Round two with Trattoria Stella's Valentino Ujkic
This is part two of my interview with Valentino Ujkic , executive chef of Trattoria Stella. Part one of that interview ran yesterday.
Favorite restaurant in America: Kabob Cafe in Astoria, Queens. There's no menu, no front-of-the-house staff and no dishwasher; it's just one man -- chef Ali -- plus a CD player, random bottles of opened wine (the rule is that no one at the table can order the same glass), and fifteen seats at most. Ali is Egyptian, and he won't be rushed, which means it can take two and a half hours for lunch. The goat shank and the bluefish are unforgettable, but no more so than having the incredible experience of eating the food of a chef who has such a relentless passion for food. He's larger than life; he's Santa Claus on Christmas, Lionel Messi in Barcelona and Curtis Mayfield on a summer night in Brooklyn. He encompasses what it truly means to be a chef: He's passionate and confident, but simultaneously vulnerable and insecure, and he doesn't ask you how your meal is; he makes you tell him how much you liked it. "Valentino," he says, "I feel fat today. Tell me how good my food is!"
Best food city in America: I wish I could say something other then New York City -- but then I would be lying. I love immigrant food, and I'll try anything twice.
Favorite Denver/Boulder restaurant(s) other than your own: For breakfast, I like Waffle Brothers; for the record, get the Nikita sandwich and not the Aussie waffle. Moe's on Broadway has the best pulled pork in town, and I love the calamari -- it's off the chain -- at L'Asie Fusion Bistro. My girlfriend is Asian, and when I was courting her, I took her there. She loved it -- I was relieved; we've been dating for three weeks and we've only broken up once.
Current Denver culinary genius: Justin Cucci, the chef and owner of Linger and Root Down, and his executive chefs, Daniel Asher and Victor Mena. Justin's knowledge of the industry and the risks he's willing to take to make a mark on the city leaves me in awe. His restaurants are spectacular; it's like going to an opera or a Broadway show. His staff performs, while the kitchen composes and turns out hundreds of beautiful dishes every night. Daniel's passion for supporting local farms and hunting down the best of ingredients is humbling, and his enthusiasm lights up a room. Daniel is also the Willy Wonka of tofu. I swear, he approaches it as though it were the vodka of foods -- and its mixability is only hindered by your imagination. Victor Mena is the man in the kitchen; he's one of the strongest cooks I have ever worked next to, and he's calm, passionate and humble.
What you'd like to see less of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: Fewer pizza places. My mile-and-a-half bike ride to Stella's involves dodging pizza places that seem to be spreading faster then a venereal disease from Charlie Sheen. Winning! With seventeen pizza places in one small strip of land, anything different would be good.
What you'd like to see more of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: More crêperies; more bakeries that do fresh breads and pastries; and more bubble tea, Indian restaurants and Vietnamese sandwich shops. Denver, and Colfax, especially, could use some fresh ideas.
Favorite music to cook by: When I'm rolling out pastas in the morning, I rock to everything from early Mariah Carey and Bone Thugs-n-Harmony to the new Lupe Fiasco and Raphael Saadiq albums. During dinner service, we dance to soul music, classics like Sam Cooke's "Another Saturday Night" and Bill Withers cuts like "Lean on Me." Fortunately, our bar, R BAR, hosts live music five nights a week.
What's the best food- or kitchen-related gift you've been given? A mini-microplane from Amy Prosseda, who works at Root Down, and a mini-ball whisk from Colin Rydell, who also works at Root Down. The tools are so incredibly accessible because of their small size -- and they were given to me by two very good friends.
One book that every chef should read: Marco Pierre White's The Devil in the Kitchen. He was the original gangster of French cooking and the bravado so often associated with being a chef. His mentality was always if you don't like what I have to say, then go take a flying leap, because I don't need you. He was the youngest chef to receive three Michelin stars and the youngest chef to retire and give them back. Mario Batali, Gordon Ramsay and Heston Blumenthal all spent time in his kitchen -- and all would go on to receive Michelin stars themselves.
Best culinary tip for a home cook: Rest your meat. If you cook meat for twelve minutes, it needs to rest for at least five or six before you cut it. The cooking process forces all the juices into the middle of the protein, and if you cut the meat directly after removing it from the heat, all the juices will flood out. Resting your meat after cooking allows the meat to redistribute the juices and give it that beautiful pink middle.
What's your favorite knife? My ten-inch serrated Global, although I never use it because the staff always kidnaps it to cut bread during dinner service. My nine-inch Miyabi Morimoto Edition slicing knife is pure sex with a handle.
Rules of conduct in your kitchen: I have one simple rule for my kitchen brigade: Never order the veal at your own restaurant. I'll explain: Veal dishes are almost always less expensive than fish, beef and even chicken -- not because veal sucks, but it just won't ever be as good as a fat, juicy steak or a beautifully seared piece of fish. That said, it's okay to order the veal next door or across the street -- just not at your own restaurant, because you know you're better off getting the steak or fish for just a few dollars more.
Are chefs artists, craftsmen or both? Both. A chef is a craftsman first, because cooking is a trainable skill. Food and recipes often come with directions and measurements that you've got to adhere to if you want to succeed. But once you've learned the process and the kinetic energy involved in the techniques, then you can finally rebel against them. Rebelling is essential and allows the artist in you to take things over.
Culinary inspirations: I often draw inspiration through watching people. While I was living in New York City, I always found the subways thought-provoking. I'm not sure if it's the lack of sunlight, or the smells, or just the general griminess of the subway system, coupled with thousands of people, with their busy, important lives, all running around, but something about it always helped me focus on what I was actually doing and working toward in my own life. Once I took my headphones off, changed into chef clothes and stepped into the kitchen, I was always ready to murk it -- kill it -- with a clear mind and the buzz of the city pumping through my veins. Since I've been in Denver, I've found that same inspiration, but on a more personal level. Having incredibly talented friends like Alejandrina Brooke Quintana, who makes jewelry out of recycled plastics at Junky Funk Designs, helps me miss the urine smell of the subways a whole lot less.
What show would you pitch to the Food Network, and what would it be about? A reality show about what grinding in a proper kitchen is all about -- the relationships between the line cooks and the head chef, the stress and the fears surrounding dinner service, and the parties after work. It would be kind of like The Office. I'd be Michael Scott.
Favorite celebrity chef: Mario Batali. He's approachable, seriously funny and passionate. Having access to his kitchens in New York was life-altering.
Celebrity chef who should shut up: Guy Fieri. He describes butter as buttery? And cream as creamy? For real?
If you could cook for one famous chef, dead or alive, who would it be? Marcus Samuelsson. He was born in Ethiopia, raised by an adoptive family in Sweden, and cooked Scandinavian food in New York City. He has a refreshing gratitude for the millions of immigrants who brought wonderful foods to their new homes, as well as an appreciation for the receptive American people who have opened their hearts and minds. His books are treasures in my eyes, and they've helped me in my journey as a chef. I'd simply like to share another immigrant's story with him, mainly because I'd think he'd understand and appreciate both my food and vision.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef: Being a 26-year-old executive chef of a beautiful restaurant and bar in Denver just a year after leaving my home and everyone I knew in New York.
Hardest lesson you've learned, and how you've changed because of it: As a child, I had a hard time fitting in because I was foreign, and I was always a little embarrassed about how hard my single mom worked as a housekeeper for some of my classmates' families. I was also a kitchen rat, which most of my junior-high contemporaries couldn't relate to. At the time, I so badly wanted to fit in, but I've learned over time that I shouldn't be so quick to want to fit in and that I shouldn't have to try.
What's next for you? A dinner at Stella's hosted by me and Jake Norris from Stranahan's. He'll talk about the process of how he makes and developed Stranahan's whiskey, while I use the same elements in his liquor to make six courses of whiskey-inspired culinary adventures. Stay tuned.
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