Round two with Thomas Salamunovich, exec chef of Larkspur and Larkburger
478 Vail Valley Drive, Vail
Part one of my interview with Thomas Salamunovich, exec chef of Larkspur and Larkburger, ran yesterday; this is part two of our chat.
Rules of conduct in your kitchen: Respect each other, have a sense of humor, and follow our "golden rules," a very long document that we've added to -- and edited -- countless times over the past thirteen years at Larkspur that explains exactly how we expect people to work in our kitchen: everything from the way their apron is tied, to how their knives are put on the station, to seasoning techniques and food-storage systems.
What's never in your kitchen? White pepper. I can't stand the taste or smell.
What's always in your kitchen? Tasting spoons are everywhere. If you're not constantly tasting and questioning what you're tasting, then the food will be inferior. Building a well-trained palate is critical to the process of food development, so you've got to have spoons everywhere and constantly, constantly taste. I never use the same spoon twice, though; it goes back to the dish machine after one use.
Most memorable meal you've ever had: My spouse, Nancy, and I were on our honeymoon, having dinner at the Eiffel Tower, and we made a goal to move to France within three years so I could stage at some of the greatest restaurants in the world and she could do the same in contemporary art galleries. We moved to France exactly three years to the day after we made that commitment. The dinner was wonderful, with multiple courses, and I purchased my first Cuban cigar after cognac, and then we walked along the Seine. I've had more significant culinary meals over the years, but this dinner was an important moment in our lives that still gives us wonderful memories.
Favorite restaurant in America: Balthazar in New York City. I've had so many great meals there with friends and family, including my kids. I remember landing in New York and walking in at 1 a.m. and leaving at 3 a.m. It was an incredible meal, with huge fruits de mer platters and steak pomme frites -- and then we came back the next morning for breakfast. Everyone was exhausted but filled with a lasting impression of comfort. I've had breakfasts, lunches, early dinners and late-night meals at Balthazar, and it's always consistent (the key to any great restaurant), and it makes me feel like I'm in Paris. It's just a great place to break bread.
Favorite cheap eat in Denver/Boulder: Larkburger, of course. I'm very proud of what we've created, and we've tried to put items on the menu that we truly want to eat; plus, I'm a sucker for a good hamburger. I also love El Taco de México. It's authentic, true to tradition, and the food is made with integrity.
If you only had 24 hours in Denver/Boulder, where would you eat? Frasca Food and Wine and the Kitchen. The owners/chefs of both restaurants have staggering integrity and passion, and for me, they provide the same feeling that you get at Chez Panisse and Zuni Cafe. They're tremendous restaurants with amazing hospitality and wonderful drinks and food, and I could eat at both every single day.
What you'd like to see more of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: Fine dining. I love the modern version of fine-dining restaurants. Elegance and taste will never go out of style, and fine dining requires an incredible commitment to both.
What you'd like to see less of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: The ubiquitous "chalkboard pig" restaurant -- you know, the pig-centric place that's self-righteous and too one-dimensional. I like pig as much as the next person, but we're seeing a strong proliferation of carbon-copy pig restaurants, and I'm tired of it.
What's the best food- or kitchen-related gift you've been given? My first knife, which my oldest brother gave to me when I went into my first kitchen at nineteen. He made me give him a penny first: Apparently it's bad luck to give knives as a gift.
What are your favorite wines? Pinot noir and champagne. I love wines from the Rhône Valley, as well. They're all good food wines, and I almost never drink wine without food.
One book that every chef should read: Everything by Alice Waters. I love the way she describes cooking. The ingredients are paramount, but she distills flavor-building down to a simple message. Her book The Art of Simple Food is wonderful for anyone who cooks at home, and we're actually cooking our way through it as a family right now. It's very important to my spouse and me that our sons know how to cook in a way that respects the process, and that book has given us a nice template to work from.
Best recipe tip for a home cook: Season your food as you cook. When you combine all the ingredients, they'll have more depth of flavor than if you only seasoned at the end.
What are your biggest pet peeves? I'm a systems freak, and I create one for every situation, and when they erode or aren't followed, I become very disgruntled. It's all about following protocol so that no matter how chaotic it gets, we have a foundation from which to work. When a staff throws the systems I've put in place to the wind -- and they always will, especially in a resort town with seasonal employment -- I insist that we go back and get on point. When I'm finally done being a chef, I won't miss this part of it. I have to be a harbinger for quality and systems, and sometimes it's a lonely place to be.
If you could cook in another chef's kitchen, whose would it be? Eric Ripert and Le Bernardin. I've just picked up his book, On the Line, and it explains in detail their process of running the restaurant. I'd enjoy some time in that temple of food. I worked in a few Michelin three-star restaurants in France, and it would be exhilarating to take part in a restaurant that's achieving that same status now. We try to run Larkspur like Le Bernardin as much as humanly possible, but you've got to be realistic about what you can actually accomplish, and we're not New York City, nor do we have a $150 check average.
Favorite celebrity chef: I'm sorry to say that I don't pay attention to this area of our industry; it doesn't interest me. But if you mean chefs who have gained notoriety through their skills, then Thomas Keller is at the top of the list. There are so many chefs, though, who've inspired me with their food or their written words.
Celebrity chef who needs a muzzle: Anyone who's putting themselves out there in the public eye deserves a certain amount of credit just for going for it and committing.
Culinary heroes: Without question, Marie-Antoine Carême. He's the chef of kings and the king of chefs.
What's one thing that people would be surprised to know about you? Not much. I'm a pretty open book.
What's your best piece of advice to culinary-school grads? Please do not focus on the media aspect of the industry; instead focus on the vocation of the culinary arts. It's a very hard way to make a living, so make sure you have a true passion and desire to do it day in and day out. Learn as much as possible about the business side, how to supervise and lead staff, why things break and how to fix them, and never stop being inquisitive.
Biggest compliment you've ever received: There was an article in some national publication that had a quote about the food I produce. It said, "Salamunovich has a knack for making food that you just want to eat and always find delicious." That was a kind comment that I'm proud of.
Most humbling moment as a chef: I'm more humbled now than ever by the staggering amount of food knowledge that I still don't know. As the years pass, there are more and more reminders that the world's food culture is just too vast a subject for any of us to ever master. I meet so many people with their own passions for things I'm not familiar with, and it's made me realize that there aren't enough years in our lifetime to take it all in. This is the humble pie I keep eating.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef: I never knew that when I went to chef school, I'd be committing to a vocation that could bring so much joy and contentment to people. Long after I'm out of the restaurant business, I will -- God willing -- cook for loved ones until the day I die. The ability to provide hospitality through food is my biggest joy, even if I can only muster a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with old wrinkled hands.
What's your dream restaurant? One that doesn't need to make money and only exists to bring everyone together to dine and converse. It would only be open for two weeks out of the month, and then I'd use another week to plan the next set of meals and ideas for the following month, and the last week would be devoted to everything but the restaurant business. It's not a grand scheme that provides much balance. Anyone want to invest?
What do you have in the pipeline? Balance. I've opened far too many restaurants in the past decade, and now I'd like to enjoy other elements of my life. Professionally, I've committed more time to working at Larkburger, which is expanding, and continuing its culinary focus, but I'm also in the kitchen at Larkspur more often than I have been in years. I'm learning from the skilled people I'm blessed to employ, and hopefully teaching them one or two concepts. And I'm continuing to consult on a project or two and thinking about maybe doing a taco concept or noodle place. No rush, though. There's too much to do in the Vail Valley and Colorado that I've still not had time to enjoy.
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