This is part one of Lori Midson's interview with chef Charley Sinden. We'll run part two of Sinden's interview tomorrow.
By his own admission, Charley Sinden was a teen who liked trouble. He was the kind of kid who would smack your honor student upside the head, the rough-and-tumble rebel who once got into a knock-down, drag-out fight with another student at an "alternative" school, waltzed out the door and refused to go back. And that, he says, is when he lowered his fists. "I'd had enough of the drama -- and that school -- so I went to a regular high school, and my dad told me that as long as I got my high-school diploma, I could do whatever I wanted, as long as I didn't end up in jail," recalls Sinden.
He bypassed the pokey and started doing time in restaurants instead.
Sinden, now the 27-year-old executive chef of the Lobby, which celebrated its first anniversary last month, experienced his first taste of restaurant life at sixteen, when he worked as a busboy at a Hilton Resort restaurant in Phoenix, his home town. But it was strictly by accident that he found himself in the kitchen. "I applied for another buser job at Pappadeaux, and at orientation, they split us into two groups: front of the house and back of the house. But when they called my name, it was for the back of the house, so I just got up and went to the kitchen and didn't ask any questions," says Sinden, who became the kitchen gofer. "I was the guy who would get everything from the cooler and restock the line, but along the way I learned how to do pretty much everything from butchering fish and making sauces to working the line, and since I was the cheapest and youngest labor in the kitchen, they worked me hard for two years."
At eighteen, Sinden landed a gig as a broiler cook at Roy's Phoenix. By the time it closed a year later, he'd proven himself such a valuable employee that he was the sole kitchen monkey to secure a job at a newly opened Roy's, also in Phoenix, where he stayed for three years -- until he met a couple at the chef's counter who wooed him to their restaurant in the wilds of Alaska. He spent five months there, working behind the burners with a woman he now calls the "worst executive chef in the world -- a woman who happened to be from Hawaii and told me that had she known I'd worked at Roy's, she never would have hired me."
The secret to a long life is knowing when it's time to go, so Sinden packed up his knives and hightailed it to Denver. "I didn't want to live in Phoenix any longer," he recalls, "and I was really searching for something new, and a great chef I'd worked with at Roy's had also worked with Troy Guard at Roy's in Hawaii, so he gave me his number and told me to contact him."
Guard, then the exec chef of the now defunct nine75, brought Sinden on as a lunch cook, later promoting him to sous when a second outpost of nine75 (also defunct) opened up north. When Guard left nine75 to concentrate on opening TAG in Larimer Square, Sinden took the reins of the original nine75, where he was the exec chef for a year and a half, until it shuttered in the fall of 2008. Soon after, a neighbor introduced him to investors who were opening a restaurant downtown and looking for an exec chef. "They interviewed something like forty people and settled on me," says Sinden.
In this interview, the Lobby chef talks about his aversion to offal, Domino's pizza delivery and pimping the roach coach.
Six word to describe your food: Creative, fresh, innovative, seasonal, flavorful and comforting.
Ten words to describe you: Outdoorsman, humble, gardener, outgoing, caring, adventurous, entertaining, fun, balding and moody.
Culinary inspirations: Mako Segawa, the executive chef of Roy's Desert Ridge in Phoenix. I worked with him way back when, and he really taught me a lot, especially how to make the most amazing sauces. He was always very patient with me, and he was never one of those angry chefs who lost his cool. In the four years that I worked with him, I think I saw him get angry only once. He's really humble and never tooted his own horn there, even though he's such an amazing chef. I respect that. I'm inspired, too, by Charlie Trotter; I like the way he thinks. And Michael Symon, the chef at Lola in Cleveland, is awesome. I want to progress the way that he has -- from being a chef to being an Iron Chef. And I've got to give props to my dad. I wouldn't be cooking without him. He taught me two skills in life: how to cook and how to fix cars. I hate fixing cars, but I love cooking.
Favorite restaurant in America: Chino Bandito -- the Chinese Bandit -- in Phoenix. It's a Chinese-Mexican fast-casual joint, and the jerk-fried rice and jade chicken are to die for. I always make sure I stop in whenever I go see the family. I can't figure out why they don't franchise it; they'd make millions.
Best food city in America? Seattle. I'm a sucker for fresh fish and shellfish, and they've got the finest up there, including all those fresh oyster beds. And there are lots of great local products available in Seattle, like blueberry vinegar and fresh berries. If and when I ever leave Denver, that's my next city.
Favorite Denver restaurants: The Avenue Grill and Root Down. The chefs really care about what they do, and it shows in their restaurants. Every visit is just as good as the last, and service is always spot-on and never overbearing. They're seriously kicking ass at both restaurants.
Biggest kitchen disaster: I've been pretty lucky with disasters so far. A few come to mind, though: I once saw a guy cut his finger off in a giant Robot Coupe, and I was the lucky one who got to take him to the hospital. I also worked at a restaurant in Phoenix that was closed on Sundays and Mondays. One weekend during the summer, our meat cooler went down. Cleaning out a walk-in that's full of meat that's been marinating at 90 degrees for two days is one of the nastiest things in the world. I didn't eat any meat for a month.
What's never in your kitchen? Liver. I can't stand the texture or flavor. Unless we're making dirty rice or I'm going out to catch catfish, liver doesn't have a place in my kitchen.
What's always in your kitchen? Sriracha and fresh garlic. They're vital ingredients to the way I cook. Everything is better with garlic, and I even try to eat a clove of it every day. It keeps me healthy -- or so say my kitchen guys. And sriracha just rocks.
What you'd like to see more of in Denver from a culinary standpoint: Denver already has an amazing food scene, and I'm glad that the food-truck phenomenon is taking off, but I'd like to see more chefs getting out and growing their own produce: You can't get any closer to your food than when you sprout the plants yourself. I'd also like to see more chefs hosting classes that teach kids how to cook at home. Way, way too many kids are still going the fast-food route.
What you'd like to see less of in Denver from a culinary standpoint: Too many restaurants passing themselves off as local when they're really not. If you're going to call it local, make sure that it really is local.
What's the best food- or kitchen-related gift you've been given? A bacon spreader. It's the best tool ever for separating bacon, and it's really handy to have in the kitchen. I'm stoked about my smoker, too; it's perfect for backyard cookouts. Smoked pork ribs are always one of my favorites, and it's also great for smoking the tasty trout that comes out of our mountain streams and lakes.
Favorite dish to cook at home: The kitchen at my house is tiny, and my stove is like a 1950s wannabe stove, so I grill a lot outside on the barbecue. It's easy to just toss some chicken with a little olive oil, garlic and fresh herbs on there and finish it with a squeeze of lemon juice, plus it goes great with fresh vegetables or salad. We get a crab party going every summer at my house, where we invite all of our friends and grill fifty pounds of Dungeness crab. It's a summer ritual.
Favorite dish on your menu: Bacon-wrapped shrimp stuffed with jalapeños and served with Monterey Jack cheese sauce. There's something about bacon and shrimp that I just love, and when you put them with the cheese, game on!
If you could put any dish on your menu, even though it might not sell, what would it be? Sea urchin, prepared tableside. I can dream, can't I?
One book that every chef should read: The Soul of a Chef: The Journey Toward Perfection, by Michael Ruhlman. It provides great insight into the restaurant world and into the heart and soul of a kitchen.
What show would you pitch to the Food Network, and what would it be about? Pimp My Roach Coach -- just like Pimp My Ride, but instead of a Pinto, they'd take a run-down food truck and turn her into the nicest, most extravagant rolling kitchen ever. I think you could get someone at the Food Network to agree that it would be a hit. Start sending in pictures of your roach coach now.
Weirdest customer request: Years back, a couple came in with their kids, and our kids' menu wasn't good enough for them, so we had to order a Domino's cheese pizza for them. People never cease to amaze me, but I'll always try to accommodate every request with a smile.
Weirdest thing you have eaten: I spent a summer in Alaska some years ago, and one day while I was out fishing, I caught an eighty-pound halibut. When I got it in the skiff, I clubbed it and then cut out its cheeks. It was still twitching, and needless to say, it was definitely the freshest fish I've ever had.
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Best culinary tip for a home cook: Keep it simple, let the flavors of your food speak for themselves, don't be afraid to try new things, and mix different ingredients until you find what you like. It's really easy to create amazing food with some of the simplest ingredients.
If you could cook for one famous chef, dead or alive, who would it be? Bobby Flay. I love that everyone hates the guy. Frankly, I think they're just jealous. After I cook for him, I'd want to do a throwdown, except that I'd want to go into his restaurant and make his food better. That would be interesting.
Celebrity chef who should shut up: Guy Fieri. He's really not that bad, but I just can't take him seriously -- maybe because of his hair color, or maybe it's the way he talks and carries himself. I think he needs a new hair color, and he should quit wearing his sunglasses on his neck.