Round two with Will Cisa, exec chef of the Corner Office
This is part two of my interview with Will Cisa, executive chef of the Corner Office Restaurant + Martini Bar. In part one of that interview, Cisa dished on monumental cooking disasters, Euclid Hall's boudin noir and the impossible thirty-minute meal.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef: Probably when the Willamette Week -- the Westword of Portland -- called my food "an extravagant carnival of meat, simply and beautifully prepared." I think I want that written on my tombstone.
Favorite restaurant in America: Seewee restaurant in Awendaw, South Carolina. It's got bare pine walls, picnic tables, perfect, fresh, simply prepared seafood that comes straight from the fisherman to the kitchen, and middle-age waitresses who call you honey.
Best food city in America: Vancouver, British Columbia, for its amazing diversity and interplay of cultures, and New York, for the same reason; Portland, Oregon, for its entrepreneurial spirit and do-it-yourself ethics, like making things from scratch and going all the way back to slaughtering the pig yourself; and Charleston, South Carolina, for its long growing season, big bench of talent, strong food culture and one of the best fisheries in the country.
Favorite Denver/Boulder restaurant(s) other than your own: Seoul BBQ in Aurora. A few weeks ago, we downed three bottles of Shochu, fifteen banchan, a giant pile of meat, soup, Korean pancakes and bibimbap in two-and-a half-hours, and it only cost $125 for all of it.
Current Denver culinary genius: I haven't really been here long enough to answer that question as confidently as I'd like, but I've had really great meals so far at Jennifer Jasinski's restaurants -- Euclid Hall, Rioja and Bistro Vendome -- all of which serve things I really like to eat, including the refined Frenchy stuff that I'm sometimes in the mood for.
What you'd like to see more of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: Right now, what I'd really like to see more of is spring. Culinarily, I'd like to see more diversity in street food. I came here from Portland, where I could get amazing Polish meatballs right next to Korean tacos right next to deep-fried Czech pork sandwiches.
What you'd like to see less of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: I don't see why every menu here has to have sliders on it. They're so overdone, and I've seriously never seen a city with so many menus that have sliders on them.
Rules of conduct in your kitchen: Kitchens have lots of rules, and the good ones run like sports teams, with leaders and teamwork and a constant drive for greatness. In my kitchen, if you care about what you're doing, want to do better every day, work hard, and think about the bigger picture, you'll do fine -- and we'll teach you the rest. That's a lot harder than it sounds.
What's the best food or kitchen-related gift you've been given? When I was seventeen, a girlfriend of mine gave me a copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and I cooked my way all the way through it, cover to cover. It's definitely a great book for young cooks, and all the recipes in it work.
One book that every chef should read: Every professional cook should read Ma Gastronomie, by Fernand Point, if for no other reason than his aphorisms -- things like "Every day the cook must begin anew, with nothing on the stove"; "Butter, butter, always give me more butter!" or "If the divine creator has taken pains to give us delicious and exquisite things to eat, the least we can do is prepare them well and serve them with ceremony." I don't know if these things make sense unless you've been a chef for a while, but they mean a lot to me. I also use Jacques Pépin's La Technique and Alain Ducasse's Grand Livre de Cuisine, because everything you've ever needed to know about technique is in those books.
What show would you pitch to the Food Network, and what would it be about? I haven't watched the Food Network in at least ten years, but maybe I could talk them into sending me around the world to eat in all the top restaurants. I don't know if it would be a great show to watch, but I know I'd have a great time and eat incredibly well.
You're making a pizza. What's on it? I've never really thought of it before, but despite my love of the form and craft, I don't think I've ever made a pizza in my life, even though I've cooked a frozen one more times than I'm proud of. My favorite pizza in the world is at Double Mountain Brewery in Mt. Hood, Oregon. It's topped with spicy Mama Lil's pickled peppers and house-made sausage, but it's really all about the crust that emerges from those super-hot, Connecticut-style ovens. They're charred and blistered and achieve the perfect balance between crisp and doughy.
Guiltiest food pleasure? Meat in the can form: deviled ham, Vienna sausages and sardines -- things I love and would never eat in front of an attractive woman.
You're at the market. What do you buy two of? Bottles of wine, expensive cheese, nice bread and salumi.
Weirdest customer request: When I worked in Asheville, North Carolina, Vassar Clements, the bluegrass musician (may he rest in peace), once ordered 32 raw oysters out of the shell that he wanted in a bowl, with absolutely nothing on the side.
Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: I try to leave my cultural biases at home, so I've learned to love menudo, fried-chicken knees, beef tendon, and most of the strange textural things. I'm a big nose-to-tail eater, and while some people say its gross to take a whole pig, including the head, brain, tongue, feet and intestines, and butcher it into smaller pieces, I always think its stranger to walk into a Safeway and see all those boneless, skinless chicken breasts shrink-wrapped in Styrofoam sitting under buzzing fluorescent lights.
Are chefs artists, craftsman or both? The beauty of cuisine, at least to me, is the transformative power of discipline and time -- the transformation of a short rib on a long braise, or bones as they slowly roast, slowly simmer, slowly reduce and become a rich and elegant sauce, or perfect greens from a farm grown in just the right weather. To me, the craft is the practice of technique on ingredients. I know chefs who go the other way -- the ones who fold their ingredients into their ideas -- and they're artists, and in a lot of ways, I envy them, and in a lot of ways, I don't understand.
What's your favorite knife? I've been using a single-sided carbon steel Masahiro eight-inch knife for about eight years. A good knife doesn't make a good cook, however, and I've seen amazing cooks and butchers (who usually prefer cheap Forschner plastic-handled boning knives) work with inexpensive stuff, but I've been using this tool for so long that it's become part of my technique. I've sharpened it, taken care of its edge, and become accustomed to its weight and balance for so long that it's changed me as much as I've changed it. The two things popular to my generation that I can't understand are Shun knives and Radiohead. All the songs sound the same to me, and he's a whiner.
Hardest lesson you've learned: I came up in pretty hard kitchens -- the scream-y-throw-y kind. I'd go home crushed over an overcooked steak, or a scalded sauce, but I got better, because making mistakes felt so bad. As a chef, I've come to realize that not all cooks have my background. It's taken a long time to adopt a different way of mentoring and understanding people, and mentoring is one of the most important things a chef does. I mean, a line cook earns just above minimum wage, works every Friday and Saturday night on his feet, sweating and stressed out, burnt and probably hung over. If they don't want to be a chef someday, it's a lot easier to mow lawns, or drive a forklift, or do whatever it is that people who aren't in the hospitality business do. And no, I'm not denigrating the lawn mowers and forklift drivers; I'm sure they have their own pair of shoes that I've never had the chance to walk in. But in the kitchen, there's a real sense of obligation that exists, and it's always a learning process. I've also learned that I have no patience.
What's next for you? Over the next six months, I want to make the Corner Office one of the best restaurants in Denver. I'm currently working on changing all of the menus, and while everything is a work in progress, this is a restaurant with an enormous amount of potential.