restaurant? Ryan and I want to own our own fine-dining restaurant one day, something small enough so we can do absolutely everything in-house, from scratch: bread, pastas, cheeses, cured meats, vinegars, mustards -- everything.
Last meal before you die: My grandfather's chicken wings, my mom's Caesar salad and her cucumber salad, my dad's ribs and my grandpa's strawberry shortcake. Oh, and my mother's banana cream pie. And a piece of toast with butter and Marmite. Might as well go out in style.
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