Stephen McCary, chef of Mizuna, on his weekend warrior and the missing dishwasher
225 East Seventh Avenue
This is part two of my interview with Steve McCary, exec chef of Mizuna; part one of our chat ran yesterday.
Most memorable meal you've ever had:
A few years ago, Frank Bonanno and Jacqueline, his wife, took some of the chefs to Guy Savoy in Las Vegas. It was my first time dining in a three-star Michelin restaurant, and the whole experience, from the placing of the silverware to the amount of knowledge our server had about the way the food was prepared, was amazing. It was several hours of incredible food and wine. Just perfect.
Your three favorite Denver restaurants other than your own:
Jeff Osaka and Chuck James have a great ingredient-driven menu at twelve that I love. I worked with Jon Robbins, who just opened Bistro Barbès, for several years at Mizuna, and he's putting out some tight and reasonably priced food in his new space. I also love Sushi Sasa, which has the best sushi in Denver.
Most underrated restaurant in Denver:
Saigon Bowl on Federal is awesome. The combination bowl is delicious, or get the ca chien mam gung -- fried catfish with fish sauce and ginger.
Which living chef do you most admire?
A few summers ago, I went to stage at Aureole in New York, and the chef, Marcus Gleadow-Ware, runs his kitchen very professionally, plus he makes really creative and labor-intensive dishes that have a simple beauty. He's cooked in a few different countries around the world -- and he also worked for Marco Pierre White. He's a hardworking and extremely smart guy, and I had a blast talking with him about food during our late nights in Manhattan. And on the second night of the stage, we went out to Momofuku Ssäm Bar and Tertulia -- that was cool.
Who is Denver's next rising-star chef?
Bones has had a few chefs since it opened, and while the food has always been great, Johnny DePierro, who's now the chef, is doing some great dishes and really elevating the menu.
If you could make one request of Denver diners, what would it be?
I'd like for people to enjoy their entire evening, not just try to get into a restaurant at seven o'clock with everyone else. If you join a restaurant at five or nine p.m., you may get a better experience; the servers and kitchen can probably give you a bit more attention and focus.
What do you expect from a restaurant critic?
A critic should try a restaurant at least two or three times to see if they have the same type of experience each time.
Would you ever send a dish back if you were dining in a friend's restaurant?
That's a hard one, but I might not eat the dish if it was spoiled or just terrible. I don't like to send food back, so I think I'd just have a conversation peppered with some professional criticism later.
What do you enjoy most about your craft?
I like when guests try food they haven't had before and love it. I feel like I helped expand their culinary world, even if it's just slightly.
What are the most challenging aspects of being a chef?
Work can be stressful, and sometimes it can be difficult to keep all the different personalities in a kitchen happy at the same time.
What piece of advice would you give to an aspiring chef?
The best advice I've ever received was from a friend of mine named Phil Bey, who told me to always be the hardest-working guy in the kitchen -- and if I was, I'd advance more quickly. People may not like this, but I tell cooks who are just starting out not to do this for a living. That may sound harsh, but being a chef is a tough job; you have to love this lifestyle. I figure that if they really want to be a chef, they'll be passionate enough to stick with it and not take my advice. Oh, and learn to speak Spanish.
If you could train under any chef in the world, who would it be?
I'd like to work with chef Daniel Humm, from Eleven Madison Park in New York. He's doing some gorgeous food and using the abundance of seafood and produce that's available in the upstate area.
What skills and attributes do you look for when hiring kitchen staff?
Discipline, creativity, respectfulness and the ability to take criticism.
Biggest mistake a chef can make on the line:
Forgetting that what we do is about the food. Sending out food that isn't perfect just to get yourself out of the weeds is never fair to the guest.
What's been your worst disaster in the kitchen?
I once saw one of my chefs deglaze a pan with some cognac through one of the bartender's pour spouts. The cognac must have been pretty hot, because it ignited the alcohol and shot out of his hand like a rocket -- and then it exploded in the hoods. It was awesome.
Craziest night in the kitchen:
While I was a teenager and working at a fancy burger-and-pizza place called Zebo's in Charleston, some of the cooks were being rude and kept yelling at the dishwasher for more clean pans. The dishwasher had enough of their yelling and stuck his arm through the window and knocked about twenty plates of food onto the floor. He ran through a full dining room, followed by two crazy cooks, out the front door and got hit by a moving car. He jumped up and got away. I never saw him again after that, but I hope he's okay.
Biggest moment of euphoria in the kitchen:
I consulted for a restaurant in the panhandle of Florida, and the cooks who worked there had never seen or heard about any kind of fine dining. After a few weeks, I stood back to watch this one sixteen-year-old kid simultaneously mount butter into a beurre blanc and perfectly sear a stove full of fish. It was nice to see how quickly someone can learn if they're passionate and put their heart into their craft.
Kitchen rule you always adhere to:
Don't serve anything that hits the floor. Ever.
Kitchen rule you're not afraid to break:
We have a very musical kitchen at Mizuna. I don't mind some whistling, as long as it's not too loud.
Proudest moment as a chef:
I'm very proud of the boy wonder, Noah Toro, who's been with our group since he was a sophomore in high school, staging just on the weekends. I told him that if he did a good job at Bonanno Brothers Pizzeria, I'd hire him at Mizuna. He did, and now he's our weekend warrior. I'll probably end up working for him one day.
If you had the opportunity to open your own restaurant with no budget constraints, what kind of restaurant would you open?
I'd love to open a seafood restaurant with a wood-burning grill and oven on the water in Charleston, South Carolina. I lived there in my early twenties; it's a beautiful place.
Favorite dish on your menu:
We're doing a great Spanish octopus that we slowly braise in a chile-lime stock and serve with smoked potatoes, a poblano sofrito and pickled celery.
What dish would you love to put on your menu, regardless of how well it would sell?
I enjoy whole roasted fish. We occasionally send one out to friends, but it's just too large of a dish to fit into our regular dynamic.
Weirdest customer request:
Years ago, I sent out a black bass with fried okra stuck in the fish's mouth. The guest sent the dish back and requested that I remove the okra from the mouth. I never fully understood why it was offensive.
Best recipe tip for a home cook:
Don't be nervous about bending a recipe a bit. If you don't have an ingredient that's in a recipe, it's okay -- just improvise.
What's your biggest pet peeve?
Prejudice, with regard to anyone or anything.
Your best traits:
Resourcefulness is helpful in the kitchen. I genuinely like to see people succeed, and I think I'm pretty caring, too.
Your worst traits:
I can be a bit quick-tempered and impatient at times, but I'm getting better as I get older.
Which talent do you most wish you had?
I'd like to be able to sing. I'm a terrible, terrible singer.
It depends on the day, but it's usually a toss-up between The Goonies, Fight Club and Braveheart.
Butter pecan ice cream.
If you could have dinner, all expenses paid, at any restaurant in the world, where would you go?
This changes all the time, but at the moment, I'd like to fly over to Sydney, Australia, and eat at Gastro Park. They currently have a Game of Thrones-themed menu.
It's your night off and you're starving. What's your go-to quick fix?
I eat Mexican food -- a lot -- and I usually swing by Illegal Pete's on my way home. Thanks for staying open late, fellas.
What's one thing that people would be surprised to know about you?
I was robbed at gunpoint when I was working at a Subway sandwich shop in high school.
If you hadn't become a chef, what would you be doing right now?
I went to Auburn University to be a dentist.
What's in the pipeline?
I'm enjoying being the chef of Mizuna, but I'm saving up money for that beachfront restaurant.
What's next for the Denver dining scene?
I think the pop-up craze is going to get even bigger. I'm not sure if that's a good thing or a bad thing, but I like it.
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