Snooze's Spencer Lomax on swine, his favorite green chile joints and cheek meat
This is part one of Lori Midson's interview with Spencer Lomax, culinary director of Snooze. Part two of this interview will run tomorrow.
I spent pretty much every summer break through high school and college working at restaurants and learning the ropes," says Spencer Lomax, the culinary director for Snooze, the groovy breakfast emporium that brought pineapple upside-down pancakes (and elbow-to-elbow waits) to the Ballpark neighborhood in 2006 and later to 700 Colorado Boulevard, Fort Collins and, just last month, the Streets at SouthGlenn. "I was sixteen when I got my first restaurant job, and while other kids were working at the mall or mowing lawns, I was breading calamari and making vats of marinara sauce at a straight-up mafia joint in Kansas City."
He survived that experience and soon landed a job in Colorado as a line monkey at the Grand Lake Lodge, a seasonal stint that proved a defining moment in his culinary career. "I was living in a shanty cabin and getting crushed six nights a week in a high-volume restaurant, and while the plan was to just stick around for one summer, I got the bug and went back for another four seasons, cutting my chops and eventually working my way up to executive sous chef," recalls Lomax.
During the resort town's shoulder season, Lomax was exploring the globe, traveling to Chile, Argentina and France, where he embarked on an informal apprenticeship at a restaurant in a palatial manor house just outside of Paris. "I lived in the attic and was free labor for twelve hours a day, but I got to cook pork jowls, which started me on the cheek-meat path, and the whole experience was the best I've ever had," says Lomax, who eventually returned to Grand Lake, where he met his wife. But then he kicked the kitchen life to the curb for nearly six years, taking a position with Sysco -- a transition that made him a better chef, he insists: "You can say what you want about Sysco, but the beauty of working there was really getting to see what to do and, more important, what not to do in kitchens, and I definitely learned the ins and outs of sourcing better products."
It was while working for Sysco that Lomax met Jon Schlegel, who was about to start Snooze with his brother, Adam. At the time, Adam was consulting for the now-defunct Manny's Smokehouse, but his brain was whirling with visions of pancakes and bacon. "He told me about this little thing he had on the horizon, and then called me two weeks before the first Snooze opened, and a bunch of us sat around a table, and I was like, you need bacon, right?" Lomax was initially brought on board as a consultant, but in 2009, he surrendered his life to eggs, bacon and flapjacks, accepting the position as Snooze's culinary conductor, a title that simply means "conducting and collaborating with a group of talented chefs, led by Scott Bermingham, on everything from menu development to creating the best breakfast experience possible," he says.
For the first time in his life, muses Lomax, "I'm doing what I should be doing." There's a magic to Snooze, he says: "We've obviously struck a chord with our guests, and this whole restaurant experience is a phenomenon.... I get the satisfaction of knowing that we're putting out a better breakfast than anyone else in Denver."
In this one-on-one chat, Lomax admits he has an aversion to "scorch," a predilection for pigs, a mad passion for green chile and a heartfelt desire for the cupcake craze to go the way of the paneled station wagon.
Six words to describe your food: Surprising, indulgent, nostalgic, responsible, thoughtful and ridiculous.
Ten words to describe you: Picker, grinner, powderhound, hungry, thirsty, bearded, lanky, dad, husband and honest.
Culinary inspirations: Where can't you find culinary inspiration? In between mom's cooking, grandma's canning, the kitchen of a manor house on the outskirts of Paris, a fish market on the Brittany coast, a tiritas joint on the beach in Zihuatanejo, an organic farm in Longmont, a cow pasture near the Poudre river, a diner in Hollywood, a plaza in Cinque Terre and years finding my way on a line and in life, I continue to grow in knowledge and direction.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef: The joy in my son's eyes when I prepare the most humble of meals trumps any professional accolade I've received or could ever hope to receive. Being a father is something I'm really proud of, but the accomplishment has less to do with what I'm cooking and more to do with seeing my kid's eyes truly light up when I make him something to eat that he really loves. He eats grown-up meals with us, but we just have to cut his stuff small.
Favorite ingredient: I can't help it; I dig on swine. Give me some smoky ribs or pulled butt, salty bacon, ham or guanciale, braised belly, spicy or sweet sausage or salumi, sautéed tenderloin cutlets, roasted loin, grilled chops or crispy carnitas, and I'm always a happy kid.
Best recent food find: If you haven't had a taste of that honey-spun Noosa yogurt from Morning Fresh Dairy, you need to make a beeline for the nearest Whole Foods or In Season Market and start shoveling spoonfuls of the stuff into your face. It's breakfast; it's dessert; it's perfection. They also make milk infused with CooperSmith's root beer syrup that tastes like a melted root beer float. It's amazingly good.
Most overrated ingredient: Some people are still willing to pay $300 to $500 an ounce for Beluga or Osetra caviar that's flown in from the Caspian Sea. I want to slap those people to wake them up to what's going on in the real world.
Most underrated ingredient: Cheek meat, whether from swine, halibut or steer, is some of the most tender, unctuous and flavorful meat you can find. Most cultures have already realized this, but our own culture seems slow to catch on.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: Fresh peaches from my back yard. Seriously, I've got some tasty peaches growing back there, but, sadly, I spent most of the summer deciding whether to shoot or trap the squirrels that were decimating this year's harvest, so we had a pitifully small yield.
One food you detest: I can't stand tarragon. It probably stems from my time cooking in an otherwise reputable restaurant that for some inexcusable reason used that godawful powdered Knorr hollandaise for their béarnaise sauce. Every night, I had the displeasure of making -- and tasting -- this atrocity and the flavor of tarragon inextricably linked with it.
One food you can't live without: As a Denver native, I really can't live without a green chile smothered burrito -- or two, actually. Make it carnitas-and-bean and a beef-and-bean, and make it hot. Fortunately for me, I live just a few blocks off Federal and can easily get my fix, though the green chile joints there could soon be in danger of being pushed out by purveyors of the "other" green. In order of favorites: Taquería Patzcuaro, Chelos and the Curtis Park Creamery. The Curtis Park Creamery does one of the most complex, ridiculously good and spiciest green chiles I've ever had. It's not the green chile smothered on the burritos that I love so much, but the pork green chile that they serve with flour tortillas.
What's never in your kitchen? At Snooze, you'll never find deep-fried food. Some might think that we've got some altruistic aversion to greasy, deep-fried goodness, but through a happy accident, there simply wasn't room in the original kitchen for a fryer, but if you come in for lunch and order a patty melt, you'll get a tasty ring of hash browns.
What's always in your kitchen? At home, it's my one-year-old son, Townes. Toy box be damned, he loves to crawl into the kitchen and grab any mixing bowl, colander or pot he can get his hands on and then bang away with wooden spoons or scoot them across the floor or spin himself around while sitting in a sauté pan. If I'm cooking, he's incessantly yanking on my pant leg until I pick him up and show him what is going on. It's convenient, I guess, that we enjoy the same toys.
Rules of conduct in your kitchen: Not too many, but in general, keep it clean, especially your aprons; do whatever it takes to exceed the expectations of our guests; and, most important, have fun while doing it -- in other words, know exactly where we keep the bacon stretcher and the banana seeds. I've also got an irrational aversion to the taste of "scorch," so I'm freakish about how people reheat their sauces. I walk around turning down burners and can always taste and smell when something's been scorched. Don't scorch the food.
Biggest kitchen disaster: Our water heater at the Ballpark location blew out in the midst of a full restaurant on a substantial wait. Not only was it a bummer to have to close down and turn away disappointed guests, but the lack of hot water rendered the dish machine useless, so we spent the ensuing hours boiling water in stock pots and improvising three compartment sinks out of whatever we could muster to tackle a pretty unruly pile of pots, pans and dishes.
What you'd like to see more of in Denver from a culinary standpoint: Though there's been quite the proliferation of pizza joints around the area, I'm still waiting for a true Chicago-style deep-dish pizza joint to arrive on the scene. I'm talking a Lou Malnati's-style sausage disk or spinach-stuffed deep-dish -- nothing else will do.
What you'd like to see less of in Denver from a culinary standpoint: Is it midnight on the cupcake craze yet? I'm pretty sure it's time for that wagon to turn back into a pumpkin and make way for the next great trend: doughnut-shaped burgers. I enjoy a tasty cupcake every now and again, and there are a few shops -- they know who they are -- with genuine staying power, but cupcake joints might still be outpacing dispensaries in some neighborhoods, and that just isn't right.
Favorite dish on your menu: I'm pretty sure I could eat our sweet-potato pancakes with a side of bacon every morning. We make our batter with fresh puréed sweet potatoes and top the cakes with homemade caramel, ginger butter and pecans. Pile some salty, crispy bacon onto the plate and it's the perfect flavors for this time of year -- or, it turns out, year-round.
If you could put any dish on your menu, even though it might not sell, what would it be? We served a duck "Benedict" recently at a charity event -- polenta topped with duck confit, poached Grant Farms duck eggs, and duck-fat hollandaise made of rendered duck fat and duck egg yolks -- that was decadent and delicious, but likely less approachable than our typical fare
Best culinary tip for a home cook: Don't overcrowd the pan, for God's sake.
What's next for you? Pancakes -- lots of pancakes.