This is part one of my interview with Trinity Grille's Patrick Canfield. Check back here tomorrow to read part two.
Most of us have scrubbed a few pots and scraped a few plates, but if you eat dinner every night at home, along with your parents and eight brothers and sisters, it's highly probable that the job of dish duty ranks right up there with picking up poodle poop. But Patrick Canfield is a dishwashing master -- in part, he says, because he was frequently late to the dinner table. "We were a clan of nine kids, and we met at the dinner table every day at 8 a.m., noon and 6 p.m., and if you were late, my mother, who didn't believe in not feeding her kids as punishment, instead made you do all the dishes for eleven people, which took...shit, three hours. I was always late, especially during baseball season," he confesses.
But Canfield, who's been cooking behind the burners of the Trinity Grille for ten years, started on his culinary path early, working in restaurants throughout high school. "If I wasn't in the kitchen at home helping my mom, who was the best cook in the world, I was cooking in restaurants to make extra money, because when you come from a family of nine kids, you don't get an allowance," he deadpans.
Money, however, wasn't the only motivator. "I really liked being in the kitchen; I learned a lot and I was good at it," he says. And he got good tips, too, at least while doing time as a short-order graveyard-shift cook at the Waffle House, his first job in Denver after moving here from Detroit the day after he graduated from high school. "I loved it, and I got great tips, because they were largely based on theatrics, and I could juggle eggs like nobody's business -- and the customers, no pun intended, would egg me on," Canfield remembers.
He switched that juggling act for another one at the long-gone Writer's Manor hotel, where he did it all -- the a.m. line, banquets, the night shift and manning the coffee shop. But he left because the "chef didn't know a damn thing," he says. "The chef had a whole box of kitchen tools, one of which was a truffle slicer, and he didn't even know what it was, much less how to use it, and since I'd tapped the minds of all the sous chefs -- and there was nothing more to learn from the chef -- I took off to do something else."
Canfield was hired as a line cook at the also-defunct Cafe Franco, an Italian restaurant that catered to big-name Denver Nuggets players, including Dan Issel. And by the time he left, four years later, he'd fed Issel dinner "more times than I can count," he says; veal parmesan was one of the former basketball star's favorite dishes. But the owner of Cafe Franco wasn't a particular favorite with Canfield. "Franco, the chef-owner, was a crazy Italian who thought he was Mafia -- he wasn't," Canfield recalls. "I couldn't take it anymore, so I got out of there."
He returned to Writer's Manor and then to Cafe Franco, after the restaurant was purchased by a new owner. Canfield also spent time commanding kitchens in Vail, but once he realized that an eighty-hour work week wasn't conducive to hitting the slopes -- "I wanted to ski every day," he says -- he headed back to Denver, landing at Marlowe's and, later, Bluepoint Bakery, working alongside renowned bread artist Mary Clark. Before he was snatched up by the Trinity, in 2002, he also did stints at the now-shuttered Normandy and Le Petite Catering, where he was the on-site cook at the wedding of Phil Anschutz's daughter. "That was really cool, and they loved the food," recalls Canfield, who admits there's nothing he'd rather do than cook. "I've been at this a long time, and I can't imagine doing anything else, especially as long as my wife keeps buying me more pots and pans."
In the following interview, Canfield goes after gluten-free diets, admits he doesn't give a rat's ass about online reviews, and explains the rationale for stowing Spam in his locker.
Six words to describe your food: Innovative, fun, comfortable, delicious, classic and real.
Ten words to describe you: Modest, moody, grumpy, happy, off-the-wall, crazy, kind and helpful.
What are your ingredient obsessions? Salt and pepper. When -- and how -- to use them is the trick. Used correctly, you'd salt all your meat and poultry before cooking. For fish and vegetables, you want to salt as you're cooking to bring out the tenderness of the food.
What are your kitchen-tool obsessions? Tongs, because they're an extension of your hand. And if you have a good pair of tongs -- not a crappy pair -- you can actually feel the food almost as though it's right in your hands. But if they're crappy tongs, they just slip out of your hands and fall on the floor, so buying a good pair is really important.
Best recent food find: Smoked salt. It makes every steak taste like it's been through a smoker, even if it's actually just been cooked on the grill. Fish, chicken, pork -- you name it -- takes on a whole new flavor when it's been touched with smoked salt.
Most underrated ingredient: The shallot is really underused, and because it's like a very small red onion, most chefs don't like to cut it up. But this is the most flavorful onion of all, and unlike a white, red or yellow onion -- or even garlic -- you can put it in everything, and the flavor is always consistent. I especially like to use it in vinaigrettes and marinades.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: Hatch and Pueblo chiles. At the end of the summer, you can get them just about everywhere on Federal Boulevard. The strongest ones are called red-hot chiles, and they're to die for; Hatch chiles make the greatest chile rellenos, because they're long and tender, and Pueblo chiles make the greatest green chile in the world.
Favorite spice: Lemongrass. It's more of an herb than a spice, although you can get it dried. It's a bit unpleasant to eat it in its natural form, because it's so fibrous, but it makes everything you put it on taste ten times better, especially fish.
Food trend you wish would go away: Gluten-free diets. When I was a kid, this wasn't an issue, and the truth is that there are just an exceptional few who actually have a gluten intolerance. If you want to use it as an excuse to eat healthy, fine, do it -- but don't lie and say that you can't eat foods with gluten when what you really mean to say is you don't want to eat food made with gluten.
One food you detest: Sushi, because I can't afford to eat it every day. Why do they make something so good so damn expensive?
One food you can't live without: I'm addicted to Mexican food, so much so that I eat it three to four times a week. Green chile is the greatest thing ever invented in life; it brings you back to normal. I love Torres on Federal, El Tejado on Broadway, La Fogata on Evans and El Tapatio in Lakewood, and when I want a breakfast burrito to go, I hit up Santiago's.
Most memorable meal you've ever had: Beef stew. My mother made it every Halloween. In Michigan, Halloween was always cold, so I'd come home after trick-or-treating, and instead of digging into my candy, I always ate my mom's beef stew and dumplings. It's one dish I'll never forget, and even now, I try to make her beef stew and dumplings every Halloween.
Favorite childhood food memory: A Creamsicle. After swimming at the YMCA, my brother and I would go to the vending machine and get a Creamsicle and walk home together. It's still one of my favorite memories.
Favorite junk food: Mountain Dew and hot-wing Bugles dipped in ranch dressing. Don't ever try it, because you'll never stop eating them. They really do taste like hot wings when you dip them in ranch.
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SHOW ME HOW
Biggest compliment you've ever received: When Dan Issel and Alex English were with the Denver Nuggets, I was cooking at Cafe Franco, and after they'd win a game, we'd always stay open so the two of them could come in for a late dinner. Issel would order a wine bucket full of Miller bottles -- six of them -- and English would get four orders of escargot, just to start. But the highlight was when Issel came back to the kitchen to ask me if it was okay if he licked his plate -- a double order of veal Parmesan -- and so he did.
What's your dream restaurant? I don't have a dream restaurant, because restaurants aren't dreams. They're all about hard work, dedication and attention to detail. And if they weren't, we'd all be working at McDonald's or Burger King or some other horrible place. We do this because we love it.