Round two with Pizzeria Basta's Kelly Whitaker: "When did we stop being the cook?"
Part one of my interview with Kelly Whitaker, exec chef-owner of Pizzeria Basta , ran yesterday. This is part two of our chat; part three will run tomorrow.
3601 Arapahoe Avenue, Boulder
What are your kitchen-gadget obsessions? Cryovac machines and immersion circulators. We don't have stoves or conventional ovens -- only a wood-fired oven, so we learned really quickly that if we were going to keep up with quality and consistency then we would have to have a total understanding of sous-vide cooking. I'd already experimented with it in kitchens in LA, and when I had the opportunity to work with Bruno Goussault, the inventor of sous-vide cooking, in New York, it opened my mind to the endless possibilities. Since then, it's been an integral part of our program. My next investment will be the Thermomix, a blender that can mix, knead, stir, cook and so much more. I know it sounds like a cheesy commercial, but it's the real deal.
What's never in your kitchen? Unsustainable seafood. Our oceans are sacred, and as restaurant owners and chefs, we have a responsibility to be stewards of the land and sea. Working with Michael Cimarusti of Providence restaurant in LA showed me what dedicating myself to this would look like. He's done a huge amount to protect the land and sea, and he's one of my heroes and mentors because of it.
What's always in your kitchen? Flour and water. We bake all of our breads in-house in the wood-fired oven, and something I noticed right away when I moved to Colorado was that most restaurants were outsourcing their bread. At first I brought in a small convection oven to cook pastry shells and delicate breads like crackers and breadsticks, but then I noticed my chefs starting to use it more frequently and moving away from baking in the wood-fired oven, so I took it out of the kitchen.
Favorite dish on your menu: Our half chicken. We don't sous vide or brine the chicken, but we compress it with herbs in our Cryovac machine, which changes the tenderness slightly -- and the wood-fired oven does the rest of the work. The result is an incredible product. I love taking something that guests eat all the time, [then] making it great by using an alternative method and surprising them. I could eat our wood-fired chicken on a daily basis, right along with our oysters.
Favorite junk food: I don't really eat junk food. Sometimes when I finish cooking, I come home and eat granola and soy milk or a frozen pizza from Amy's. Truth is hard.
Weirdest customer request: Gluten-free and/or dairy-free pizza in a pizzeria. We have it, and I don't mind cooking it, but c'mon, man.
Weirdest thing you've ever put in your mouth: I don't want to call anyone out, but a few weeks ago in Aspen, at the Cochon pig event, I had this pork-skin-wrapped dumpling in a cup that kinda resembled a testicle. I don't know if that's what the chef was going for or not, but after that, my Aspen Food & Wine weekend eating was over.
Most memorable meal you've ever had: There have been many. One of the reasons I'm in this industry is that I love to eat great meals with family and friends, and I feel blessed to be in a position that's allowed me have some phenomenal meals. When I was working in Italy, every Sunday was a ceremony of going from house to house and eating with whomever you were visiting; I like to eat like this at home, too, and I often stop by several restaurants for bites in a single night. A memorable meal would start at the Populist, followed by oysters at the Kitchen, bites at Linger, an entree at Old Major, and then dessert and an amaro at the Squeaky Bean. Sitting with my wife and eating at Basta is always memorable, too.
Favorite Denver/Boulder restaurant(s) other than your own: The Squeaky Bean, because Max and his team are pushing technique, which is fun to see in Colorado. I also love eating at Oak at Fourteenth for the late-night menu. When they closed because of the fire, I begged them to do something late-night when they returned, and on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, they now do a late-night menu, which makes me stoked because it gives us a place to eat good food after we're done cooking. I love the coffee at Crema, and its sister restaurant, the Populist, is putting out great flavors, plus I can relate their food to ours a bit. They serve food that you just want to eat every day -- and I love the neighborhood. For Sunday brunch, I find myself at Root Down quite a bit, just hanging out with chef Daniel Asher.
Favorite cheap eat in Boulder: Zoe Ma Ma. "Mama" is there every day, she makes all of the noodles herself, and the food is all fresh and so, so good. I eat there three or four times a week. She just kills it.
If you could change one thing about the Denver dining scene, what would it be? More counter-service restaurants. It seems like all of the restaurants are built around servers, a maître d', somms, and the training of all these front-of-the-house positions. I love a good server, but I want to bring some elements of counter service to Denver. Pizzeria Locale just opened in Denver, and I like walking through a line to get a more upscale product. There's no reason it can't be done while still preserving great hospitality.
What's your biggest pet peeve? The movement to do everything in-house. When did we stop being the cook and start being the butcher, farmer, charcuterie maker and fishmonger? While we're breaking down whole animals, who's seasoning and cooking the food? Not that it can't be done -- and not that it can't produce incredible results -- but you need a separate payroll dedicated to doing it, or something or someone more important is going to suffer.
Most humbling moment as a chef: The one-star review from Denver Post critic Bill Porter. Up until that review, we had received only perfect praise, and while what I care most about is the guests who walk into our restaurant every day, that review set me back. I'm not big on chef tattoos, but I put a series of four stars on my arm, only one of which is filled in. Everyone has been asking about it -- and whether or not I'm going to fill in the rest of them, especially after just getting a three-star review from 5280 magazine...but I think I'll just leave the one star filled in, because it's about humility, and I love that place and time; it only makes me better.
Craziest night in the kitchen: It would be easier to ask what my sanest night in the kitchen would be. I've been fortunate to work under some pretty fiery and passionate chefs, and one of my hardest nights, which turned out to be out one of my greatest revelations, was a very busy Friday night at Hatfield's in Los Angeles -- a restaurant where the food is built in layers of purées and each purée you're building is composed of at least ten ingredients. Quinn Hatfield, chef and owner, walked up, tasted my food and then threw my pans in the trash in the middle of the rush because he felt like my dishes were under-salted and not seasoned properly. I was fifteen tickets deep and had to start over. I remember wanting to throw up and punch him at the same time, and while I didn't totally understand it at the time, the lesson has come full circle. My lack of focus affected his guests, which affects his livelihood; he was defending his guests and protecting his name. He's one of the greatest chefs I've cooked under, and I'm super-grateful for the opportunity he gave me.
Biggest mistake a chef can make on the line: Not tasting your food.
Best recipe tip for a home cook: Salt and pepper your food, but stop with all the marinades and manipulation of ingredients -- those ideas that float around in your amazing, creative minds. Take a good ingredient and eat it as close to raw as possible, with just a little salt and pepper, and call it good. It's amazing how much flavor you miss out on when you overwork your food.
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