Simon Purvis, exec chef of EDGE, on love, sarcasm, smart arses and the customer he thought he murdered
This is part one of my interview with Simon Purvis, executive chef of EDGE at the Four Seasons. Part two of that interview will run in this space tomorrow.
Simon Purvis is sizing up Denver's dining climate. "There are some really great restaurants in Denver, and some that really suck," he pronounces in his thick English accent. But when it comes to Denver's chefs, Purvis, himself the executive chef of the EDGE at the Four Seasons, has nothing but praise: "Chefs here are so passionate, and they're really into what they're doing. You can tell that they're excited to be in this profession -- that they wear their chef's coats with pride, which is a really nice thing to see."
Purvis, who was born in Portsmouth, England, has been donning a chef's coat for more than 25 years, but he started working in the kitchen when he was a teenager, whipping up omelets and helping his mum and grandmother prepare family meals, which were as common as the constant pitter-patter of English rain. "We ate every meal at home," he recalls, "and my mum cooked everything from scratch -- there was no McDonald's, no junk food -- and my gran was a great cook, too, and we always had these amazing family gatherings at her house."
If Purvis wasn't gathered around the family dinner table, he was camping in France, and it was there that the idea of becoming a chef began to take root. "My first real food experiences were in France," he remembers. "I was only thirteen at the time, and I was being exposed to pâtés and great breads, great red and white wines, Pernod and vegetables, and I knew that I wanted to set myself up for cooking school." So he took a few home economics classes, and after graduating, left England for Switzerland, where he got his first gig as a line cook at Le Montreux Palace, an exquisite hotel property on Lake Geneva. "I absolutely loved it -- the job and working with people from all over the world, including Spain, France, Switzerland and England -- and it was just a great experience for a youngster like me," says Purvis.
After his one-year contract was up, he moved to Edinburgh and jumped on the line of another hotel kitchen as a chef de partie. "I was working with some of the most talented people in the world," he says, "and we were getting the freshest, most high-quality food we could get, even sending trucks down to the markets in France so we could get the freshest seafood available."
By now, Purvis had met his future wife, a woman with a major travel bug, and she convinced him to follow her to Toronto. "It was a move from the heart," he jokes -- but it turned out to be a lucrative one. They eventually ended up in Vancouver, where Purvis snagged a position as a lead line cook at that city's Four Seasons, part of a luxury hotel chain that's since jetted him around the globe to open hotel restaurants in Melbourne, Berlin, Bali, Singapore, Scottsdale, Jackson Hole and Denver. "I've been with Four Seasons since 1990 -- more than twenty years -- and it's a different experience every time, but I really love Denver, and I have no desire to leave," says Purvis. "Our goal is to offer food that people really want to eat, and though we're a steakhouse, what we do here reaches far and above steak. We're creative and different, and I think we continually deliver great food that people want to come back for."
In the following interview, Purvis talks about the customer he thought he'd killed, the night he was meant to cook at the James Beard House -- and didn't -- and the difference between God and a chef.
Six words to describe your food: Tasty, fun, approachable, innovative, global and recognizable.
Ten words to describe you: Thoughtful, passionate, genuine, caring, well-traveled, family man, young at heart, patient, understanding and detailed.
Favorite ingredient: Love. The difference between a good dish and a great dish is the love that's gone into it. Anyone can turn out a dish, but how many times you taste it, season it, caress it and put your love into it makes all the difference. Chefs will know what I am talking about. It pains me to see cooks with no love for what they do.
Best recent food find: I'm still new to Colorado, but I recently had the most amazing Ogen melon last week from Whole Foods. My daughter and I followed our noses to the sweet mango-esque-smelling fruit that was grown in Palisade, and it was, quite frankly, delicious -- so delicious, in fact, that I'm going back for more on Sunday morning.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: Rocky Mountain honeycomb, which we get from Italco and put on top of our creamy non-fat yogurt that comes with our fruit plate at breakfast.
Most overrated ingredient: I don't know...chefs have a reason for using an ingredient in their food if they think it belongs there. Who am I to judge? If there's something on a menu that I don't like, then I just don't order it.
Most underrated ingredient: Onions and shallots are so versatile and different in taste and complexity, and they're pretty much the base of most great-tasting sauces and ragouts.
Favorite spice: Fresh turmeric. I grew it fresh in my garden in Indonesia, and I'd use the fresh turmeric leaves to wrap fish when we made a dish called "pepes ikan" -- steamed fish usually wrapped in banana leaves. The pungent aroma that wafts when you break a fresh turmeric bulb in half is unbeatable.
What's your favorite knife? My sashimi knife. It's like a sword, and I feel safe when I'm holding it. Bring on the ninjas.
One food you detest: Snails. I just can't do them. It's a texture thing. I was once at a food market in Beijing and ate pretty much everything they had to offer, some of which I think would make a billy goat sick -- just no snails, please.
One food you can't live without: Organic chicken, cooked properly, is utterly delicious, and at home, I do a simple but tasty Sunday roast with a nice, whole organic chicken, removing the wishbone, coating the skin in olive oil, fresh thyme, salt and pepper, and filling the cavity with an orange. I place it in a large non-stick roasting pan with halved red bliss potatoes, large chunks of carrots and other root vegetables and roast them. The juice from the chicken is absorbed into the potatoes and vegetables, and then I finish it with some fresh thyme, butter and homemade cranberry relish, and everyone is happy.
Favorite music to cook by: Tears for Fears. They were big in the '80s, when I was a slave to the industry -- I still am. When I was working in Edinburgh, we'd have the tunes cranked before the chef came in, and then when the chef arrived, we had to turn them off. At that point, it was quiet time.
Rules of conduct in your kitchen: Do your best each and every day, keep your station clean and organized, be respectful and a good teammate, and please taste whatever you're serving.
Biggest kitchen disaster: During a hectic dinner service at a Melbourne restaurant where I was working, I thought that we'd actually killed a customer. It appeared to me that Australians liked to eat at 7:30 p.m. on Saturdays, so we filled the restaurant with 120 of them, and bang! -- service starts. We're deep in the weeds, and an order comes in for veal, no mushrooms, as the guest is deathly allergic to them. I tracked the dish from start to finish, making sure that nothing had traces of mushrooms in it, which included making a new sauce from scratch, as we put mushroom stems in our base jus, cutting new veal on a clean board with a sanitized knife, opening new salt, and grinding fresh pepper to ensure there was no cross-contamination whatsoever -- no way was there a mushroom anywhere near this dish, not even truffle oil. The dish leaves the kitchen, and I think nothing of it until the restaurant doors open and the maître d' and a server are carrying a guest in his chair into the kitchen. We were on the 35th floor of a fifty-story building, so I thought they were going to the elevator...to an ambulance...to the hospital...to my doom. As it turned out, the guest was so drunk that he passed out in his chair, and they left him in the kitchen for about an hour to sober up. When he finally came to, he was yelling "Yyeeehhhaa buggerarro!" or something like that as they carried him through the kitchen and out the exit doors.
What's never in your kitchen? Sarcasm. Over the years, I've tried to manage the English in me, but it's hard.
What's always in your kitchen? A smart arse. There really is one in every kitchen.
Favorite dish to cook at home: It's more of a meal, but on some Sundays, we do a nice, big breakfast, where my daughter whips the cream and scrambles the eggs, and we make lovely waffles and pancakes with pure Vermont maple syrup; I make crispy hash brown potatoes, turkey bacon, fresh fruit and freshly brewed coffee. We have a really nice juicer, so we also make an organic carrot, apple and beet juice, too. I hope that it's a memory that my kids will have forever.
Favorite dish on your menu: I love our Kobe beef hot stone. It was an idea of mine that came to fruition a long time ago, and our guests love it, because it's such a great talking point and an interactive dish.
If you could put any dish on your menu, even though it might not sell, what would it be? That's a tough one, but I'd lean toward a spicy dish I did in Asia called Evil Jungle Prince. We did three versions: chicken, jumbo prawns and tofu, and the main ingredients were Chinese long beans, red chile, kamangi leaf, or Thai basil, green peppercorns, and a delicious sauce made with Chinese wine, sambal and oyster sauce that was served with coconut rice and garnished with fried kamangi leaf.
You're making a pizza. What's on it? Smoky barbecue chicken confit, caramelized red onions, garlic, arugula pesto and shaved Pecorino.
Guiltiest food pleasure? In-N-Out Burger and a chocolate milk shake, a very rare treat.
Weirdest customer request: I was once asked by a guest to cook a fish that he'd brought with him to the restaurant. It was a Wyoming cutthroat trout that I knew should have been caught and released. Oh, well.
Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: A century egg, which is a Chinese egg that's black and quite revolting-looking.
Your last supper: I'd go back to Bali and ask Wayan Subrata, a chef and friend of mine, to make me nasi goreng, a dish of Indonesian fried rice, egg, chicken satay, peanut sauce and pickled vegetables. It's just so tasty. And that reminds me: I haven't made this dish in a long time, so I should make it one day soon.
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