Round two with Taylor Drew, exec chef of Russell's Smokehouse
1422 Larimer Street
This is part two of my interview with Taylor Drew, exec chef of Russell's Smokehouse; part one of our chat ran yesterday.
Favorite Denver/Boulder restaurant(s) other than your own: I don't get out to eat nearly enough, but I recently ate at Beast + Bottle and thought it was really good. Everything we ate was well executed, and I really liked how the menu was laid out. The service was very attentive, and the space is inviting, too.
Favorite cheap eat in Denver: A burrito from Illegal Pete's is always fast, delicious and relatively inexpensive.
Most memorable meal you've ever had: When I was nineteen, I was in the U.S. Navy, and while on deployment on the U.S.S. Enterprise, we stopped for two days in Naples, Italy. The first day I got off the ship, a friend and I started walking, and after a couple of hours (and a couple of beers), we met a guy out in front of what appeared to be a restaurant. There were no signs or big windows with advertisements, but as we entered, we were led through a neat and well-put-together dining room with white linens and ornately folded napkins. Upstairs there were more tables, and we were given a seat at a large table facing the kitchen. The kitchen had maybe three men crammed into it, with every burner and inch of prep space being taken up by something. It was late afternoon and probably far too early for dinner service, but the man who had invited us in spoke with the cooks and popped open a bottle of wine, and soon food came rolling out of the kitchen: freshly baked bread, handmade pastas in different sauces, and amazing meats and cheeses that were all made by the chefs at the restaurant. That afternoon, I ate and drank food that until that point I had had no idea even existed. As my friend and I made our way out the front door, we thanked our host and the chefs, found a taxi and went back to the ship. After that meal, I knew I wanted to eat like that all the time -- but first I needed to know how to cook.
If you could change one thing about the Denver dining scene, what would it be? I really like the direction that the food scene in Denver is going, and I think we've embraced a food culture, and that's a great atmosphere for a chef. There's also a shared culture among industry professionals that we want everyone to thrive and succeed, which will only help to make the dining scene in Denver better.
What do you enjoy most about your craft? I love to cook, but really, the reward for me is getting to share it with my friends, family and guests who come to the restaurant, or to my home. That may sound a bit cheesy, but it's true: That's why I cook.
What recent innovation has most influenced the restaurant industry in a significant way? I think that technology in general has really changed the way restaurants operate. From social-media sites like Twitter to the dreaded Yelp, we're more connected to our audience then we've ever been before. For better or worse, we have real-time information about -- and from -- our guests. Utilizing this information properly can make or break some restaurants.
What's the best food- or kitchen-related gift you've been given? My parents gave me a Hattori chef's knife for Christmas about five years ago. It's since taken a lot of abuse but still holds an edge, and it's my go-to knife at work and home.
Best recipe tip for a home cook: Taste your food, season and repeat. The most important element to making great food is seasoning it properly, but more important, season in layers and always, always taste your food as you go along. A little pinch of kosher salt -- do yourself a favor and throw away your iodized salt -- and a dash of pepper at each step of the recipe will help enhance the flavor of whatever it is that you're preparing.
Weirdest customer request: People seem to have all kinds of strange requests, so nothing really shocks me any longer. I do think it's funny, however, when people are "allergic" to colors of food -- usually green or red foods -- but we'll always accommodate any reasonable request.
Weirdest thing you've ever put in your mouth: I ate live ants once for a survival class that I was taking. We were foraging, and the instructor showed us some ants that he wanted us to try. They didn't really taste bad -- or good, for that matter -- but the initial crunch was a little unsettling
What's always lurking in your refrigerator? Milk, but only for cereal. I'm a cereal junkie -- it's my favorite snack any time of the day or night.
Which chef has most inspired you? I've worked for Frank Bonanno for the last four years, which equates to the majority of my professional cooking career. Frank has taught me a lot of little things -- how to properly dice a shallot or cook a lobster, for example -- but more important, he's shared his philosophies on food and service, which is a truly valuable lesson as I continue in my career as a chef.
If you could have dinner with three chefs, dead or alive, whom would you choose? Julia Child, Anthony Bourdain and Dan Barber from Blue Hill would be a fun group to hang out with and talk about food. They would probably have very differing views about the industry and food in general, but they've all influenced my career in one facet or another.
If you could cook in another chef's kitchen, whose would it be? I'd love to cook with chef Max at the Squeaky Bean. I think the food that they're making there is on a whole different level than most restaurants in Denver.
Most humbling moment as a chef: Probably my first week on the line at Mizuna. I started in pantry, and that first week was an eye-opening experience. I got crushed every night and showed up earlier and earlier every morning in order to get caught up. It was awesome to be a part of such a high-level restaurant, but humbling to see how much I still needed to learn. It was great motivation to really step up my cooking.
Biggest moment of euphoria in the kitchen: The first time I made sausage from start to finish. It was one of the first moments that I had something tangible that I could call my own, and for a young chef, that makes a great day.
Craziest night in the kitchen: Dramatic line-cook walkouts, pipes bursting, power outages -- you name it. You can pretty much bet that anything that can go wrong will go wrong on any given night; that's part of the life of a chef. It's up to you to maintain your composure and push through.
Biggest mistake a chef can make on the line: Getting so wrapped up in their own vision that they lose sight of what the guests want. As a chef, you're cooking for your guests -- this isn't a career that's about you -- so give the guests what they want, not what you think they should want. I would much rather put together a plate that the diner is going to love rather than one that I love and they hate.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef: Being part of the opening team at Russell's Smokehouse. There's a lot of satisfaction in opening a restaurant and seeing it progress over the first year, and I'm really happy with where the menu is right now, and our staff -- both front- and back-of-the-house -- is top-notch.
What piece of advice would you give to a young chef? Work hard, listen and learn, have fun, and try everything at least once.
What skills and attributes do you look for when hiring kitchen staff? I look for individuals who are hardworking and motivated to learn. You don't need to know the mother sauces or French knife cuts, but you must be inclined to learn and willing to do whatever it takes to get it done.
If you had the opportunity to open your own restaurant with no budget constraints, what kind of restaurant would you open? I'd like to open a restaurant that's based on the concept of teaching and community involvement. My brother and I have always kicked around the idea of combining a non-profit environment where less fortunate people can come and learn valuable skills for feeding and supporting their families; it would also be a place that has great food and service.
What's one thing that people would be surprised to know about you? When I get really busy on the line, I sing quietly to myself. I think people generally assume that I'm just muttering to myself.
Last meal before you die: A grilled cheese sandwich with a really stinky, creamy cheese and thick, smoky bacon on potato bread, served with a spicy tomato soup. Give me that, and I'll die a happy man.
What's in the pipeline? I'm pretty stoked about a couple of really special dinners and events that are coming up, including a Leopold Bros. spirits dinner at Green Russell on June 19. We're still hashing out the details, but I'm pretty sure it'll sell out quickly. We're also doing a menu change in the next few weeks, so I'm super-excited about that, too.
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