This is part one of my interview with Valentino Ujkic, the executive chef of Trattoria Stella on East Colfax. Part two of our interview will run in this space tomorrow.
Valentino Ujkic emerges from his open kitchen at Trattoria Stella balancing two plates, both of which are propped with fresh figs, among other food candy. "You're hungry, right?" he asks, sliding into one of the tattered booths in the rusticated bar. "I love figs," he says, popping one past his lips. He pauses for a moment to savor the fleshy sweetness before starting his story, which begins in Montenegro, the former Yugoslavia. "We left illegally," he admits, "and snuck into Canada when I was just five," escaping "because we wanted opportunities in the States that we didn't have there."
Working with food -- and cooking -- for example, passions that took hold when Ujkic was growing up on the North Fork of Long Island, where he and his mother eventually landed. "I was eleven, picking green beans on a farm every summer and getting paid $4 for every box that I filled," remembers Ujkic, who snagged his first cooking job when he was thirteen. "I was working illegally, doing prep in an American-cuisine restaurant, and by the time I was seventeen, I was running the kitchen." His first job lasted a solid eight years, and by then, he had his green card and was itching to leave New York. "New York is great, and I had family there," he says, "but sometimes families can be destructive; it was time for me get out and be on my own."
He moved to Boston, where he landed an apprenticeship at a restaurant called Sage, starting off as a line cook and eventually walking his clogs into the sous chef position. And it was there that he met Mark Ladner, who heads the kitchen at Del Posto in New York, a restaurant owned by Mario Batali, Joe Bastianich and Lidia Bastianich. "Mark was cooking royalty," says Ujkic, and when Ladner suggested the twenty-year-old pack up and return to New York to work the line at Del Posto, Ujkic couldn't resist. "I was lucky enough to work in the kitchens of Del Posto and Luca, another Mario Batali restaurant, and I got to steal recipes," he jokes.
In time, however, the vast metropolis of New York wore him down, and Ujkic plotted yet another escape plan. "I was getting anxious, mostly because I wanted my own restaurant, and I knew that I could either try to compete with the big-name chefs in New York or I could move to a smaller city and make a bigger name for myself," he explains. Ujkic had already visited Denver, a city that was "refreshingly laid-back and devoid of attitude in the kitchen," he says, so he kissed the Big Apple goodbye and touched down in Denver in 2010. "I didn't have a job lined up," he recalls, "but I have mad skills, I didn't need a lot of money, and I wasn't afraid of struggling, so I wasn't particularly worried."
And, it turns out, there was no reason to be. He snapped up a line-cook gig at Root Down and, a few months later, took a second job working brunches and lunches at the Trattoria Stella on East Colfax, in the former home of Cafe Star. Eight months later, when Mike Carlin, the executive chef of Trattoria Stella, exited that kitchen, Ujkic quit Root Down to focus on Trattoria Stella. (Carlin now operates Mike's 2 Kitchen, one of the city's gourmet food trucks.) "It was apparent that I could do the job -- that I wanted the job -- and in February, I became the exec chef," says Ujkic.
In the following interview, Ujkic makes cracks about dill doughs, sings the praises of Stranahan's whiskey and explains why you should never order veal in your own restaurant.
Six words to describe your food: Ill-nah-nah-nah-hah-nah! In other words, my food is really awesome.
Ten words to describe you: Robots, skateboards, Montenegrin, boombox, New York City, nice kicks (my two-word phrase for really cool sneakers), gonzo, fiasco, soldier and romantic.
Favorite ingredient: Fresh basil. I finish all my dishes with some sort of an aromatic, and whether it's basil, parsley or chives, I'm meticulous about how they're cut and the role they play in each dish. You only need to run your knife once through any herb; anything more than that, and you begin to bruise it, and then it'll taste like you cut it with a lawn mower. Basil is also my cat's name; he has a brother, Spanky, which is not an ingredient -- just a fun fact.
Best recent food find: Chef Jared Brant's menu at Satchel's on 6th is phenomenal. I almost dookie-stained my knickers when I had his fried chicken with a chive biscuit and beer and cheddar gravy.
Favorite spice: I can't believe I'm going to say this, but nutmeg. If you're making a cream sauce, it needs nutmeg. Nutmeg is what makes the sausage riggate at Stella's so delicious. There you have it -- my final secret.
Most overrated ingredient: Microgreens. Most of them are bitter, and while they make food look beautiful, I'd still only put one or two micro sprigs on a plate strictly for garnish. They're super-expensive and a total rip-off; I'd much rather invest my money in local ingredients that actually provide substance -- a peach, for example.
Most underrated ingredient: Stocks and broths. We do all of our own butchering at Stella's, so we're making really fresh and fabulous chicken stock, veal stock and fish stock from scratch on a daily basis. We never take them for granted; they're vital to our success.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: Stranahan's whiskey. I use it more outside of work to help me unwind. It's truly an incredible product. Whiskey was always whiskey to me; you drank it because your friends were pouring it down your throat, and eventually you stopped making faces like you would if you were drinking vinegar. Then I met Jake Norris from Stranahan's, and we connected right away, mainly because of his passion for food and my utter cluelessness about how whiskey was made. Talking to Jake about Stranahan's for the first time was a lot like hearing the Beatles for the first time.
One food you detest: Bloody Marys. I know, I know, everyone likes them, but they taste like cocktail sauce in liquid form. I could finish a bloody Mary if you gave me four-dozen cocktail shrimp to dip into the cup. If I want a stiff drink for breakfast, I go straight for the tequila.
One food you can't live without: Pasta. I don't know what I'd do if I didn't have all the beautiful pastas we make at Stella's at my disposal.
What's never in your kitchen? More beef than broccoli. My crew is very friendly to each other and especially polite to the front of the house. The front of the house needs to feel like they can approach the kitchen for whatever they need and not feel like they're going to get verbally attacked just because they're trying to do their job. I challenge my team on a daily basis to become better people as they progress on their journey to become better cooks. There's absolutely no shit-talking to each other. It hasn't happened yet, but if a brawl started in my kitchen between two cooks, I'd make them hug each other for no less than half an hour on the corner of our Colfax location.
What's always in your kitchen? Opportunity. Being an illegal occupant of the States for the majority of my life, I found a haven in the kitchen at a young age. It never mattered where I was from or what I looked like -- only that I could do the job. My kitchen will always have that humbleness about it.
Biggest kitchen disaster: Nick Simon. On a recent Friday, I took young Simon under my wing to show him how to make bouillabaisse, a traditional French soup. While five fish heads boiled away for four hours and three guys discussed the ultimate usage for such a culinary delight, young Simon was doing his thing, unprepared for a moment he would never forget. The soup cooled in the walk-in while we sweated through dinner service on another buzzin' Friday night. Word spread, and anticipation grew, that we would all meet by the walk-in to send Simon off to Tennessee with not only the recipe for a great bouillabaisse, but with fish heads falling all over his head and shoulders as we laughed hysterically. Yes, we dumped the soup all over young Simon's head. He went home to change, and then he and the rest of the revolution went bar-hopping to celebrate the glorious soup and the other times they shared, while I was stuck dancing with a mop and Stevie Wonder till 1 a.m.
Favorite dish to cook at home: Whiskey and berry tiramisu. The restaurant feels like my home, so I do very little cooking where I rest my eyes. If I'm going to eat somewhere other than Stella's, I'll go out to another restaurant. If I'm cooking at home, I'm probably making a cake for a pizza party.
Favorite dish on your menu: I like to tell people that we make eight wonderful fresh pastas and three just okay ones. As much as I love -- and feel blessed -- doing what I do every day, I'm not saving lives or making cell phones smaller. Aside from the pastas, I like the cioppino and the beef carpaccio. The cioppino is a fish stew of saffron tomato broth, house-smoked trout, clams, mussels and the rest of the Dallas Mavericks of the seafood world. Carpaccio is actually a French dish, named after an Italian artist, Vittore Carpaccio, for the vibrant reds he used in his art, and it's on my menu to try and impress girls about my knowledge of food and art.
If you could put any dish on your menu, even though it might not sell, what would it be? Bugs Bunny with a side of baby carrots.
Weirdest customer request: Petaluma chicken -- hold the Petaluma. I really didn't have the heart to tell the couple who ordered it that Petaluma isn't an ingredient, but a farm in California that raises little chickens. I just said sure, and told them I'd throw in some extra vegetables on the plate. You can take the chicken out of Petaluma, but you can't take the Petaluma out of the chicken.
Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: Lamb eyes. I have 21 first cousins all living in Montenegro, and once, when I went back, everyone felt sorry for me because my father died at 26, just six months after we immigrated to the States, and my mother, at the time, was young, widowed and pregnant, so my family saved me the eyeballs because I was the guest of honor. That's definitely some Raiders of the Lost Ark shit.
You're making a pizza. What's on it? I'd start by making pizza dough with some sort of aromatic in the mix. Let's use dill for this one. Once I finish making my dill dough, I'd add fresh figs, blue cheese and prosciutto, and finish it with a fresh cherry and balsamic reduction. I serve my dill doughs with two AA batteries.
You're at the market. What do you buy two of? Lemons.
Guiltiest food pleasure? Every morning, I have a smoothie at Hooked on Colfax to offset the one-part-Yogurtland-two-part-fruity-pebbles I eat every night after work.
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Last meal before you die: Garlic butter, Cajun spices and lemon pepper-smothered crawfish, clams, shrimp and king crab legs with varying degrees of hotness cooled down with fresh oysters from the Yabby Hut in Lakewood. They serve everything by the pound, and I'd go down fighting, taking about 6,000 crustaceans with me. This is Sparta.