The Rio's Nate Booth: "We have the best damn margaritas and Tex-Mex food this side of the Rio Grande"
This is part two of my interview with Nate Booth, exec chef of the Rio, Boulder; part one of our chat ran yesterday.
What cookbooks and/or food-related reading material do you draw inspiration from? My mom has my grandmother's old recipe-card holder, and I love grabbing the recipes and seeing what I can do to make them mine. My inspiration comes from my experiences and my nights out -- I love going out and eating -- and bringing ideas home and making them better. I did just read The Physiology of Taste, and it was pretty informative and kinda opened my eyes to a deeper perspective of taste and our senses.
What recent innovation has most influenced the restaurant industry in a significant way? Access to anything -- and I mean anything -- is now just a phone call, or a press of a button, away. Having product on its way so quickly has opened the doors to so many products, and that in turn has allowed us to expand our horizons and explore the vast culinary world.
Favorite culinary-related gift you've been given: My Niman Ranch pork cookbook. I had the chance to go to Iowa and visit the main pork farmer and family of Niman Ranch for a farmers' appreciation dinner, and we had homemade wine and beer and the most amazing home-cooked meal I've ever eaten (sorry, Mom). But what really made this the best gift was that before leaving Des Moines, the farmer's granddaughter thanked us for using Niman Ranch products. She said that because of people like us, she was able to keep her farm.
Favorite culinary-related item to give as a gift: There's a small oil-and-vinegar store in Creede, Colorado, called Creede Olive Oil Company, and I like giving their products as gifts because of their creative yet approachable ideas and flavors, which enable me to encourage creativity with food to my loved ones while simultaneously supporting a small family-owned Colorado business.
What's your fantasy splurge? Going on a year-long, no-holds-barred culinary adventure, starting in New Zealand and finishing up in New York. I'd stop at all the in-between eating and drinking places to relax and just enjoy all the locally owned pubs, grills, bistros, breweries and distilleries along the way.
If you had the opportunity to open your own restaurant with no budget constraints, what kind of restaurant would you open? A whiskey distillery with a curing room. I'd have a huge board on the wall with all the cures, so you could build your own charcuterie plate. Other than that, it would just be small plates with a very small, daily changing menu. I'd keep it simple, but everything would be on point.
What's your biggest challenge as a chef? Right now, everything is good, although it took a while to find a great crew -- but that's a problem anywhere. My boys kick ass. They get stretched to the limit on a daily basis, but they still have a blast and throw pans around. I'm really pleased to have the guys I do behind our line.
What advice would you give to an aspiring young chef? This isn't a career for the weak or lazy-ass cooks. This job requires a lot of blood, sweat and energy, and you have to love what you do in order to be happy. If you lose the love or the want for the job, it will eat you up. There are forty people behind you who want your job, so you have to want to be here.
What skills and attributes do you look for when hiring kitchen staff? I prefer that everyone who wants to work with us do a stage first, and they have to have tons of energy and drive. You can train just about anyone to cook, but it takes a lot more to make someone care. I'll always take a new guy who's eager and wants to learn over a vet with no energy or drive. We're in the trenches every night, and we need to have a great time while we're working.
Biggest mistake a chef can make on the line: Give up -- lose their energy and the intensity. You're the captain; you can't show weakness. Negative energy is a cancer, and everyone is looking to you for support and leadership, so lead.
If you could dress any way you want, what would you wear in the kitchen? My clogs, some rolled up, clam-digger-style chef pants and a T-shirt. I totally believe in "look good, feel good, do good," and I've really never been a big fan of the chef coat. Yes, there's a time and a place for it, but you need to be comfortable at work. I like to have a kitchen where everyone feels comfortable, and in the heat of summer, when the kitchen is 100 degrees-plus, I'd rather my guys be sweating because they're kicking ass -- not just because it's hot outside.
If you could cook in another chef's kitchen, whose would it be? I'd love to go play with the guys at Euclid Hall. I love that place, and I always try to sit at the kitchen bar, just so I can watch. This is how a kitchen is supposed to look and run, and I give big props to Jorel Pierce and his crew for getting it right. They're always super-busy, but their heads are held high, plates are getting pushed, and it looks like they're having a blast.
What would you cook for Pierce if he came to your restaurant? The Rio is all about being a sanctuary, so my main job would be to make sure he had a blast. I'd start him off with a few Big Tex margaritas and some of our higher-end tequilas, and I'm a fan of people eating whatever they like, so I'd cook whatever he wanted. I feel that we have the best damn margaritas and Tex-Mex food this side of the Rio Grande.
Biggest moment of euphoria in the kitchen: I've had tons of great moments, but my latest one was a few Friday nights back, when we had the biggest day of the year so far and everyone came to play. The music was rocking and the team killed it. I haven't been at the Rio all that long, but that night seemed to have all the right pieces. Everything just clicked, and I couldn't have been more proud of my team. It took some time to build this crew, and on that crazy-busy Friday night, they truly showed what they could do.
Craziest night in the kitchen: In 2007, I was opening a restaurant for a company called Truluck's, and during our first mock service, the Aloha system completely crashed within a few minutes of opening. Thirty minutes into service, with 450 on the books and all new staff, we were handwriting tickets. Anything that was on hold to fire was lost, so the kitchen started pumping out salads and appetizers...and then nothing. I remember looking over the line to ask if anyone was actually eating dinner, and that's when it just all went downhill. We got through the night, but it was a good thing it was just friends and families.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef: I feel like I've had quite a few, but I'm very proud to finally have a balance between work and family. I'm a single dad, and my son means everything to me. On our days off, we usually head to the hills with fishing poles in our hands.
What's one thing that people would be surprised to know about you? I'm rather quiet at home. I think I get all my craziness and loudness out at work.
What's always lurking in your refrigerator? Dale's Pale Ale, eggs, tons of different cheeses, milk and tubes of Go-Gurt yogurt. I'm a single dad to a five-year-old boy, and my fridge looks like anyone else's with kids. I try to keep it as healthy as possible, but my son and I are both fat kids at heart.
Best recipe tip for a home cook: Don't be afraid to change things up. Start with the basic recipe, preparing it once to see how it turns out, and then go for it. Make it your recipe and use your style and your touch. Remember that recipes are just guidelines. Make the dish your own, and have fun with your cooking.
Last meal before you die: A couple slugs of my friend's moonshine, a Dale's Pale Ale in my hand -- okay, a few cans of Dale's -- and a big, charred, bone-in ribeye.
If you hadn't become a chef, what would you be doing right now? I love baseball, and I've wanted to be a baseball coach for the longest time. In a way, I guess I'm a coach now, just in a different way. But if I weren't a chef, I'd be on the diamond teaching little guys about respect and how to play baseball.
What's in the pipeline? To keep doing my best for the Rio and to make this company even better than it is now -- and being a great dad to my amazing boy, Truitt.
What's next for Denver's culinary scene? It's just going to keep evolving. As long as chefs put ingredients first, think about their community and the earth, we'll continue to move in the right direction.