Truffle Table chef Crickett Burns: "Have a good grasp of the rules...and then break them"
2556 15th Street
This is part one of my interview with Crickett Burns, chef of the Truffle Table; part two of our chat will run tomorrow.
"I can count on one hand the number of times we ate the same thing for dinner, mostly because my mom cooked something different every single night, and even if we wanted the same thing twice, we'd probably never get it, because she never wrote down the recipes," recalls Crickett Burns, the 31-year-old chef of the Truffle Table, a cheese-intensive restaurant in Highland that echoes Burns's childhood, inasmuch as it's always surprising guests with beautifully stinky new arrivals from around the globe.
But Burns's career path didn't surprise anyone. "I've always wanted to be a cook -- never anything else -- and my mom used to put me on the counter and let me add all the spices and seasonings to whatever she was making, and that marked the beginning of my love for food," says Burns, who's from Nebraska but moved to Fort Collins when she was eighteen. She got her first taste of a professional kitchen while working the line at Macaroni Grill, a gig she endured for two years before coming to Denver to attend culinary school at Cook Street. "I already knew the basic fundamentals of cooking and I had good knife skills, but I wanted to learn more about techniques and the history of food, so I went to culinary school and loved every minute of it," explains Burns, who met Goose Sorensen, the owner-chef of Solera, on graduation day -- a chance meeting that led to her first kitchen position in Denver.
"Goose gave the commencement speech, and when it was over, I introduced myself and then went to work for him as a pastry chef and a pantry cook," remembers Burns, who describes her time at Solera as an "incredible experience" -- and that was just the beginning of several incredible experiences to come. She worked with Jamey Fader, the culinary director of Big Red F, when Lola moved to Highland, then shared the line with Max MacKissock when he was the executive chef of Vita next door. And when MacKissock moved on, she continued to work by his side, cooking at Cafe Options, the original Squeaky Bean and then the new Squeaky Bean, with some interesting gigs in between. "When the original Bean closed and we were waiting for the new one to open, I had the pleasure of working at Euclid Hall and Rioja, Jennifer Jasinski's restaurants, and aside from the fact that Jen was incredibly gracious, it's one of the coolest kitchens that I've ever worked in," says Burns, who also put in time at Restaurant Kevin Taylor to brush up on her pastry skills.
When the Squeaky Bean reemerged in LoDo last year, Burns was one of several cooks from the original crew to work at the new incarnation. But in May she stepped off the line -- and away from MacKissock -- to take the chef position at the Truffle Table, which opened in the former home of the Cellar Wine Bar. "I left because I wasn't being creative anymore -- I wasn't feeling the drive, the passion or the love -- and when the opportunity at the Truffle Table fell in my lap, I needed to make a decision," she says.
Josh Bitz, the Bean's former sous chef (and Burns's best friend), encouraged her to take the leap, and MacKissock, who also just left the Bean himself, reinforced Bitz's sentiments. "Max agreed that it was a great opportunity -- he was incredibly supportive -- and I have to admit that I've really been enjoying my new job, not just the wonderful staff, but learning something new every day about cheese, wine and beer," says Burns, who in the following interview recalls the night the cookbooks came crashing down, admits that surviving as a female chef is a struggle and explains why cheese is a flawless food.
What do you enjoy most about your craft? The way one bite of food can completely change someone's day. When that happens, it's truly one of the neatest feelings in the world.
Who or what inspires you? I'm inspired by the constant desire to grow and learn. We all hit spots in our lives where we find that we're not pushing ourselves or learning as much as we'd like to, and when that happens, it's time for a change. My uncle Mark and my mother, Lynn, are also a very large part of my daily food internal dialogue, and have been since I was quite young. They had me tasting, seasoning and learning to cook without recipes before I was even in grade school.
Describe your approach to cooking: At the Truffle Table, I try to approach things the same way that you'd approach cheese -- and cheese, of course, is one of our main focuses. There are so many perfect things about it: the ability to translate the animals, the diet of the animals, the region, the cheese maker...all of that. Food should do the same, insomuch as the ingredients can -- and should -- speak for themselves. All they need is a little coaxing to become something wonderful and perhaps unexpected...just like cheese.
What are your ingredient obsessions? I'm bananas about fruit...ha-ha! Seriously, I've been doing a lot of pickling and savory things with fruit, including pickling a bunch of Palisade peaches. I also think that love is an ingredient that can be felt and tasted in food. In fact, it's absolutely the most important ingredient -- always.
What are your kitchen-gadget obsessions? I can't function without spoons, a Frankenstein spatula, a baby offset spatula and my kitchen scissors. If you know me at all, you know this to be all too true. I actually grow quite distraught when I'm missing any of these things.
Favorite local ingredients and purveyors: I've really been enjoying the farmers' market in Highland this year. It's simply delightful, not to mention convenient, especially since it's right across the street from the restaurant.
One ingredient you won't touch: Balut. Holy yuck.
One ingredient you can't live without: Salt can make a rather ho-hum dish taste amazing. I think people sometimes forget what a coveted ingredient it was for years -- and rightfully so.
Food trend you'd like to see in 2013: Something I'd never experienced before, which I think is so fancy, is when the neighborhood just loves on a restaurant, and the restaurant gets the chance to love on them right back. We've had people bring in produce that they had too much of and/or just wanted to share; it's the community revolving favor -- giving back to each other -- and I suppose that's what a "community" is really all about.
Food trend you'd like to see disappear in 2013: I've really been enjoying simplifying the way I think about food -- going back to the roots is such a wonderful thing. I can't pinpoint something I'd like to see disappear, because each person is wired differently, but I do know that great ingredients help make great food. You can't doll up a crappy product and expect it to be amazing. It's simply not possible.
Favorite dish on your menu right now: My Époisses-stuffed gingerbread topped with radishes and arugula and sided with salted lemon curd is yum-o. The melt-y Époisses tucked inside the dark gingerbread, coupled with the spicy radishes and arugula and the citrusy-salty punch of the lemon curd, is something I love. And it's not just me: The guests who order it are totally delighted and usually want to discuss everything about it.
What dish would you love to put on your menu, regardless of how well it would sell? Do I get a kitchen before I answer this?
Weirdest thing you've ever put in your mouth: Balut. Suffice it to say that I swallowed hard. Oh, my golly.
What specific requests would you ask of Denver diners? Don't be afraid to think outside of the box, or to try new things and go to new places. There are so many wonderful delights in this city that are worth seeking out.
Best recipe tip for a home cook: Be adventurous and have a good grasp of the rules...and then break them.
Favorite culinary-related gift you've been given: Knowledge. You can have all the fancy gear that you want, but if you don't know what to do with it, then what's the point?
Favorite culinary-related item to give as a gift: That depends on the person on the receiving end, although I do like to give little notebooks as gifts. They're easy to always have on your person and right there for when you want to write down whatever idea, thought or recipe you think up. It's got to be leather, though.
What's your fantasy splurge? At the moment, an oven that cooks evenly and doesn't hang off the wall at a tilt. And, let's see...a few burners and hoods. You know, the usual stuff, although I'm quite happy to have the things that I do.
What recent innovation has most influenced the restaurant industry in a significant way? Breaking out of the old parameters of doing things just one or two ways. I love that we now have the potential -- and opportunity -- to truly play with food in whatever ways we can dream up.
If you had the opportunity to open your own restaurant with no budget constraints, what kind of restaurant would you open? I've always wanted to do a little place with healthy, accessible food driven by shining technique. It would be dinner and perhaps lunch with pastries and baked goods, and, as a cook with a few quite serious food allergies, it would be a place that's sensitive to dietary restrictions. I'd also like to have some land, not too far from a city, with a big area for artsy stuff and a big garden or farm. Growing and harvesting, rearing and butchering, milking and making cheese, making beverages, alcoholic and not -- a total playground where I could also have a few lovely dinners for friends and patrons. A bit dreamy, right?
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