Round two with Thanawat Bates, exec chef of the Palace Arms
321 17th Street
This is part two of my interview with Thanawat Bates, exec chef of the Palace Arms at the Brown Palace. Part one of my interview with Bates ran yesterday.
Favorite restaurant in America: I have so many, and it changes drastically depending on what kind of mood I'm in and which part of the country I'm thinking about. There's seriously no way I can pick just one, but I can name a few of my top favorites: Coi, Aureole, Baume, Benu, Alinea and Per Se. All of those restaurants do everything so well, from the service to the quality of food, to how everything is prepared, to how the final dishes are presented.
Favorite Denver/Boulder restaurant(s) other than your own: Sushi Sasa. It's consistently fresh and flavorful, and I've never been disappointed.
What you'd like to see more of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: Both Denver and Boulder have great culinary scenes to keep an eye on. There are some amazing things happening here, a lot of great new chefs joining the old ones, and a lot of creativity that continuously raises the bar for all of us. That said, we could benefit from more consistency and more culture. We're still finding our place on the bigger culinary map, and I think both consistency and culture would help us with that.
What you'd like to see less of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: Green chile. It's delicious and people love it, but not everyone has to have their own version.
Which chefs in Denver do you most respect? I have a lot of respect for both Wayne Conwell at Sushi Sasa and Alex Seidel at Fruition. They're both doing some really great things that other chefs should take note of. Wayne has proven that we can have great, fresh sushi in Denver, which a lot of people don't think is possible, and Alex has taken being a great chef a step further with Fruition Farm, and not only is he creating locally sourced ingredients, but he also manages to run a fantastic restaurant.
Biggest compliment you've ever received: To see a guest leave happy is a great feeling, but to have a guest return is the biggest compliment I've ever had as a chef. And when they come back a third time, it's the best feeling of all. Even though they might not say anything, the fact that they're coming back tells me that they like what we do -- and they want more of it. That's the best.
How you do you handle customer complaints -- and what should customers do when they're peeved about a dish? Because we're in a hotel, customer complaints are directed to the hotel manager first, and whoever that is always does whatever they can to fix the situation. Whatever a customer shares with the manager is always discussed with me, and I evaluate it with the staff. I would say that it's not so much complaints people have, but opinions and feedback. Some chefs might not like opinions, but I enjoy getting the feedback, especially because most of the time, it's good.
What are your thoughts on social review sites like Yelp, Open Table and Urbanspoon? I think review sites are great tools, and the reviews help to remind me that no one is perfect and to always strive to get better every day. It's important to realize, however, that when you read review sites, you're not always going to make everyone happy, but at least you know they're thinking about you, because they wouldn't take the time to write the review otherwise. It could be worse; they could be indifferent.
What's the best food- or kitchen-related gift you've been given? Before a staff member left, she got me this monkey peeler, and it's become one of my favorite utensils. At first I was like, what on earth am I supposed to do with this funny-looking peeler thing that's shaped like a monkey? But then I used it on a lemon, and it was actually a great peeler. Plus, it's a fun reminder of that staff member.
One book that every chef should read: Wow, I have so many books -- like, I literally have hundreds of cookbooks in several different languages. I'm a big proponent of reading everything I can get my hands on, so I guess I would recommend that to chefs -- to read as much as they can and everything they can. There are so many great cookbooks out there that it's impossible to pick just one.
Best culinary tip for a home cook: I think home cooks tend to overthink things. They psych themselves out, which makes preparing dishes more complicated than it has to be. Food is delicious when it's simple, but when you overthink the steps, you put less of yourself into what you're making, and it takes the fun and the soul out of the food.
Weirdest customer request: When I lived in Los Angeles, we had this couple come in to the restaurant where I was working, and they told us that they couldn't eat anything made with ingredients from below ground or above ground, but that they could eat anything from between the grounds. I had to ask them to explain to me a second time what they meant because I was so baffled. I didn't believe it. We ended up doing four courses, including a beet-top and carrot-top salad. But, really, who makes that kind of request?
Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: A balut egg, which is a fertilized duck embryo. It was weird.
Guiltiest food pleasure: Roasted Hong Kong duck reminds me of my childhood. It's a guilty pleasure I have.
You're making a pizza. What's on it? Definitely duck confit or Peking duck, caramelized onions, foie gras, pickled peaches, duck cracklings, scallions and Pecorino -- all on the same pizza. It's a fun one.
What's your favorite knife? I can't live without a Togiharo Petty knife. It's perfect for everything, and I use it for everything in the kitchen, from butchering meat and fish to dicing and slicing.
If you could cook in another chef's kitchen, whose would it be? I'd choose any modern open kitchen. Open and spacious is all I need.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef: Just getting to go to work every day and create is an accomplishment and a reward. Anyone who gets to do what they love and are passionate about it can relate to that. And making people happy every day is an accomplishment I'm proud of, too.
Favorite celebrity chef: Heston Blumenthal. I had the opportunity to work with him, but then I had to turn it down due to the time commitment. It was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do.
Celebrity chef who should shut up: I'm sure that I can come up with a lot of names, but at the end of the day, I think most celebrity chefs should just stay quiet. The great thing about being a chef is that your food does the talking -- or at least it should. I don't think there are too many celebrity chefs who were focused on being famous when they started their careers, and most of us who are lifelong cooks do it out of love for the food. If things work out the right way -- if the stars align and you get some attention, and you make good money while still keeping the focus on the food -- then great. But when the food takes a back seat and becomes more about stroking your ego and seeking press and attention, that's when you become irrelevant and should shut up -- at least for a while, anyway.
Hardest lesson you've learned: Take more risks with opportunities that come along, because they probably won't come around a second time, and you don't want to wake up one morning and wonder what could have been. I try to take as many risks as possible and not take any opportunities for granted.
What's next for you? That's a great question, but to be honest, I have no idea. I'm enjoying myself and where I'm at right now, but I'll always be open to new opportunities that may come along. In the meantime, I'll continue to explore foods and stay creative, and at some point in the future, I'd love to open my own place.
Your last supper: My grandma's cooking.
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