Round two with Sean McGaughey, exec chef of Opus
2575 West Main Street, Littleton
This is part two of my interview with Sean McGaughey, exec chef of Opus. You can read part one of that interview here.
Favorite restaurant in America: Blue Hill at Stone Barns, a restaurant directly on a farm in Pocantico Hills, New York. They practice biodynamic farming, which produces the best of everything, and the whole farm is an ecosystem and organically self-sustaining, plus the menu changes every day to feature that morning's harvest. You can't get any more farm-to-table than that.
Favorite Denver/Boulder restaurant(s) other than your own: I love Euclid Hall, because it's open late and has good food, along with tallboys in paper bags with ice. Fruition's food is always super-solid, and there's nowhere better than Olivéa for desserts: Yasmin's desserts are just so fucking good. And I love Restaurant Kevin Taylor for a full-service, blowout tasting menu.
What you'd like to see more of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: Some sort of catalyst to really put our food scene on the culinary map. We're well on our way, but we still need that push to be recognized along with the other big markets. I think a little more friendly competition could wake things up a bit.
What you'd like to see less of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: Mediocrity. I don't care if you're making a sandwich or a turducken, if you spend all day prepping it, you should make it a point to make it the best you possibly can. Some places just seem to settle because of various reasons -- price, products, location, whatever. Just take what you have and make it the best that you can.
Which Denver chef do you most respect? The question should be, "Which chef in Denver do you most respect...besides Alex Seidel?" He's really got the market cornered on this one -- and he deserves it. It just proves, too, that being a nice guy will get you a long way. And I've got to give it up for Jeff Osaka, the chef of twelve, as well. I really respect how he runs his restaurant, and when you eat there, it's all but guaranteed that he's personally cooking. Staying small, and working the line by yourself every day that you're open, is commendable.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef: The first time I took the reins at Opus for a wine dinner. The chef was unexpectedly out of town, so I took over for the night, and it just so happened that one of the papers was covering the event, and they interviewed me. We nailed the food that night -- and it wasn't easy food to make, either. It was a dinner featuring offal and organ meats, and we dominated it.
Favorite celebrity chef: Marco Pierre White. Aside from the whole bad-ass, rock-and-roll lifestyle thing, he's also a great chef. Driven and accomplished, he paved his own way from nothing, and then he went a little crazy, gave his Michelin stars back, and now he spends his days hunting in the woods. Nonetheless, he's proof that anyone can do what they want -- if they try hard and care enough.
Celebrity chef who should shut up: Gordon Ramsay. I respect his food and cooking ideals a lot, but all that yelling and belittling overshadows his cooking talent.
If you could cook in another chef's kitchen, whose would it be? Michel Bras's. I don't have enough crazy French influence in my life.
What are your thoughts on social review sites, like Yelp, Opentable and Urbanspoon? All three have changed the dining scene immensely, and over the last three or four years, consumers have become very dependent on them. Opentable is the best of the three. The diner is contacted by e-mail and asked about their experience, and if the diner replies, it's usually honestly and briefly. Whatever the review site, you can't argue that online comments are becoming more and more a part of everyday restaurant business.
How do you handle customer complaints -- and what should customers do when they're peeved about a dish? We take every complaint seriously and try to fix it the best we can. I make it a point to stop by problem tables and personally apologize and/or make sure that they're happy. I figure that taking personal responsibility -- even if it isn't our fault -- and acknowledging the problem is better than saying nothing at all. Nine times out of ten, I can repair the situation, and hopefully everyone walks away happy. If you're a customer and unhappy with something, please speak up. Chances are we can fix it to your liking.
Biggest compliment you've ever received: I was cooking dinner at my grandparents' house -- a Wagyu prime rib and some demi that I sneaked in from the restaurant -- and as the roast was resting and all the pan juices reducing, my 93-year-old grandpa stuck a spoon in the sauce, and all he said was, "Damn, that's good."
What's the best food- or kitchen-related gift you've been given? I've been given quite a few knives and books and the like, but the coolest gift came when I was leaving my first job. As a parting gift, the chef and sous chef chipped in and got me a nice Henckels slicer. I was constantly borrowing theirs, and I'm sure it seemed like I could use one of my own. Truth is, I left there and didn't need it for, like, three years, but now I use it almost every day.
What's your favorite knife? Knives come and go. I usually go through a couple of Masahiro carbon chef knives every year, but for whatever reason, I just can't seem to sharpen the knife without misshaping it. I also hate it when they wear down so much that my knuckles hit the cutting board.
One book that every chef should read: Don't Try This at Home, which is a collection of stories by top chefs who talk about their mishaps, disasters and catastrophes; it puts everything that happens in the kitchen into perspective.
Best culinary tip for a home cook: Season your food in the beginning. The flavors will have much more depth, and your seasoning will taste "cooked in." It sounds stupid, but you really can taste the difference.
You're making a pizza. What's on it? Fresh-pulled mozzarella, Spanish chorizo, eggs, garlic-chile oil and some kind of greens -- usually arugula or mizuna. And there's got to be lots of olive oil on the crust.
Guiltiest food pleasure: Steamed rice, Spam, over-easy eggs, sweet chile sauce, and my mom's pickled green beans on top. It's one of those things that you eat in the dark while you're shirtless and want to keep it a secret from everyone else. It's still really, really good.
Weirdest customer request: At one of my first jobs, a lady would come in almost every week claiming to be allergic to the color red. We worked around it, but I'm calling shenanigans.
Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: Korean blood soup, solid cakes of cooked blood with no other flavors added that float in a stew/broth of potatoes, chile, soy and aromatics. The flavor is distinctly blood, and there aren't too many spices to cover it up.
Hardest lesson you've learned: There will always be problems, but rather than dwell on it and worry, it's better to just work through it all and move forward.
What's next for you? Over the next few weeks, we have to nail down our fall menu. Long-term, I'd love to take Opus to the next level. We need to really focus on the food and try to elevate the overall experience for the guest. Lately we've been focusing, with great success, on our tasting menus. I'd like to push the menus even further by adding more canapes, intermezzos and mignardises to the experience. The goal is to make sure that people leave the restaurant feeling truly cared for and that we've surpassed their expectations.
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