This is part one of my interview with Noah Stephens, exec chef/owner of Vert Kitchen. Part two of my chat with Stephens will run tomorrow.
It's the Friday before a long Fourth of July weekend, and Noah Stephens, Vert Kitchen's owner and chef, is scrubbing the kitchen clean, one of his last missions before heading out of town to frolic on an exotic beach. Travel is in his blood -- and it was during an extended trip to Europe that Stephens decided to become a professional chef. "I never worked in restaurants before college, but I loved cooking, and I was doing a degree in art history, so I spent a lot of time in Europe, and that's where I started to experience really good food and realized that I wanted to be a chef," remembers Stephens, who grew up on a farm in Minnesota and spent his spare time making popovers and cookies and catching episodes of The Frugal Gourmet and Yan Can Cook.
He traipsed through England, Spain, Italy, Germany and Eastern Europe, eating at restaurant after restaurant, before returning to Denver, where he graduated from the University of Denver -- and then nabbed his first job as a private chef. "I was really lucky to have found a family willing to take a chance on me, and they encouraged me to pursue cooking, suggesting that I should go to culinary school," says Stephens. He researched cooking schools in two hotbed cities -- New York and San Francisco -- but he eventually decided on Paris and the École Supérieure de Cuisine Française, a small bilingual school with only 22 students. "I wanted to learn the classic French techniques of cooking -- of working with butter and cream. It was an amazing experience that started with knife skills, and by the last day, we were doing sous-vide," recalls Stephens.
Confident in the culinary classroom, Stephens snapped up an internship in a tiny, sixteen-seat, market-driven French restaurant commanded by an unyielding chef who did things his way. "He did a four-course menu every night, there was only one seating, and you got what you got -- there were no substitutions," says Stephens, adding that he learned "more than I ever thought I could about flavor profiles, textures and temperatures."
Stephens ate up everything he could, then moved back to Minnesota, where he got a cooking gig on the opening team for a splashy hotel restaurant -- a stint that he quit after the first day. "I was working fourteen-hour days, and the lifestyle was way too crazy for me," he admits. "I didn't want to be at work at 2 a.m."
As luck would have it, his sister, who was living in Denver, had just gutted a building in West Washington Park, where she planned to open a nutritional training center. But when her husband's job was transferred, she offered the space to Stephens, who didn't waste any time making his way back to Denver and opening Vert Kitchen. "I've put my heart and soul into this place, and the focus is really on the food," he says. "I've spent a lot of time coming up with the menu and working on the recipes, tweaking them along the way, and my sandwiches have all been influenced by all the places that I've traveled."
In the following interview, Stephens jokes about the cursed knife that almost killed him, confesses that he's one of Lady Gaga's "little monsters," and talks about his current obsession with mole verde.
Six words to describe your food: Delicious, healthy, classic, fresh, clean and comforting.
Ten words to describe you: Humble, daring, witty, adventurous, shy, creative, artistic, caring and fabulous.
Favorite ingredient: Garlic and onions. For me, they're the basis of so many dishes. While I was growing up, my dad always said that everything good has garlic and onions. I use them in almost everything I make to build flavor; they're so versatile, and you can find them in every type of cuisine around the world.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: Grant Family Farm eggs. The yolks are such a vibrant yellow-orange, and the cartons are filled with a rainbow of colors: blue, grey, white, green, tan. It's such a nice surprise to open the box, because they're so fresh. The eggs make the best omelets and go perfectly in a Niçoise salad. Apparently their hens live on old schoolbuses and are driven around the farm to help fertilize.
Favorite spice: Ground coriander. I love the depth of flavor and subtle tang it adds to dishes, and I use it in so many ways: to flavor soups, vinaigrettes, or even sprinkled on croutons. It's also a natural detoxifier.
Best recent food find: The fried shrimp paste at Saigon Bowl, in the Far East Center on Federal and Alameda. I love the appetizer platter, where you get to build your own spring rolls. It's so good and so affordable that I eat there at least once a week.
Most overrated ingredient: Overrated? I'm going with overused. It's got to be bacon. I love bacon and I use it all the time, but I'm talking about the overuse of bacon -- bacon pancakes, tempura bacon, bacon mac and cheese, bacon cupcakes, bacon-fried-bacon, bacon mashed potatoes, bacon this, bacon that...and now people with bacon tattoos. Adding bacon to everything doesn't necessarily elevate a dish or make it better. I just like bacon in its pure form: in a BLT!
Most underrated ingredient: Fresh ground pepper. It's on just about everything, but you never really notice it -- but you can always tell when it's missing.
One food you detest: I've never liked pressed deli turkey; it's slimy and just looks off. I recently watched a TV show that showed how it was made, which only reaffirms my feelings about it. Did you know that the color that makes it look "roasted" is sprayed on before it's packaged? At Vert, we roast real turkey breasts with lemons, thyme and garlic to make our most popular sandwich. If you get in early enough, it's usually still warm from the oven; for me, that's the best.
One food you can't live without: Cheese. I love it all. I couldn't imagine a world without cheese. Right now, I'm obsessed with Époisses, a soft-washed rind that smells awful but tastes delicious.
Favorite dish on your menu: I love everything on the menu, but if I had to pick just one thing, it would be the l'entrecôte sandwich with grilled marinated skirt steak, housemade walnut mustard, fresh arugula and oven-roasted tomatoes with just a touch of aioli and our house Champagne vinaigrette on a fresh baguette. It always brings me right back to Paris.
If you could put any dish on your menu, even though it might not sell, what would it be? A sandwich with kippers and Cotswold cheese. Kippers are smoked herring and Cotswold is a chive-and-cheddar cheese from England. I grew up eating kippers on crackers while fishing in northern Minnesota. It's a combination that would probably frighten most people, but I really love it.
Favorite dish to cook at home: I rarely ever cook the same thing twice at home. It's my real test kitchen -- the place where I get the most honest feedback. Most recently, I've been making mole verde and putting it with everything. I made a seared halibut topped with peaches, green garbanzos, lima beans, sweet corn and mole verde, which was fantastic.
Favorite music to cook by: Right now it's Lady Gaga. My sous chef, Chris, and I put it on in the morning to get the day started -- we're little monsters. I'll switch it over to something a little bit mellower for the customers -- something like Pinback or Mumford & Sons.
Biggest kitchen disaster: I bought a knife in Tokyo that was cursed. It was a hand-forged carbon steel knife with a wooden handle that cut like a dream, but when I was in the store buying it, the knife maker's apron lit on fire as he was sharpening it for me. When we noticed the flames, we started to scream fire, but we didn't know how to say it in Japanese, and the other shopkeeper pushed the knife-maker into a pool of water. It was funny later on, but really crazy at the time. There was more screaming in Japanese than on Iron Chef. The day before I opened Vert, the knife struck again. It cut me twice -- badly -- and practically removed the tip of my finger. I decided to leave it alone for a while, but when I was doing the dishes, it happened again. I threw it in the trash, convinced it was cursed, and then, as I took the trash out that night, the knife came shooting out of the bag and almost stabbed my toe. I was scared for the garbageman. I still have another knife from that same store, but I'm too afraid to use it.
What's never in your kitchen? A microwave. I won't use them.
What's always in your kitchen? Great ingredients. I'm always looking for the best and greatest ingredients out there. When you combine top-notch ingredients and great recipes, you can't go wrong.
Rules of conduct in your kitchen: I run a well-organized kitchen, and everyone knows their role and what needs to get done and how best to do it -- and I'm lucky to have a great crew. We cook everything from scratch every morning, and even though there are only three of us in the kitchen, we make it work. My two biggest rules are cook clean and stay organized; it's so important to know exactly how you're going to lay out your prep work for the day. Our motto to staying organized is "everything in its place, and a place for everything." We also do our best to improve on every aspect of how the kitchen is run. Things should always be getting better -- better-tasting, better-looking and better ingredients. I think a restaurant begins to fail when it becomes too complacent and the focus is no longer on trying to consistently improve. Also -- and this may seem obvious -- you have to taste everything while you're cooking. It's just another way we can learn how to tweak recipes. Make everything with love and make it look beautiful, because we first eat with our eyes.
What's the best food- or kitchen-related gift you've been given? My sister gave me a molcajete from Mexico. I love it for making salsas and guacamole.
Best culinary tip for a home cook: Make it your own and don't worry about recipes or finding every ingredient on the list. You can change and twist it for your own palate. I think people are too nervous about cooking and too prone to copying recipes. How are you going to know which flavors you like if you keep trying to copy someone else's recipe?
What's your favorite knife? My paring knife from Paris. It's always sharp, and it's great for tiny jobs.
Weirdest customer request: I haven't really had a weird customer request -- yet -- but I'm sure it will happen now that I'm starting to think about it.
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Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: Chicken hearts. I'm really not a fan.
Last meal before you die: Far from my mind.