This is part one of Lori Midson's Q&A with Scott Parker. Read the second half of that interview.
I'm hungry," says Scott Parker. Not just now, not just today, but ever since he can remember. "When I was six, I made a custard pie from a recipe out of a 1950s Betty Crocker cookbook -- or at least I tried to -- and it was terrible. I made a lot of terrible things, but I was hungry. I'm always hungry. I'm just a hungry guy. It's a simple, basic caveman instinct."
Parker, the executive chef of Table 6 since 2006, has the day off, and he's wondering where to have lunch with his wife, Deanna. "We have two kids, but today we have a sitter, and for the first time in a long time, we get to have lunch together," says the 37-year-old chef from Fort Smith, Arkansas. "I'm hungry," he sighs. "If you're full, what's the point?"
Behind him, in the basement where his office resides, jars and jars of house-preserved vegetables are lined up like dominoes on the wire shelves. When he gets up from his swivel chair to pose for a photo, he grabs one of those jars as a prop. Amazingly, he doesn't open it.
He doesn't bang on it, either -- and prior to becoming a kitchen commander, Parker played for years in a heavy-metal band, even releasing an album. But when the group's lead singer passed away from colon cancer, the musicians disbanded, and Parker, who by then had determined that he "wanted to do something more real and tangible," started playing with knives. "I saw someone chopping mushrooms in a kitchen really, really fast and thought it was really cool, so I learned how to use knives," says Parker, who went on to learn the arts of butchering and pastry, as well as the pain that comes with winning a jalapeño-eating contest. "I worked at La Coupole, now the Lobby, for a few years, and I learned a shitload -- how to butcher from a Mexican butcher, how to do pastry. And even though I was the only white boy on the line, I could kill a bunch of jalapeños, and I won a contest, which I regretted instantly."
But Parker doesn't have a lot of regrets. Having cooked in some killer kitchens in Telluride, Vail and Beaver Creek, including Grouse Mountain Grill, where he met his wife; Nantucket, where he spent a summer as an executive chef for a small restaurant; and Denver, where he worked the line at the long-gone Adega before landing at Table 6, Parker is more than content with his life. "I get to work with my hands every day," he says. "I love the freedom I have here and the people I work with, and I like the cool, fun vibe about this joint and the camaraderie."
He also likes the fact that customers can reward the staff for their efforts by buying the crew a six-pack of beer, or bowls of wine, which are available for purchase at Table 6. "If you want to cheer up the kitchen," advises Parker, "don't tell me that whatever I've just served you is the best thing you've ever had, because that's bullshit. If you like our food, buy us a six-pack. That's more of a compliment than anything else."
In the meantime, we hope you're hungry, because Parker, who doesn't mince words, dishes on everything from amateur restaurant "critics" to the possibility of a new restaurant in the following interview.
Six words to describe your food: Non-stop trip to New South Flavorton.
Ten words to describe you: Procrastinator, sleepy, happy, fuzzy, patient, impatient, smart, idiotic, thirsty and hungry.
Culinary inspirations: Books, TV, fresh vegetables, fresh fish and the earth -- essentially anything that's natural and comes from the ground or sea.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef: In the grand scheme of things, I won't know until I'm done.
Favorite ingredient: At the moment, I'm cooking quite a bit with Gala and Honeycrisp apples. I'm doing an apple-and-cheddar gratin with some spices at the restaurant -- no potatoes at all -- and I'm also doing a fried apple pie and using the raw apples in a salad. But by and large, I don't have a favorite ingredient, because everything has a harmony to it and can work together. I'm all about using ingredients that are fresh -- fish, anything out of the ground, and anything that's in season and done well.
Best recent food find: Xocopili pearl. It's a bitter chocolate that's ground up with fennel seed and all kinds of savory ingredients, and it's great for finishing a demi or other sauce. You get the taste of the chocolate, but it also adds body and smoothness to a dish. We get it from Valrhona Chocolate in France.
Most overrated ingredient: I honestly can't think of anything that's overrated; I think everything has its place. That said, there's always one ingredient that everyone is hot on for a while, which will eventually become overused or appear on every single restaurant menu.
Most underrated ingredient: Kohlrabi. It tastes delicious, plus you can pickle it, shave it thin or cook with it, and yet it always seems to just sit there in the produce section of Safeway...kind of dying a slow death. Maybe it's a real specific ethnic thing to Kashmir, where it grows all over the place, but you can also find it growing at a bunch of Colorado farms. It's like biting into broccoli as an apple. It's just a fun, interesting little guy.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: The baby turnips from Fruition Farms are the best turnips I've ever had. Alex Seidel and his crew do a lot of cool shit at Fruition Farms, but these were the highlight of the whole season. I don't even like turnips, but these blew me away.
Favorite spice: Black pepper. It goes with everything and rounds out the whole seasoning pairing. It can be hot or sweet or earthy, and you can take it in a lot of different directions because it's so simple. If you use enough of it, you can even extract a sauce out if it. Black pepper is like the parsley of the herb world: delicious but simple.
One food you detest: You know, school lunch can really mess up a kid. When I was in school, coleslaw with raisins was always on the tray for some unknown reason. God bless the lunch ladies and everyone else trying to feed the school kids in America, but coleslaw with raisins made me not like a whole bunch of other things with raisins when I was a kid -- cinnamon rolls, bread pudding and coleslaw. And that's just mean. I have raisins on my menu right now, but they're not intrusive.
One food you can't live without: Sandwiches. I like all the components on their own, but they're even better smashed between bread. You can make a sandwich out of anything. Hell, you can even make a soup sandwich if you want to, plus I always eat standing up, which is conducive to sandwich eating.
Rules of conduct in your kitchen: Always cook like you're cooking for yourself or someone you care about; don't do anything stupid; don't lie; don't try to cover anything up. If you burned something, tell me. Don't slack off. If you're lazy, you don't belong in the kitchen. I also can't stand it when people drop crap. Gravity kills us, and losing time is my biggest pet peeve. Work hard, get your stuff done and go home. Manners are huge to me, too, as is acknowledgment. We're mellow. We don't scream at each other, and I say hello to everyone in the restaurant every day.
What's never in your kitchen? Pussies. Not real ones, of course; my sous is a wonderful woman. But cliché as it may be, it stands true: If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.
What's always in your kitchen? Repairmen. Something is always breaking in the kitchen, and we have the refrigerator repairman on speed dial. To be fair, it's an old building with old floors and old wiring. We get our food in daily to prep for that night, but the tiny fridge space we have sucks.
Weirdest customer request: Someone with an alleged salt allergy. That's a fun one. I understand using salt in moderation, but a salt allergy? That's just idiotic.
Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: A deep-fried organic rosebud that I made when I was in my twenties and doing weird experimental cooking. I stuffed it and deep-fried it for Valentine's Day. It was good, but definitely weird. Then again, if you deep-fry anything, it's typically going to taste good.
Best culinary tip for a home cook: Go out to eat. You're supporting your local restaurants and economy by doing so, but you're also in prime territory for gleaning ideas about new flavor combinations, dishes to tweak at home, and different seasonings.
If you could cook for one famous chef, dead or alive, who would it be? Escoffier, Fernand Point and Antonin Carême. But I'd want to cook with them, not just for them. I'd want to see how they would do things different from me, and I'd just like to see their take on things. I'm sure they were badass cooks.
What you'd like to see more of in Denver from a culinary standpoint: A good, solid effort. A lot of stuff is like open a box, warm it up and hand it over. Our kitchen is very from-scratch and hands-on, and the effort that we put into our food is standard. We build it with our hands, and I'm sick of people in our industry who serve crappy food, whether it's overseasoned, underseasoned, overcooked, undercooked or just weird portions. I wish I could pay people in my kitchen -- in everyone's kitchen -- on performance. If the food sucks, I'm giving you less money. That's not to say that we don't make mistakes here, but we always try to make them right. A lot of restaurants don't -- or won't -- do that.
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What you'd like to see less of in Denver from a culinary standpoint: Amateur instant online restaurant critics -- specifically, those who write reviews for a website that rhymes with "kelp." Think about it: They review a McDonald's and then turn around and review Mizuna. I just imagine bored, jobless layabouts with not many friends who are convinced that they're going to have a bad time before they even step through the door of a joint. The kicker is, you can't respond to these inbreds and try to educate, or at least explain, why some things happen the way they happen. Have a little fun, for chrissakes. Loosen up when you go out, and let me be the stress ball in the kitchen busting my ass for twelve-plus hours trying to make you the best food I can. Fuck you!
What's next for you? I want to do so many things, but especially a restaurant with everything preserved in jars. You pop open a jar and put whatever's in it -- fish, shellfish, vegetables, fruit, meat, whatever -- and spread it on bread. We're also looking for another spot, but it has to be perfect. No marble or laser beams -- just something that feels good. I also want to do a drive-thru that offers seasonal foods that aren't loaded with a bunch of crap -- things that you would feel good giving to your kids. But ultimately, I just want to preserve the seasons as best I can and deliver the goods.