Sean McGaughey, exec chef of Opus, on his infatuation with Jubes Nata De Coco and his disdain for spaghetti
2575 West Main Street, Littleton
This is part one of my interview with Sean McGaughey, exec chef of Opus. Part two of that interview will be posted here tomorrow.
Sean McGaughey grew up in Wray, a town of 2,000 on the plains where Colorado, Nebraska and Kansas intersect -- a good trivia fact in and of itself, but when you're underage and getting loaded on booze in high school, the proximity to three state lines is also, it turns out, an excellent way to keep the cops from busting your ass. "We used to drink all the time on the three corners, but we had a great backup plan where we could just jump to the next state if the cops came looking for us," remembers McGaughey, a former drummer in a punk-rock band and now the 26-year-old executive chef of Opus.
In between playing gigs and ditching the police, McGaughey worked at a pizza parlor, where he cooked breakfast and lunch on the weekends before realizing that he couldn't stand the heat of the kitchen -- literally. "The kitchen was just too damn hot," he says, adding that it would have been a short stint anyway, since the joint was shuttered for failure to pay taxes. And the timing worked out, because McGaughey was ready to leave the three corners and his small-town lifestyle for the bright lights of Denver -- and culinary school at Johnson & Wales, a decision he now regrets. "I hated -- detested -- culinary school, and it's definitely not worth the forty grand I spent to go through it, especially since you leave not even knowing how to cook a steak to temperature," confesses McGaughey. Instead, he says, "I would have spent my time -- and money -- staging in Italy and France."
Instead, he got a job in the snack bar -- and eventually on the line -- at Green Gables Country Club, graduated from culinary school and headed west, to the mountains, where he kicked around a few kitchens in Frisco and Breckenridge, including the Cellar and Samplings Wine Bar (now closed), before realizing that cold, snowy Colorado winters suck.
And that was enough to convince him to trudge back down to Denver, where he got in touch with Alex Seidel, who was opening Fruition. A possible job fell through, but Seidel suggested that McGaughey talk to Michael Long, then the executive chef of Opus.
Long offered McGaughey a line-cook position. Within months, he moved his way up to chef de cuisine, and when Long exited to open Aria in Cherry Creek, he took over the kitchen completely. "Michael's a little crazy," says McGaughey, "but we worked very well together, always bounced ideas off each other and had the same vision, so I was ready to step up to the plate."
In the following interview, McGaughey cops to a fetish for Jubes Nata De Coco, explains why he despises spaghetti, and extols the attributes of another chef who isn't Alex Seidel.
Six words to describe your food: Clean, balanced, classic, current, unpretentious and ever-evolving.
Ten words to describe you: Honest, driven, committed, simple, unassuming, curious, professional glutton, stubborn and hungry.
Favorite ingredient: Fennel: the bulb, the tops, the seeds, the pollen -- all of it is great, no matter which part you use. The bulb can be treated like a vegetable inasmuch as it can be cooked or served raw. It's got the sweetness of onions without the bite, and the herbiness of celery without the stringy bitterness. All the other parts are just a bonus that comes with the rest of the plant. It doesn't seem to grow great in Colorado, however...but maybe someday.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: Verde Farms has a lot of cool stuff aside from micros, but it's a small crop, so you have to get it while you can. As far as one ingredient over the last few years, I've really been impressed by Colorado pears. They seem to get overshadowed by the Palisade peach.
Most overrated ingredient: Lobster. Some people can't get enough of it; others hate it. I'm not really a fan. I kind of look at it as a vessel to eat butter, but I could find that in a piece of crusty bread that costs a lot less than a lobster tail and doesn't stink up the fridge. Perishability makes lobster even less of a great deal, and it's way too easy to overcook it or undercook it, neither of which is good: It's really rubbery when it's overcooked, but undercooking it is just as bad.
Most underrated ingredient: Radishes. Raw, cooked, sous-vide or buttered, I use them all the time, in every way. Every preparation highlights a different part of the humble, often overlooked vegetable.
Best recent food find: I've been snacking on Jubes Nata De Coco from the Asian market. They're a coconut-based candy that has a cool texture similar to plastic corn, for lack of a better example, and they come in sweet flavors like mango and strawberry, but my recent interest has led to experiments with soy sauce and apple juice, which have both worked out okay. What started out as a cool snack for me may just end up as an interesting and savory garnish. Think yellowtail sashimi with soy cubes or oysters with lychee Jubes.
Favorite spice: Bay leaf. It seems to add a certain dimension that you can't get with other aromatics. It's good luck if you get one in your soup at the dinner table.
One food you detest: Spaghetti. It's a childhood thing that goes back to the days of the elementary-school cafeteria, which made really, really bad spaghetti. In order to go to recess, though, you had to eat everything, but I found a way around that, stuffing it in my half-full milk carton and then trying to pass it off as a clean plate. Unfortunately, a teacher caught me and made me eat the dairy-based gruel.
One food you can't live without: Butter and olive oil. If I'm cooking, it's almost always with butter, and if the food is raw, I almost always toss it in olive oil. And I can't live without salt.
Favorite music to cook by: I haven't cooked to music in a while, but in one of the past kitchens I worked in, nothing got the crew going like the Back in Black AC/DC album, which we'd play super-loud before a busy Saturday service.
Rules of conduct in your kitchen: Respect each other, respect the food, respect the ingredients, respect the kitchen and respect the equipment. Sensing a theme here?
Biggest kitchen disaster: I was in a bit of a culinary limbo before Opus, and to pay the bills, I had signed on to help a friend with catering through the holidays. He'd gone to do an event and left me in charge along with a couple other cooks. There was a grill that had these mystery pans of water underneath the burners that you always had to fill if you used it. I didn't fill the pans, and consequently, after grilling off my shrimp -- or whatever I was doing -- the whole thing caught fire. I threw on some salt, with little success, but while it was still burning pretty good, it wasn't anything to get overly excited about. Then the kitchen phone rang, and because I'm a stand-up kind of guy, I answered it, only to have some lady asking about a tarp and an extension cord, which I knew nothing about. In the meantime, another cook was heaping loads of flour on the grill in an effort to smother the flames, but that just fueled the fire. We were now at a DEFCON 2-size grill fire with smoke rolling out the back doors. Against all warnings to never put water on a grease fire, we poured something like thirty gallons of water on the flames, and what do you know? We eventually put it out.
What's never in your kitchen? Sriracha sauce, because the line cooks eat it all as soon as I bring it in the door.
What's always in your kitchen? House-baked breads. We make our bread fresh every day.
How do you go about conceptualizing and developing new menus? We start planning a month or two ahead of the actual season change, and the planning usually starts with the ingredients and evolves from there. Other times, it starts with a technique that we want to use, and then we start testing dishes and refining them. Often, we'll run new dishes as specials, tweaking them along the way until we're happy. Menu debuts are always on a busy Friday or Saturday night, because it gives every cook the opportunity to see all of the dishes in one night. It's always a little crazy, but it seems to work out better than a slower debut, which makes us leave notes for each other all week.
Favorite dish to cook at home: I like to make perfect omelets with whatever filling I've got on hand; I've used everything from American cheese to raspberry jam.
Favorite dish on your menu: Right now it's the sous-vide chicken, a breast and thigh that are wrapped together. We crisp up the skin and baste it with butter and garnish it with a red pepper-citrus sauce and some stewed artichokes. It turned out exactly the way I wanted it to the very first time we put it together.
If you could put any dish on your menu, even though it might not sell, what would it be? Squab. It's just a little hard to break the pigeon stereotype. I don't know...maybe it would sell. I guess there's only one way to find out.
Last meal before you die: A Chick-fil-A with lots of mayo and pickles; at least a full lobe of foie gras with some tree-ripe figs; a cassoulet with a nice crusty top; a soft-boiled egg with caviar; a really big piece of sweetbreads; some super-awesome Kobe beef cooked rare; a couple pieces of really good sushi; and some tacos from Tacos Junior. I'd leave the rest up to whoever was cooking for me. Oh, but I'd have to have lemon pie for dessert.
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