This is part two of my interview with Robin Baron, executive chef of Udi's Pizza Bar, Udi's Bread Cafe and the soon-to-be-open Pickled Lemon in Boulder. Part one of my interview with Baron ran yesterday.
Favorite restaurant in America: Casa Mono. The executive chef, Andy Nusser, is brilliant, and I could eat at his restaurant every day. His flavors are clean and bright, and his food is traditionally Spanish -- but with a twist. He makes rice with fidellos and then tops it with fresh sea urchin, for example. It's incredible -- a rich and creamy flavor bomb. And while his dishes comprised only a few ingredients, the execution is great, and he gets a lot of flavor from char and the brightness of lemons. You crave his food for years -- no joke. I haven't eaten Spanish food like that anywhere else in the world. I love, too, that you can just roll in off the street and have a great glass of wine and some of the best-shaved jamón anywhere. There are a lot of regulars and industry people there, too, so the place feels very much like a local hangout, plus the staff is friendly, down to earth and knowledgeable.
Best food city in America: While San Francisco has incredible produce, I've got to say New York in the best food city. There's an energy there that constantly drives people to experiment or spin out an old classic, and on top of that, New York has tons of authentic "flavor." As a cook, you're almost over-saturated with inspiration.
Favorite Denver/Boulder restaurant(s) other than your own: The flavors in the dishes at Chada Thai are complex, layered and completely craveable, and the chef really focuses on using great ingredients. Just order her brown rice, or her sticky rice with warm coconut and toasted sesame seeds, and you'll be blown away. Every once in a while, I love to get a chopped-up duck from King's Land; it's delicious, sweet and fatty. I also go to Buchi Cafe Cubano a lot for their rice, beans, fried plantains and the best mojo sauce. They've also got a liquor license and they're expanding, so I can't wait for that.
Current Denver culinary genius: Wayne at Sushi Sasa is amazing. He's meticulous, creative and firmly rooted in the basics and technique, although he slips in some new combos under the radar, so you have to keep your eye out for that. Strawberries with avocado? Genius. They also make everything with love, and you can tell that a lot of thought goes into every menu item.
Favorite local chef: Chef John Broening, and his wife and pastry chef, Yasmin Lozada-Hissom, are an amazingly talented couple. John's food is solid, elevated versions of classics, and Yasmin's desserts are refined, sophisticated and not overly sweet. She doesn't compromise the flavor and quality of ingredients by covering it with lots of sugar.
Favorite celebrity chef: I haven't had a television in about ten years, so I'm a little out of the loop, but I'd have to give props to Ilan Hall. We worked together at Casa Mono in New York, and aside from being a good friend and tons of fun to work with, he has so much heart for the kitchen and so much passion for food. At Casa Mono, he always wanted to cook family meal, and he would dedicate so much time and attention to making a great one. I remember him roasting chickens and basting them with a special sauce every fifteen minutes for a whole hour -- just for staff meal.
If you could cook for one famous chef, dead or alive, who would it be? I would love to cook for my grandmother. Usually I'm her kitchen bitch, but I'd love to let her relax and lay out a nice meal for her. I'd attempt to make some of her greatest dishes: rice- and beef-stuffed red peppers, apricot-potato dumplings and Viennese poppyseed rolls. I'd also love to cook for Andy Nusser or Ido Ben-Shmuel. They were such great teachers; I owe them so much gratitude.
What you'd like to see more of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: I love the street-food trend and would love to see more outdoor food courts. The food-truck movement opens up the restaurant industry to talented, young and inspirational cooks who may have great ideas but don't have the capital or backing to open a restaurant -- plus the limited space forces the cooks to be extra-creative.
What you'd like to see less of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: Bad fusion food. I just think that people should really know and understand the basics of one cuisine before they create a menu that melds a bunch of different cuisines.
What's the best food- or kitchen-related gift you've been given? A rice cooker. The most important thing is high-quality rice -- and then I can throw a nice meal together on the fly.
One book that every chef should read: Thomas Keller writes great cookbooks. He's very meticulous and he covers the basics -- even if they are a little dressed up. And every chef should read On Food and Cooking, by Harold McGee, which encompasses a lot of techniques and food facts. It's an encyclopedia every cook should own. Also the new book, Modernist Cuisine, looks amazing.
What show would you pitch to the Food Network, and what would it be about? I'd love to see a show called Your Mama's Mama, which would be about your grandmother's cooking. In order to be on the show, you'd have to be at least eighty years old. The grandmas would be baking cookies in the same disposable tin trays that they've been reusing for the last 45 years; cutting chicken with a butter knife; and grating onions on a dented cheese grater, nary a peeler or mixer in sight. I'm sure they'd cook up the greatest dishes, and with all of our modern gadgets, it's good to bring it down to reality once in a while -- to the birthplace of deliciousness.
Weirdest customer request: I don't think we have ever had anything crazy -- mostly just dietary and allergy requests. Our restaurants are really about comfort food, and since we have a lot of regulars, we like to make them happy.
Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: Deep-fried maggots in Southern China. They were really oily and didn't have much flavor.
Best culinary tip for a home cook: Focus on learning a technique, not a recipe. First, master the technique -- maybe focus on braises for a couple months -- and then play around. I know that's a vague tip that requires some dedication, so if you don't want to do that, then just cook things that you love to eat.
Are chefs artists, craftsmen or both? Both, potentially. There are some cooks who are very technique-focused -- and food that's crafted with great technique is unreal. Then there are artists -- chefs who are driven by creativity and curiosity. The best chefs are the cooks that have both qualities, but being an artist can't be learned; that's in your soul: You're born with it. And cooking with good technique is amazing and takes years and years of practice. You may be an artist, but without technique, you're not able to realize your ideas and translate them to the plate in the way you envision.
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Hardest lesson you've learned: Running a restaurant is not about you -- or your "great" food ideas -- but about what the customer wants, giving them what they want and making the restaurant the absolute best you can make it. Our restaurant in Stapleton really did a 180-degree turn after the first year we were open. We started out by doing a small-plates menu that had a Mediterranean/Middle Eastern focus and then changed it to a bread-focused bistro/cafe. And at first, it was really hard on my ego. I felt like the customers were the ones losing out and misunderstanding my food, but this was totally not the point. The point is that you have to be flexible and savvy enough to understand what people want and make them happy, and once I accepted and focused on improving our bistro-style menu of sandwiches, salads and brunch, I felt more satisfied with the food and with my job -- and I also felt good about meeting people's wants.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef: I've got a lot of small accomplishments, but maybe the greatest one so far was opening our first restaurant, especially since my family must have been crazy to trust me with so much responsibility. The accomplishment wasn't the actual opening of the restaurant, because I'm pretty sure I did an extremely chaotic and botched job for a while, but the evolution of opening it -- learning what works and what doesn't; adapting the menu; giving the clientele what it wants while defining what your own standards are; finding your niche, filling it out, evolving with it and seeing where you can push the boundaries. Opening a restaurant has been a huge process for me, and I feel like I'm learning so much all the time.
Last meal before you die: A big bowl of Ecuadorian shrimp ceviche topped with lots of avocado and fresh cilantro. Ecuadorian ceviche is different from any I've tasted around town. It's in a tomato-rich sauce, and it's served with popcorn on top, so it has a lot of crunch and a nutty toasted flavor. I've only eaten this twice in my life, but I can't forget it.