Theo Adley, exec chef/owner of The Pinyon, rants on Boulder being called "America's Foodiest Town"
This is part two of my interview with Theo Adley, executive chef/owner of the Pinyon in Boulder. Part one of my chat with Adley ran yesterday.
Favorite restaurant in America: I'm just gonna say that I think tons of people around here rip off David Chang and never give him credit. He's one of the most innovative chef minds in the country, and his Ssam Bar in New York is one of those restaurants that will make you think -- literally, just enough -- before you eat. The food is outstanding and consistent, and it's great to go party there, get drunk and stuff your face with duck meat, or you can bring a date or whatever; it just has the perfect vibe. Daniel Patterson's Coi is a close second. Coi is the two-star Michelin version of the food that we idealize at the Pinyon.
Best food city in America: New York City is the best food city in America. Not Boulder -- New York City. And I won't just start listing off restaurants that will kick the pants off any restaurant in San Francisco -- or Boulder, for that matter -- but the fact of the matter is that New York City is the best city in the world. It's steeped in a rich and violent history, and the people reflect that in everything they do -- especially in the way they eat. Everything in New York City is about the blood, sweat and tears. Read Mark Kurlansky's book about the history of New York City via oyster cultivation; it'll blow you away.
Favorite Denver/Boulder restaurant(s) other than your own: Pizzeria Basta is great. They've got a very innovative and modern take on wood-fired cooking, and they make some of the best pizza I've ever had. The pastries from Il Caffe will rock your socks off, too -- Adrienne is one of the most talented pastry chefs in the country -- and Oak at Fourteenth is another great restaurant that makes terrifically homey food.
What you'd like to see more of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: I'd like to see a truer commitment to the farmers and artisans in the area that provide people with responsibly grown products; I'd love to see more foragers in the area; and I'd like to see more innovation and more young chefs who care less about fame and glory and riding the coattails of a year-old New York or San Francisco fad, but actually have a distinct perspective of their own and a venue of their own. I'd like to see more chefs willing to experiment, more chefs who are content with fucking up occasionally and not playing it so safe -- and I wish there were more chef-driven restaurants that don't have to rely on alcohol to get people in the doors. We live in a beautiful and distinctive area of the country with a really amazing future in culinary history, but we have to push the creative envelope. With that, I think that sous-vide cooking should be more readily available to restaurants; I think the FDA should do far more to encourage and educate the restaurant industry on its benefits instead of making it so very difficult and expensive for restaurateurs to implement proper HACCP [Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points] planning.
What you'd like to see less of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: This is where I rant. Being called "America's Foodiest Town" by Bon Appetit was the biggest disservice ever paid to the Boulder/Denver dining scene. It's a laughable title to anyone in the industry for so many reasons. Thankfully, we're a community of responsible diners, which is what I interpret a "foodie" to be. But I think that title has made us complacent. It made everyone feel so fucking comfy. We shop at Whole Foods and call it a day; we buy all the "organic" produce Mexico has to offer because we still want peaches in February; we can buy "local" Colorado trout while ignoring the fact that it's farmed by inmates in Cañon City; and we can buy all the sustainable pork or beef from Whole Foods because they wiped out all the local artisanal butchers. Most people shop at the farmers' market to show off their dogs -- not because they actually want to stock up on food for the week. If we want to be taken seriously in the culinary world, we really need to start being more accountable for the products we purchase. We take this very seriously at the Pinyon, but it's a battle almost every time we need to order food.
Current Denver culinary genius: Mark DeNittis from Il Mondo Vecchio is an incredible artisanal butcher and salumi maker.
What's the best food- or kitchen-related gift you've been given? My wife, Jaclyn, got me a Lodge cast-iron hibachi grill for my 28th birthday this year. It's cool, and you should go buy one.
One book that every chef should read: Cooking by Hand, by Paul Bertolli. It's not a picture book, but a blueprint of craft cooking.
Best culinary tip for a home cook: Keep your knives sharp. I get weirdly anxious and peeved when I have to use a dull knife in someone's house. Some people don't realize how dangerous they are, let alone what a pain in the butt they can be when you're trying to slice a tomato or something.
What's your favorite knife? I have a pocketknife called a Corsican Vendetta that I cherish. Napoleon's father, Ricky Bonaparte, designed the knives to resist French influence in Corsica. It says "vendetta" on the blade, which is pretty boss.
You're making a pizza. What's on it? San Marzano tomatoes, Calabrian chilies, anchovies and capers.
You're at the market. What do you buy two of? Two wheels of Avalanche Creamery's goat cheddar. It's the best cheese being made in Colorado right now.
Guiltiest food pleasure? I go crazy for any combination of chocolate and peanut butter. Justin's peanut butter cups are pretty much the ultimate indulgence for me, or possibly Alchemy's cupcake ice cream.
What show would you pitch to the Food Network, and what would it be about? Ya know, I think making the Truman Show out of a restaurant like Le Chateaubriand, in Paris, would be amazing. If Inaki Aizpitarte isn't interested, you can holler at me.
Favorite celebrity chef: Rene Redzepi from Noma. I guess he's a celebrity; I mean, he has Noma, and he's got the most whimsical and poetic approach to food of any chef these days. His cookbook is like a beautiful picture book, and even though it's kind of a pain in the ass, the way he approaches dishes and micro-ecologies is fascinating. Each plate is kind of like an edible terrarium.
If you could cook for one famous chef, dead or alive, who would it be? I think about this a lot, believe it or not, and I think Michel Bras would most appreciate our perspective on cooking. His use of innovation and modern techniques reapplied to classic country French flavors are very inspirational. The idea behind his "garguillou" is something we think long and hard about when we want a perfect composition of vegetables and herbs.
Celebrity chef who should shut up: I just got back from the Aspen Food & Wine Classic, where I probably had the opportunity to tell a few people off, but I'm just too big of a wuss to say anything to their face, so I can't really do it here. I don't know...maybe all of them? Yeah! All of them at once! Shut up, all of you, especially you, Thomas Keller, you blabbermouth. Oh...and call me.
Are chefs artists, craftsman or both? Definitely both. Artistically, the chef is responsible for a design, and the artistry begins and ends with the first plate, which has the best balance of flavor and texture and visual appeal. That's where the creativity ends. Every plate after that is a matter of craft, because the cooks are replicating the first plate over and over in an effort to be perfectly consistent. Beyond that, each one of my chefs has a case-specific specialization in production. One guy makes the pasta because he's best at that; another does cheeses; another butchers; another bakes, makes jams, pickles, vinegars and the like.
Culinary inspirations: I'm most inspired by Colorado. This is one of the most spectacular places in America, and every morning when I wake up, I take my coffee and my new daughter on the patio and watch the cows on our neighbor's ranch walk slowly toward the foothills. It's a simple routine, but I use the time to think about the plates I'm serving -- and the plates I want to serve. The view from my back yard is this perfect juxtaposition of the rugged and naturally lawless wilderness of the mountains and the pastoral foothills. I try to harmonize these two textures of environments at the Pinyon.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef: Well, for a guy like me, I consider my entire career an accomplishment. I sucked at school and spent most of my days there thinking I was going to be a professor in the history of medieval sciences or sci-fi poetry. I thought I was really cool and ragged on my friends who were getting business degrees and economics degrees because I thought they were squares. Meanwhile, I kept sucking at school even harder. Then I was like, what the hell? I've always loved cooking, and I've been in the food-service industry ever since I was fifteen, so I dropped out of CU during my junior year, buckled down and started to really work at something for, you know, myself. I worked in some of the best restaurants in Colorado, trying as hard as I could to learn to be better and faster and cleaner and more creative. The discipline I instilled in myself on a personal and a professional level over the course of my career has been my greatest accomplishment. I also make my bed every day, which is a big deal for a guy like me.
Hardest lesson you've learned: The path I've chosen in my life is really challenging, and the hours at the restaurant are long and can get tedious. I have a three-week-old daughter, Althea, who I spend most of my quality time with at four in the morning, feeding or changing diapers. When we have a slow week at the restaurant, I'll question everything about myself personally, as well as my professional choices. Should I just give in and cook the people's choice -- "comfort food" -- just to make the bucks? Or do I stick to my guns and try to make new food? I love what I do so intensely that it scares me, but I'm in this without a multi-millionaire backer, and when people complain that there's nothing on the walls, it's hard to tell them that I can't afford anything yet. I have the hardest-working and most committed chefs around, and yet it's still a battle for us. But I feel that we have a real voice when it comes to cooking, and that's something I'll stand behind forever. The only way I'm really changing is that I'm only getting hungrier and hungrier.
What's next for you? I really want to open a bar on the east end of Pearl, something with craft beer and culinary craft cocktails -- not something that some old fucking fart whipped up in 1912, but cocktails that rely on raw ingredients, fresh juices and vinegars rather than ubiquitous syrups, bitters and more alcohol. I have lots of ideas.
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.