This is part one of my Chef and Tell interview with Antonio Gorjoux, kitchen manager of the Cherry Cricket. Part two of that interview will run in this space tomorrow.
"Chef is a big word," insists Antonio Gorjoux, "and I am not a chef."
Minutes after saying this, he makes a beeline for the kitchen, pausing to check the schedule, a clipboard of papers jotted with the names of more than three dozen employees -- line cooks, prep guys and dishwashers -- the majority of whom seem to be working this Tuesday, one of the coldest days on record for Colorado. And they all report to Gorjoux, the kitchen manager of the Cherry Cricket, which, as usual, has a packed house, despite the frigid temps.
But inside Gorjoux's kitchen, it's hot with the sizzle of burgers on the grill and frings in the fryer, and Gorjoux seems very much at ease, joking with his crew, poking fun at himself and posing for photos. "One day," he says, "I want to be a chef, and I want to have my own restaurant -- maybe a Cherry Cricket in Cancún -- but this isn't a fancy restaurant, and I'm not a chef, although I am very, very proud of what we do here.
Gorjoux, who was born in Mexico City, has been at the Cricket for fifteen years, the kitchen manager for the past twelve. "It was 1995, I had just moved to Denver and saw an ad in the paper for a line-cook position, and I had to interview with three different people before they hired me," recalls Gorjoux, who had spent several years before that working in a Chinese restaurant in a small town deep in the heart of Texas, a job that prepared him for the pressures of commanding a high-volume kitchen. "It was like boot camp," he says, "and the guys were really, really hard on me, but I moved around the kitchen a lot doing several different jobs, including cooking, and I learned how to be incredibly fast with a knife."
It was a skill he'd wanted to learn much sooner. "When I was a kid, I was always helping my mom cook -- or at least trying to help -- but she'd only give me the small tasks, like washing vegetables, when in reality I wanted to chop vegetables," he remembers. That wasn't the only aspiration his parents quashed. "My dad wouldn't let me go to culinary school -- kitchens, he told me, were for women -- and I'm not a rebel, so I didn't argue," says Gorjoux. Instead, he went to a private university in Mexico City to pursue a business administration degree, but he soon dropped out and moved to a small Mexican border town to open a restaurant that sold huaraches. That lasted two years. "For whatever reason," he muses, "people weren't very receptive."
That's not a problem at the Cricket, a restaurant icon that's gained a national reputation for its burgers, which have been pimped on Rachael Ray's Tasty Travels and Man v. Food, and soon will get more props on The Best Thing I Ever Ate. "I love what I do, I love that we're always busy, I love the challenge of handling the volume, and I love that we're recognized for our burgers, which I really do think are the best in Denver," says Gorjoux.
In this interview, he takes time away from his insanely busy kitchen to dish on the day he nearly got fired, recount his experience eating cow-eye tacos, and reveal the secrets behind the Cricket burger.
Six words to describe your food: Fresh, flavorful, melt-in-your-mouth good, comforting, made-to-order and award-winning.
Ten words to describe you: Proud, strict, fair, hardworking, competitive, challenging, stubborn, leader and a team worker.
Culinary inspirations: Eli McGuire. She took ownership of the Cherry Cricket in 1990, and she taught me so, so much. She taught me to be proud of what I do, and that if I'm going to be in the kitchen, then would I eat the food I'm cooking, and if not, then I shouldn't serve it. We just passed the eleventh anniversary of her death.... Eli taught me a ton about being organized in the kitchen -- and to keep it that way -- and she taught me how important it is to be respectful. She also taught to me not to mix friendship with work, because, you know...firing a friend is never easy.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef: Bringing the Cherry Cricket's food up to par and watching our reputation rise on a national level. I've been here for fifteen years, and the percentage of our food sales was 32 to 35 percent of the weekly total sales when I first started. But now our food sales are an average of 70 percent of our weekly sales. The people who come here have heard about how good our hamburgers are, and Eli always taught me that it doesn't matter how expensive, or inexpensive, our ingredients are, they need to be good. I'm still cooking the way that she taught me to cook, and I can honestly say that we have the best hamburger in Denver. We get our meat in every day from Lombardi Brothers Meats, a local company, and it's ground fresh every day. There's nothing complicated about how we make them -- just salt and pepper -- but we actually do cook the patties at the temperature people want. The secret to our burgers is that we cook them as though we're the ones eating them. Every day on Sunday, my day off, I go out for lunch and dinner and compare myself to others. It's unavoidable.
Rules of conduct in your kitchen: First and foremost, if you won't eat it, don't serve it. I'm very strict about our food quality and the way the food is being put in the baskets. I hate it when the waxed paper is wrinkled or greasy. And whatever you do, don't burn anything -- it's one of my biggest pet peeves. I let the cooks play music in the kitchen, but only as background music. I'm also a proponent of first in-first out, and by that I mean that everything has to be labeled, and everyone needs to take a minute to read dates and labels to ensure everything is fresh. It makes me mad, too, when the line guys take shortcuts. If I need grilled onions, for example, then they need to be grilled -- not tossed in the fryer because it's faster.
What's never in your kitchen? Veggie burgers, tofu, dirty clothes or baseball caps, or crappy attitudes.
What's always in your kitchen? Beef, jokes, lots of paperwork to fill out, and music, which I always have to turn down.
Biggest kitchen disaster: Two months ago, we had a fire on the fryer. It was because of a gas leak, and the flames were up to the hood. Fortunately, the a.m. line cook knew where the main gas valve was and ran and shut it off. But it was just a matter of seconds before the hood system was going to erupt in flames.
Favorite music to cook by: Anything -- salsa, techno, reggae, whatever -- that makes me dance. So long as it has a good beat and makes me happy, I'm dancing.
What's the best food- or kitchen-related gift you've been given? My mom gave me a huge wooden cutting board for chopping meats and a couple of heavy-duty cleavers, which I used all the time at a small restaurant that I opened on the border, between Texas and Mexico, almost twenty years ago.
Favorite dish to cook at home: Grilled steaks, chicken, fish and salads. I love making breaded chicken with grilled asparagus and carrots, roasted potatoes with fresh rosemary -- and a really great salad with balsamic dressing.
Favorite dish on your menu: The hamburgers, especially a mid-rare or medium burger with smoked cheddar, bacon, grilled onions, mushrooms and barbecue sauce. It's huge.
If you could put any dish on your menu, even though it might not sell, what would it be? Steaks. I tried to sell a New York strip as a special once, and we sold two, maybe three. It just didn't work. I have no idea why.
Weirdest customer request: We once had a customer who came in and bought hamburgers for her dog. Clearly, this wasn't a dog with a dog's life. Someone also asked for raspberry jam and peanut butter on a hamburger.
Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: Cow-eye tacos. I ate them in a local market in Mexico City. They scraped the meat out from the eyeballs, which was pretty tender -- like tongue -- except for the cartridge, which grossed me out. It was so bad, in fact, that I've never eaten them again.
What show would you pitch to the Food Network, and what would it be about? A show that would allow me to go around the world and learn about all types of cuisine, but instead of concentrating on restaurants, like a lot of those shows, I'd concentrate on cooking in homes, so people could actually cook the dishes in their own kitchens. It's great watching the shows where everything happens in restaurants, but the average person doesn't have that kind of equipment. I'd focus on teaching people all about different ingredients and how to use them.
If you could cook for one famous chef, dead or alive, who would it be? Gordon Ramsay. He's hard to please -- an asshole, even -- but he's also fair. And I like that he's a challenge. I'd love to see if I could please him. I like to watch Kitchen Nightmares and compare my kitchen to those on the show, and while my kitchen is old, I think he'd be pleased by how clean and organized it is.
Favorite Denver/Boulder restaurant(s) other than your own: Hapa Sushi Grill. I love sushi, and I always have a good time there with my daughter and wife, who love it, too.
Favorite celebrity chef: Jamie Oliver. He keeps cooking simple and practical, and I also love what he's doing for childhood obesity by helping kids to enjoy healthy cooking.
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Celebrity chef who should shut up: Emeril Lagasse. He's way too fake, and he's become far more of a showman than a chef.
What's your favorite knife? My cleaver. My first kitchen job was at a Chinese restaurant, and I used a cleaver. You can chop whatever you want to with it -- meats, vegetables, bones, anything. And once you get used to the weight, it's very easy to handle.
Hardest lesson you've learned, and how you've changed because of it: About a year ago, around the time we expanded, I started losing control of managing the kitchen, mostly because I was trying to do everything by myself. I knew I needed to hire more people to handle the expansion, but I didn't do it in time, so I had to cover way too many shifts, and because I didn't have enough line cooks, I didn't have any time to do all the paperwork. The kitchen was managing me rather than me managing the kitchen. The last drop in the glass was when the health inspector came in and I hadn't done the required paperwork to record the temperatures. I didn't delegate the job to anyone else, either, so I almost got fired. I learned that I need to delegate, and that I can't do everything by myself. Now I have great people helping me.