This is part one of my interview with Luke Mewbourn, executive chef of Table Mountain Inn Grill & Cantina. Part two of this interview will run tomorrow.
Denver native Luke Mewbourn has defied the odds, racking up more than two dozen jobs during his 35 years on earth without getting the ax. Not even once. "I always leave before I get fired," jokes Mewbourn, now executive chef at Table Mountain Inn Grill & Cantina in Golden. "I've learned that you bust your ass at one place until you can't bust it anymore, and then you go bust it somewhere else."
He's been busting his ass in the kitchen of the Table Mountain Inn for the past five years -- his longest gig since getting his first restaurant job twenty years ago in a bakery. "My grandmothers, one of whom was Southern, cooked all day, every day, and their passion was so palpable that I knew I wanted to cook -- that I would end up in the kitchen -- and when my dad told me to go find a job, the first place I went was to a restaurant," recalls Mewbourn, who was living in Grand Lake at the time and was all of fourteen.
He stuck around the bakery for a few years and then dallied in other mountain kitchens, doing "a little bit of everything," he says, before moving back to Denver at eighteen and landing at an Outback Steakhouse as a grill and sauté cook. Four years later, seeking a new opportunity, he secured a stint as a line cook at the Omni Hotel. "I wanted to work for a better company, do a different style of food and learn something new," says Mewbourn. It wasn't long, though, before he got restless: "I wasn't really sure the hotel industry was right for me, and since I'm a man of opportunities, I started hunting for a new job."
At the time, the Fourth Story (a long-gone restaurant on top of the also now-gone Cherry Creek Tattered Cover) was just opening under the command of Chris Cina (now chef at the Hideaway Steakhouse in Westminster), and Cina was seeking a line cook. Mewbourn jumped at the opportunity, and when Cina took off to get married and travel to Europe, he was promoted to sous, an assignment that kept him in the Fourth Story kitchen for another year -- until star chef Roy Yamaguchi opened Roy's of Cherry Creek across the street. "I left to take a tour of duty to work for Roy," quips Mewbourn, since six months into that job, Roy's shuttered.
He returned to the Omni, then came across a Craigslist ad for a sous job at the Table Mountain Inn. "I'd never dealt with Southwestern food before, ever, but if a door opens, you walk through it, and I saw this job as a challenge and wanted to learn all I could about it," explains Mewbourn, who was soon elevated to the exec-chef position. "I think I'm going to be here for a while," he muses, "unless I get fired, because, you know, there's a first time for everything."
During this interview at the Table Mountain bar, he talks about his wish for more food-savvy customers, harps on foie gras and Lady Gaga, and hails the righteousness of Jim's Burger Haven.
Six words to describe your food: Playful, big, tasty, comforting, hearty and good.
Ten words to describe you: Crazy, happy, blunt, honest, relaxed, uptight, different, fun, unique and determined.
Culinary inspirations: My grandmothers. They both put love and effort into every single dish they made -- even if was something as simple as a grilled cheese. I'd sit there and watch both of them cook from the moment I got up to when I went to bed. One grandmother had a German background, the other had a Southern background, so it was great being exposed to two different styles of cooking when I was growing up. They cooked all day long -- both of them. We never went out to eat when they were around.
Favorite ingredient: Butter. It can be the first -- or the last -- thing you use to elevate a dish to greatness. The rich flavor and the way it can smooth out a dish is just amazing.
One food you can't live without: Bacon. Its uses are limitless. Bacon and chocolate are my favorite things to play around with when I get bored.
One food you detest: Foie gras. I can't stand it. I'm not a big fan of snails, either. It's a texture thing.
Most overrated ingredient: Foie gras. It's way too pricey for what it is, and too many people eat it for no other reason then that they just want to tell people they've had foie gras.
Most underrated ingredient: Salt. It adds the zip that you need to take that dish over the top; it brings it all together.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: Hazed & Infused beer from the Boulder Brewing Company. We've done a few beer dinners together and have had great success with the outcome. Our buffalo pot roast is braised in oatmeal stout, and I always have specials that revolve around beer. I love getting creative in the kitchen with suds.
Favorite spice: Black pepper. The aroma, added kick and zip reminds me of good home-style food. It can be a very versatile spice in the hands of a great chef.
Best recent food find: Here's the thing: Finding good-quality product is more important to me than trying to find something new. Maybe I like to reinvent the wheel more than I should, but I like to cook with ingredients that everyone likes to eat rather than the stuff they've never seen before.
Favorite Denver/Boulder restaurant(s) other than your own: Jim's Burger Haven. I get a double-meat double cheeseburger, a pineapple shake and onion rings. I don't always think that fine dining or gourmet food has to be the sit-down, fancy, overpriced variety. At Jim's, it's just good food that I can eat all the time and not get burned out.
Rules of conduct in your kitchen: Wear a black hat and clean white chef coat; follow directions; have fun; do good things; and under no circumstances can you play any Lady Gaga in my kitchen. In addition to those, read the recipe book; if you have questions, ask the chef; strive to do more; remember that sanitation is part of your uniform; make sure you have a Sharpie and a pen, because you never know when I'm going to ask you to write something down; keep a good attitude; be a team player; and use your talent for good, not evil.
Biggest kitchen disaster: I was working in the kitchen of a hotel and had been preparing a menu for a party -- but unbeknownst to me, I didn't have the updated menu for that party. I had already left for the day when my chef called and asked me if I knew where the salads for the party were. I said, "What salads?" I've never been yelled at like that in my entire life. And I can guarantee you that that was the last time I ever forgot to double-check myself. I let my entire team down and never heard the end of it, so now I double-check everything and then double-check it again.
What's never in your kitchen? Lady Gaga, cell phones and bad attitudes. That said, we're a pretty well-oiled, loose machine that does what it's supposed to do.
What's always in your kitchen? Butter, bacon, masa harina, tomatoes and distasteful humor. My crew and I always have fun, whether I tell them to or not.
Favorite dish to cook at home: Anything my family wants me to cook for them. They're my inspiration and my toughest critics. If I'm just cooking for me, it's a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. I'm simple.
Favorite dish on your menu: Bourbon chocolate pecan pie with housemade chocolate sauce and fresh whipped cream.
If you could put any dish on your menu, even though it might not sell, what would it be? My grandma's butterball soup. It's a very basic noodle soup with a dumpling, but it has the most enjoyable aroma and amazingly buttery taste -- and it warms the soul. She made it once a year for me when I was growing up, and I think everyone should try it once. Unfortunately, I don't think people would enjoy it the way I did, and I'm kind of selfish about it.
What's your favorite knife? My meat cleaver. If I bring it out, then it tells people that I mean business.
Hardest lesson you've learned: It's not always about me; it's about the team. I've learned to look at the bigger picture instead of just what's in front of me at that time. The more you're aware of your surroundings, the better leader you can be. And part of being a good leader is knowing your staff, their strengths and weaknesses, so you can use the right people for the job at hand. It helps you set yourself up for success, for failure.
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What's next for you? To be better than I was yesterday, to always strive for more and never rest.