Round two with TAG Burger Bar chef Drew Archer: "If salt is flavor, then acid is life"
1222 Madison Street
Part one of my interview with Drew Archer, chef of TAG Burger Bar, ran yesterday; this is part two of our chat.
Most memorable meal you've ever had: We never really ate out much growing up, so I don't have many particularly memorable meals from my childhood, but I've had amazing fresh pasta in Italy, fish in Greece and green chile in Santa Fe, although perhaps the most memorable meal I've ever had was in Maine, when I was about twelve. When I was young, all I watched was the Food Network, and one night my mother and I were watching a show on Maine lobsters. Living in Oklahoma, I'd never had lobster and thought it looked like the most amazing thing to eat. Later that year, we actually took a family trip to New England, and while we were there, we drove up to Maine, got a table at a waterfront restaurant, and I ordered my first lobster. It was just as amazing as I had envisioned, except for the fact that the Food Network had edited out all the carnage and guts that come out of whole lobster when you rip the tail off. Needless to say, I wasn't prepared for the real lobster experience, which is what made it so memorable.
Favorite Denver/Boulder restaurant(s) other than your own: At Euclid Hall, I love the pig-ear pad Thai. That's the kind of food that proves that someone really wanted to make it, that it's not on the menu because it's expected. Another spot that's amazing is Glaze, a bakery right across from TAG Burger Bar on Madison Street that makes traditional Japanese rotisserie cakes. It's not even worth me trying to explain the process, because I can watch them cook for an hour and still have no idea how it works.
Favorite cheap eat in Denver: I love the happy hour at Machete, in Cherry Creek. They have $2 tacos, and their crispy tripe taco is by far the best taco I've had in Denver.
If you could change one thing about the Denver dining scene, what would it be? In honor of Denver Restaurant Week, I would change Denver Restaurant Week. The amount of time and work that goes into a two-week period is insane. I'd love to see it split over two independent weeks -- one in February and one in August.
What do you enjoy most about your craft? The artistic freedom and expression. I was always an art student in high school, and I loved 3-D art -- sculptures, working with clay, architecture -- and if I could go back in time, my AP portfolio would have been food photography. To me, cooking is all about the senses. I want to make you notice not only flavor, but color, texture, height and patterns -- they're all the parts of a meal that people love without realizing they love it.
What's the best food- or kitchen-related gift you've been given? I love getting cookbooks as gifts, and the one that I really looked to when I first started at TAG was The Blue Elephant, an Indonesian cookbook. It was a gift from my wife that she brought back from Indonesia. I owned it for about a year and didn't know what half the ingredients were, but when I started at TAG, I started working with some new ingredients and realized that they were things that I'd read about in that cookbook. I soon realized I could use the book as a tool and as a way to learn about new uses for the ingredients we had in the kitchen that I'd never been exposed to.
What was the last cookbook you bought, and what recipes are you cooking from it? I recently bought VOLT ink., but unfortunately, I'm not cooking anything from it, because I don't own an immersion circulator, which happens to be needed for every single recipe in the book. Still, it's a great coffee-table book, and I've read it front to back. I came up with new ideas and twists using some of the techniques. Now I just need to find an excuse to sous-vide burgers as a way of getting my hands on the equipment.
Best nugget of advice for a culinary-school graduate: You're not going to be hired as management, or as a lead chef. I didn't attend culinary school, but while getting my bachelor's degree, I was just like everyone else in school and thought I'd walk into a management position just because I had a degree. In this industry no degree can teach you what long, hard hours in a restaurant can.
Best recipe tip for a home cook: Use salt and acid. "If salt is flavor, then acid is life." That's a quote I once heard -- and agree with. If you make a dish and it's a little flat, season it and finish it with some fresh citrus or vinegar. It makes all the difference.
What's your biggest pet peeve? Towels left on the line. I'm a pretty quiet and calm chef, but it drives me absolutely crazy when cooks lay their towels on the line during service. If I see towels lying around, I'm all too happy to throw them off the line
Which chef has most inspired you? Phillipe Garmy, who was my mentor throughout college, as well as the executive clinical chef for our college. He's a Frenchman through and through, from his food to his wine, and he gave me so many opportunities to learn and grow. He was the first chef I really got to know and work with on a personal level outside of a restaurant, and he's someone who I'll always look up to and strive to be like in my career.
If you could have dinner with three chefs, dead or alive, whom would you choose? Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Masaharu Morimoto and Michael Symon. They are so vastly different from each other, from their backgrounds to their techniques to their cuisine. I'm not sure how the vibe of the meal would be at the table, but I'd be asking questions like that overly curious little kid in class.
If you could cook in another chef's kitchen, whose would it be? I'd choose any kitchen larger than mine. We push a lot of food off a little line, and it would be nice to stretch out a bit every once in a while.
Describe the biggest challenges facing today's chefs: Online customer reviews and personal blogs. When customers look for a spot to eat, they read whatever reviews are posted -- and it's tough to swallow sometimes. Just a few years ago, the only "bad" press came from newspapers and word of mouth. Now it's an instant post written while still at the table that everyone can read, whether it's truthful or not. The margins for error have basically disappeared. Any negative feedback is publicized clearly and loudly for all to read.
Most humbling moment as a chef: The first burger I cooked for Troy at TAG. He said it was perfect, and I told him I wouldn't cook another burger for him going forward because it could only go down. And then I was promoted to TAG Burger Bar, where, ironically, I cook nothing but burgers.
Biggest moment of euphoria in the kitchen: A "job well done" message passed on from the guest. It's all about them, and it's amazing when that recognition makes it back to the kitchen.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef: I'm only 24, so I hope my greatest accomplishments are still years down the road. This is not an industry where staying static is acceptable. It's about striving to get better on a daily basis. I always hope to be more accomplished tomorrow than I am today.
What's one thing that people would be surprised to know about you? I have an obsession with Oklahoma State athletics. It's pretty serious.
When you have a day off away from the kitchen, how do you spend your time? Off my feet. In the summer, I play a good amount of tennis, but more often than not, I'm just looking to unwind, relax and recover.
If you hadn't become a chef, what would you be doing right now? Managing a hotel...and not enjoying it. The reason for my hotel and restaurant management degree from Oklahoma State was to have a backup plan in case cooking didn't work out. You couldn't pay me enough money to run the front of the house, so it was either success in the kitchen or hotels.
What's in the pipeline? As long as I'm working for TAG restaurants, I'll be wherever they need me. I still have a lot to learn and a ways to go before I'd even think of opening up my own place, although someday, that's what I'd like to do. I'd love to do R&D for restaurants -- just play in a test kitchen all day. That's my end goal.
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