Tony Hessel, chef of West Flanders Brewing, on practicing patience
1125 Pearl Street, Boulder
This is part two of my interview with Tony Hessel, exec chef of West Flanders Brewing Co; part one of our conversation ran yesterday.
Which living chef do you most admire?
Alice Waters. She was my inspiration for becoming a chef, and I love her passion. The first time I ate at her restaurant, it was like heaven, and she still makes me want to be a better chef. I love her philosophy that everything should be as local as possible, and it's cool that because of her commitment to locality, farmers and cheese makers are now becoming as famous as she is. Plus, it didn't hurt that I got to work with one of her chefs for a nice stint.
What do you enjoy most about your craft?
Every morning is the beginning of a new day, so you never know what you're going to walk into, and that's part of the excitement. The adrenaline rush of the line is the greatest thing in the world, and when you're rocking the place and you have the kitchen up on two wheels, so to speak, and it's smooth and everything just clicks, that's what it's all about.
What are the most challenging aspects of being a chef?
Patience. Unfortunately, I learned this the hard way. I used to think that I practiced patience, but it turned out that I was burying a bunch of it and not confronting the issues or the people that I thought were making me impatient. Then the heart came knocking, and I had to take a break. I have since learned -- and still believe -- that patience is the hardest thing to practice in the kitchen. Now I practice it differently: I'm much calmer, and I deal with the issues and confront the problems before anything escalates.
If you could make one request of Boulder diners, what would it be?
Remember that food is supposed to be fun, inspiring and creative. Going out to dinner isn't supposed to be a chore, and while I understand allergies -- my son has them -- when you have so many of them, it's virtually impossible for a chef to cook for you without turning it into a science project of gargantuan proportions.
Best recipe tip for a home cook:
Experiment, have fun in the kitchen, and change up the recipes. If you're following a recipe, use a different protein or change it to a vegetable. The whole point of cooking is to take something tried and true and turn it on its side and see what happens. Sometimes it's the biggest flop ever, and other times it's outstanding. The main thing is to always keep on trying and experimenting.
What's the best food- or kitchen-related gift you've been given?
An antique siphon coffeemaker. God, I love coffee, and those siphon makers make the best coffee ever -- plus it's fun to watch the process.
Favorite culinary-related item to give as a gift:
A good French paring knife is a lifesaver in the kitchen. They are the ultimate utility knife for just about everything, plus they don't cost a lot, and they're fun to give as gifts.
What's your fantasy splurge?
A wood-burning grill and oven. I miss the smell of applewood smoke. To have that again would take it to another level.
If you could dress any way you want, what would you wear in the kitchen?
I already dress the way I want -- no more chef jacket. When I came back into the kitchen after a year off, I decided that I wouldn't be subject to the chef-jacket-and-chef-pants craze. I wear a white button-down shirt and black pants with comfortable shoes in the kitchen. If I have to do an event, then I'll put on a chef jacket, but comfort is where it's at for me. Who knows? Maybe I'll even wear shorts in the summer.
If you could have dinner, all expenses paid, at any restaurant in the world, where would you go?
The Ledbury in London. Chef Brett Graham is amazing.
What piece of advice would you give to an aspiring chef?
Being a chef is a commitment, and you have to stay focused. You don't become a chef overnight. Sure, that would be great, but in reality, it's a lot of hard work, and the key is to keep on learning. When you stop learning, cooking ceases being fun -- and presumably, that's one of the reasons you chose this profession in the first place.
What skills and attributes do you look for when hiring kitchen staff?
First and foremost, I look for street smarts rather than book smarts. I want someone who knows his way around a kitchen, someone who has a passion for this business and wants to work all hours of the day, and someone who's focused and organized.
If you could train under any chef in the world, who would it be?
French chef Alain Passard. To learn under him, and to cook and plate vegetables like he does...wow.
If you had the opportunity to open your own restaurant with no budget constraints, what kind of restaurant would you open?
A small Mediterranean restaurant on the beach in Costa Rica by the surfing lanes. Taps by night and surfing by day.
Weirdest customer request:
An omelet, ordered severely runny. A guy came in all the time to Brasserie Ten Ten, and always complained that his omelet was never runny enough. I eventually got it to a point where he liked it.
Which talent would you most like to have?
Multiple language skills. I understand a lot of Spanish and French, and was even fluent in French at one point in my life. I just wish I'd kept up with it. I'd love to be able to go anywhere in the world and switch languages on a dime.
What's been your worst disaster in the kitchen?
My first Saturday cooking at West Flanders after a year off the line. We had a really big party upstairs that had a separate menu from the menu we were serving downstairs, and things got mixed up, communication broke down, and food was going to all the wrong places -- and yet all I could think was, "I want back into this."
Craziest night in the kitchen:
Graduation weekend 2008 at the Med. It had been busy in the past, but never like this. We threw so many bodies at the rush and it went well, but I crammed six chefs on the front line and four on the back line, and food was flying up to the window so fast that it took four expos to figure it all out.
Biggest moment of euphoria in the kitchen:
The first time that I took a restaurant kitchen to the biggest night ever, and then did it all over again the next night.
Kitchen rule you always adhere to:
The proper order of the ticket procedures; that never changes.
Kitchen rule you're not afraid to break:
Changing a recipe.
Biggest mistake a chef can make on the line:
Getting distracted and losing his focus on whatever he's doing, and then having no idea how to get back into the rhythm of it. I have watched too many chefs crash and burn because of this.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef:
Creating two successful restaurants back to back. Building the Mediterranean and Brasserie Ten Ten -- and seeing their amazing success -- was one of the greatest joys of my life. The number of chefs I worked with during those seventeen years was amazing, and I love the fact that I can point to chefs all over the country that I've had the privilege to work with.
What's one thing that people would be surprised to know about you?
I'm afraid of heights. I don't mind being in really tall buildings; it's the climbing up the side of buildings on a ladder that freaks me out.
Last meal before you die:
A marbled New York strip, at least sixteen ounces; a baked potato with sour cream; an old-fashioned romaine salad with blue-cheese crumbles and oil and vinegar; and a big piece of apple pie with clothbound cheddar, finished with 100-year-old cognac and a cigar. These are all the things that I'm no longer allowed to have.
If you hadn't become a chef, what would you be doing right now?
I'd be a teacher of history and theology, which is what I studied in college. But I was also working in the restaurant biz and, well, I enjoyed the restaurant stuff more.
What's in the pipeline?
A pig's-head tamal with braised red cabbage.
What's next for the Denver/Boulder dining scene?
The term "locally sourced" will disappear from our vocabulary and simply become commonplace. I think we'll also see more casual restaurants with fine-dining aspects.
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.