This is part one of my interview with Robin Baron, executive chef of Udi's Pizza Bar, Udi's Bread Cafe and the soon-to-be-open Pickled Lemon in Boulder. Part two of my interview with Baron will run in this space tomorrow.
Robin Baron may fly completely under the radar, but the 32-year-old chef has already opened four Udi's Bread Cafes across the Front Range, as well as Udi's Pizza Cafe Bar in Arvada -- and in mid-June, she'll expand her kitchen sorcery to Boulder, where Pickled Lemon, a fast-casual Middle Eastern restaurant, will unlock its doors on the Hill.
Robin, the daughter of Udi Baron, Denver's unofficial bread head, began cooking as a teenager, working for her dad at a sandwich, European-style pastry and espresso kiosk at the long-gone Northglenn Mall. "I'd come in after school and do the night shift, making sandwiches and then closing it up," remembers Baron, who admits that, at the time, she -- and her father -- were amateurs. "Back then, our sandwiches weren't that good, and we still had a lot to learn about bread, but Udi made lots of specialty Viennese desserts from his youth, and those cakes and pastries definitely made their mark, instilling in me what good sweets should taste like."
Still, Robin says, it wasn't until she left the United States and moved to Israel, where she had relatives, that she realized cooking was her calling. "I loved the independence of making money while working for my dad, but I only realized that I wanted to cook professionally once I moved to Israel and worked for my uncle, spent time cooking with friends, their aunts and mothers and whoever else would let me into their kitchen," she explains. She stayed in Israel for three years, living with her grandmother, who also gets credit for pushing her toward a culinary career. "Her dishes are absolutely perfect, and most of my quality time with her was spent side by side, helping her prepare meals, but she always kept a sharp eye on me to keep me on track, lest I mess up one of her dishes by adding cilantro or some crazy spice like cumin," Robin jokes.
When she moved back to Denver -- "I missed my mom and dad and brother," Robin says -- she was eighteen and well-versed in the kitchen, but she wanted to walk the line of a high-volume restaurant, and the now-defunct Roy's Cherry Creek was hiring. She landed a gig there and, later, at Bloom, where she was one of the opening cooks. "It was while I was at Bloom that I really started to realize that I wanted to take the plunge -- that I wanted to take the next serious step," she remembers.
So she did what thousands of chefs before her have done: She packed up her knives and took a stab at the Big Apple, doing time with Bobby Flay, whose style, she admits, was a "little too flashy" for her tastes. But while she was cooking for Flay, she made a few connections, including a well-known artist who was opening a restaurant in the East Village. "He brought in an Israeli chef, Ido Ben-Shmuel, who had been cooking in France and just moved to New York, and he was a chef who I really wanted to work with," says Robin. She cooked alongside Ben-Shmuel, who took her "under his wing and taught me so much about being a line cook on the hot line," she recalls, for a year, until he left.
Robin wasn't done with New York, however, and before she eventually moved back to Denver to open the first Udi's Bread Cafe, in Stapleton, she kicked around the kitchens of Casa Mono and Thomas Keller's Per Se, restaurants that helped prepare her to run her own spot.
"Working in all of those places was incredibly rewarding, and as a new chef, I really needed to build up my experiences a little more before venturing out into different foods and running my own restaurant," she confesses. "The focus at Udi's is making solid and consistent food that's simple yet high-quality. We want to be the people's everyday neighborhood spot."
In the following interview, Robin Baron dishes on her new Boulder restaurant, makes a plea for more food trucks (and outdoor food courts), and admits that eight inches is all she can handle.
Six words to describe your food: Fresh, bright, colorful, comforting, light and clean. I aspire to craveable.
Ten words to describe you: Open-minded, curious, creative, stubborn...um, ten words is a lot.
Culinary inspirations: My uncle lived with us when I was young, and every weekend, he and my father would cook up a huge Middle Eastern-style brunch with lots of different types of vegetables, cheeses, olives and egg dishes. That's where it all started. Both my father and uncle would go on to open restaurants, and my brother joined the business as well. I also lived in Israel with my grandmother, who was another huge inspiration. She's very traditional, cooks three meals a day every day, and she has her own dishes that no one else can outdo. And Israel itself was a huge inspiration, mainly because it's such a big melting pot. I've been inspired by a few chefs, too, like Ido Ben-Shmuel, who worked in Paris for years and then came to New York. His food is a combination of his Iraqi-Moroccan-Yemenite background realized through solid French technique, and he really opened my eyes to a new world of Israeli food and cooking, showing me how to transform Israeli recipes and ingredients in ways I'd never seen. I was also lucky enough to work for Andy Nusser at Casa Mono in New York. His food is incredible, understated, completely craveable and addictive, and he taught me so much about flavors, like using acidity to brighten food, the importance of balanced flavors and the philosophy that "less is more." And for the past six years, one of the chefs working with me -- Juan Felix -- has been a constant source of inspiration. He has so much love for the food, and he's always thinking about how to improve a dish, no matter how many times he's made it, which I think is what it means to be a real cook: that no detail is too small to ignore and that repetition is constant space for improvement.
Favorite ingredient: Lemon. A squeeze of fresh lemon brightens up flavors and makes a lot of things just taste better. It can take a dish or sauce from flat to bright and, unlike vinegar, it tastes natural and fresh. I love lemon so much that I actually got the nickname "lemon queen."
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: Mini cucumbers -- also called Persian cucumbers. They're sweet and have none of the bitterness that grocery store cucumbers have. I get them at Arash grocery store, which is a great market in Aurora. The owners are Iranian -- and they're serious foodies who bring in some of the best ingredients, olives and dates in town, plus all different cuts of lamb and lots of fresh produce like quince, fava beans and specialty oranges. I also love Udi's nine-grain pumpkinseed bread. It's German style, dense and delicious. Our baker, Maurizio Negrini, only bakes this during the farmers' market season, and there's such a high demand for it that even Udi has to pre-order it before he can take any.
Favorite spice: I use cumin all the time. It really makes a difference with spices when you buy them as fresh as possible -- and it's even better if I can get the cumin seeds and grind them right before I use them. I get my spices from Savory Spice Shop; they carry really high-quality spices, and the staff is great if you have questions.
Best recent food find: White miso adds an unreal flavor component and has so many applications. I really have to thank Momofuku's David Chang, who uses miso in so many different ways while pairing it surprisingly well with a lot of different foods. I used it once at a private dinner, where I made cognac-cooked golden raisins blended with white miso and butter, and I served it with aged prime rib steak from Marczyk Fine Foods. It was unreal. Actually, it's unreal with everything, from fish to pork to asparagus.
Most overrated ingredient: Bacon. Don't get me wrong: Bacon is amazingly delicious, but does it have to go in absolutely everything?
Most underrated ingredient: Pomegranates have so many amazing uses, ranging from savory to sweet. You don't have to "do" anything to a pomegranate, because it has so much sweetness and acidity, so much pop and flavor contrast. It's great with rice, tomatoes and lamb. I also love fresh mint in savory foods -- and I'll use it whenever I get the opportunity. Fresh mint is always on the menu at our monthly supper-club dinners.
One food you detest: Highly processed foods.
One food you can't live without: I'm crazy for tomatoes. I've been eating tomatoes probably every day of my life, ever since I could eat solid food.
What's never in your kitchen? Mussels, which is weird, because I actually really like mussels. Maybe I'll find a spot for them on a special some time.
What's always in your kitchen? Three types of olive oil: blended, extra virgin, and something nicer -- it's Frantoia right now.
Biggest kitchen disaster: Cooks walking off the line in the middle of service. That was my rude awakening that working in Denver was not like working in Israel or New York.
Rules of conduct in your kitchen: I'm strict with a lot of things, but, really, the most important thing in my kitchen is caring about what you're making, doing things with intention and, most of all, working as a team to help each other.
Favorite music to cook by: Salsa music is my thing but, for better or worse, I have to share the boombox with everyone else in the kitchen. I like to prep to music, but during service I like silence. I like to focus on the food, tickets and servers without any distractions, especially the ones of the radio; the background noise of talking and advertisements drives me up the wall.
What's your favorite knife? A sharp one. I'm kind of little, so going anything past eight inches is a little more than I can handle...
Favorite dish to cook at home: Shakshuka. It's sort of the unofficial national breakfast dish of Israel. It's eggs that are actually cooked in a tomato sauce of garlic, peppers and spices. I serve it with an Israeli salad.
Favorite dish on your menu: Our fresh hummus. It's topped with green tahini, nice olive oil and smoked pimentón, and we serve it with fresh veggies, pickles and our pizza Bianca bread fired in our wood-burning oven.
If you could put any dish on your menu, even though it might not sell, what would it be? Baba ghanoush topped with pomegranate seeds, fresh mint and toasted pine nuts. I'd also love to add moussaka -- smoked eggplant with braised lamb and bechamel sauce. It's unreal.
You're making a pizza. What's on it? It would be my favorite pizza at Udi's Arvada: bechamel, Parmigiano-Reggiano, Taleggio cheese, roasted cauliflower, green olives, breadcrumbs, parsley and truffle oil. But, really, the most important thing about pizza is the dough, and Maurizio Negrini, our head baker, worked on our dough for over a year before we opened the Arvada location. The pizza crust is the key: We ferment our dough for 36 hours to achieve the perfect flavor and texture, and we bake our pizzas in handcrafted Italian ovens with stone bottoms so we can get a great crust with deep caramelization.
You're at the market. What do you buy two of? Avocados. I eat something with avocado every day. They're creamy, sweet and rich, and they complement so many other foods.
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Guiltiest food pleasure? French fries -- good French fries. They must be perfectly cooked, hand-cut in-house, blanched so that they're like mashed potatoes inside, fried till they're bronzed and the sugars in the potato are caramelized and crispy, and then, of course, they must be salted.
What's next for you? In less than a month, we're opening a quick-casual Middle Eastern restaurant called Pickled Lemon, on the Hill in Boulder. It's a new concept for Udi's, and I'm very excited. I've been dreaming about doing Middle Eastern food forever. It's my food of choice.