Round two with Row 14 exec chef Arik Markus
This is part two of my interview with Arik Markus, executive chef of Row 14. In part one of that interview, Markus dishes on crashing kitchens, the day he was fired by Eric Ripert and the echo of Daniel Boulud.
Favorite restaurant in America: Wow, that's so subjective. I have favorites in so many cities, and it's hard to pick just one, but I guess I'll say Balthazar in New York. They absolutely nailed the bustling-brasserie concept, and I love the room, the food, the crowds and the energy. I also have a special relationship to the restaurant: Lee Hanson and Riad Nasr, who have been the chefs there since it opened, were my sous chefs at Daniel when I was just coming up. I got a tour of the space when it was still a construction site, and was their guest on the third night they were open -- sitting in a banquette next to David Bowie and Iman. Sixteen years later, I still go there every time I get home to New York, and Lee and Riad still take great care of me. They're like my older brothers -- something I only got at Restaurant Daniel.
Best food city in America: San Francisco. The access to the surrounding agricultural and viticultural areas provides the Bay Area with the most dizzying array of products, amazing vegetables and fruits, wines, cheeses, seafood and livestock. When I lived there, I had a "Round the Bay Tour" that I'd subject my out-of-town visitors to. We'd pack a mignonette sauce and some paper plates and napkins in a cooler and stick it in the trunk of the car, then head to Napa by way of the Bay Bridge. We'd stop in Carneros and have a glass of bubbly on the veranda at Domaine Carneros (Tattinger clones!), then buy a bottle and stick it in the cooler. Then it was on to the next champagne cave for another glass and another bottle for the cooler. We then headed west to Point Reyes Station to buy cheese, a baguette and some Fra'Mani salumi at Cowgirl Creamery, then to Marshall, to Hog Island Oyster Company headquarters, where they have a dozen or so picnic tables set up right next to Tomales Bay. You can buy a bag of fifty oysters for $50, and they'll give you an oyster knife, lemons and a bottle of Tapatio hot sauce. Then we'd crack open the cooler and feast on oysters, meats, cheese and bubblies before taking a slow ride back into San Francisco over the Golden Gate Bridge at sunset. What a way to feature the best of the Bay in a day.
Favorite Denver/Boulder restaurant(s) other than your own: It's a tie between Pizzeria Basta and Pizzeria Locale, both in Boulder. New Yorker plus great pizza equals happiness. Theo Adley also does a great job at the Pinyon, and I really want to get to twelve to enjoy Jeff Osaka's cuisine. I'm also excited for the return of Oak at Fourteenth in Boulder.
What you'd like to see more of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: Restaurants that provide delicious, innovative and thoughtful food at a fair price in an unpretentious setting. We work hard to provide that experience to our guests, and our wine program complements the food extraordinarily well.
What you'd like to see less of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: Kitchens that go through the motions. There are plenty of great restaurants around, but I tend to seek out the kitchens that change up their menus to coincide with the seasons -- kitchens that take care to innovate without going over the public's heads, and that provide quality and value. It matters to me that a kitchen takes the time to make their own stocks and sauces and isn't just buying pre-made foods from a broadline purveyor. Balsamic vinaigrette on the side, please, but only if it's made in-house.
Current local culinary genius: My vote goes to Brian Lockwood, chef de cuisine at Frasca. There's been a lot of change since Frasca's expansion this past autumn, and Brian has worked hard to transform the kitchen into a kind of little French Laundry. The food is great, the ingredients are top quality, and he's pushing the envelope with molecular techniques, striking a balance between enhancing the food and experience without calling too much attention to themselves.
What's the best food- or kitchen-related gift you've been given? My Le Creuset oval Dutch oven. My wife and I were living in San Francisco when we got engaged, and we registered at the flagship Williams-Sonoma store, which was like putting two kids in a candy store. They plugged our names into the computer, gave us each a scanner gun, and then let us loose into five stories of glory. The Dutch oven was a long shot, since it cost nearly $400, but it was the first gift we received. I use it for so many things, from roasting whole chickens to long-cooked braises to deep-frying on a camping stove outside. It's so well made and durable that it survived the Rapture, too.
One book that every chef should read: Harold McGee's On Food and Cooking. Cooking is the perfect blend of science and art, and everyone should understand the science behind the conditions that are necessary to cause certain reactions to occur. It's a really thorough and detailed food-science text, and I know more than a few chefs who keep a copy on the back of their toilets for easy reference.
What show would you pitch to the Food Network, and what would it be about? I'd pitch Scratch Kitchen, a show that teaches basic to intermediate cooking techniques through recipes that home cooks can execute in order to put together three-course meals. But rather than using swap-outs, dissolves and other transitional gimmicks to pass time, the in-house DJ would drop in musical riffs and snippets of food-related, old-school hip-hop rhymes to transition through segments. Food from scratch with a DJ. Scratch Kitchen, get it?
You're making a pizza. What's on it? That's a great question to ask a New Yorker. It all starts with a well-made, well-proofed crust and a hot oven -- about 1,000 degrees of wood-burning glory. Add some sauce made from San Marzano tomatoes, some smoked mozzarella di bufala from Campagna, sliced garlic, spicy salami, Calabrian chilies and two eggs baked on top. And I know of a couple great pizzaioli in the area who know how to pull it off.
You're at the market. What do you buy two of? Coffee beans from Amante Coffee in Boulder. We drink the Primo blend at home every morning. I guess I need two quarts of half-and-half, too.
Weirdest customer request: After eight years in San Francisco, Berkeley and Boulder, the novelty wears off. We strive to accommodate every guest's requests, allergies and restrictions, so I can't characterize any of them.
Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: Impala pâté in Kenya. I was only twelve at the time, and it remains the funkiest flavor I've ever had. It definitely did not taste like chicken.
Guiltiest food pleasure? Glacier Ice Cream's junior mint is too good to resist. Damn you, Glacier Ice Cream of Joy
If you could cook for one famous chef, dead or alive, who would it be? Roger Vergé of Moulins de Mougins. My parents went to Mougins many years ago to taste the food from the Master of Vegetables, and my mentor, Daniel, worked with chef Vergé for years as well. I'd be curious to see what he thought of my interpretation of food, knowing that I could trace my culinary lineage through him, and I'd love to see the evolution of flavors through a couple of generations and through the lens of someone who's cooked in New York and San Francisco. It might be awesome, or it might blow up in my face -- you never know. But it would be cool, regardless.
Favorite celebrity chef: Johnny Iuzzini. He and I used to get off work and go clubbing until the wee hours when we were kids. We used to push the very limits of "work hard, play harder." It's nice to see him on TV now, but it's kinda crazy, too.
Celebrity chef who should shut up: Gordon Ramsay. I have tremendous respect for the man, and I know he's worked very hard to get where he is, but it saddens me that he sullies his reputation by participating in reality shows where he's basically paid to rip people to shreds. Working in a kitchen is hard enough without having someone knocking you down all of the time.
Are chefs artists, craftsmen or both? Both, for sure. Chefs must simultaneously consider flavor, color, composition and the best techniques for getting the most from ingredients. And to be successful, chefs must understand the business side of running a restaurant. The more you know, the better, and it takes a long time to become an expert at anything worthwhile.
What's your favorite knife? My carbon-steel Masahiro. The family has been making samurai swords for five generations and uses similar techniques when making their knives. Carbon steel holds its edge better than high-carbon, and the knife has perfect balance, strength and elegance. I love it. I wouldn't use it for three weeks after I bought it, though, because I was so intimidated, and, of course, the first time I used it, I cut myself. We've been close buds ever since.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef: Finally opening my own restaurant, Row 14 Bistro & Wine Bar. It was a long time coming, believe me. I've learned so much working for other chefs and restaurateurs, but you eventually get to a point when you've got to spread your own wings and fly.
Hardest lesson you've learned: To be patient. I rely on my staff to perform and execute every day, and I couldn't do it without them. While I insist that we do things the right way and that we don't take shortcuts, I simply can't be everywhere all the time. So I continue to learn to be patient and maintain the perspective that we are all learning together as a team, doing my best along the way to teach good practices so everyone on our team is an asset. We do the best we can every day and look forward to sharing many more extraordinary experiences with our guests.
What's next for you? I'm going back to my kitchen to deal with my mile-long prep list.
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