This is part one of my interview with Dana Rodriguez, exec chef of Bistro Vendôme. Part two of that interview will run in this space tomorrow.
Last month, three lawyers swaggered into Bistro Vendôme for dinner. One was from Puerto Rico, another hailed from San Francisco, and the third was visiting from Europe. They asked to see the chef. When Dana Rodriguez came out from the kitchen, clad in a black T-shirt and white apron, the men were flummoxed. "Bistro Vendôme is a French restaurant, and they were expecting a French chef -- not a girl in an apron from Mexico," says Rodriguez.
And yet the men couldn't stop heaping accolades on the girl from Mexico, who left that country -- and a not-so-nice ex-husband -- to find a better life in Denver. "Those men -- they told me that it was the best meal they'd ever had, that they could really feel the love in the food," recalls Rodriguez, who never wears a chef's coat. "We should be known for how we cook -- not because of what we wear. Plus, the kitchen is just too damn hot for a chef's jacket."
A single mom with three kids, Rodriguez grew up on a farm in Chihuahua, butchering her own animals and cooking her heart out, learning the culinary ropes from her father, who never missed an opportunity to cook. "My dad did most of the cooking, and on Friday night -- that was family dinner night -- we'd have carne asada, tortillas that we made from scratch, cheese that my mother made, and fresh-baked bread," she remembers. "It was wonderful."
And soon, cooking turned into a concrete pastime for Rodriguez. "I was studying computers in college, but I wanted to do something on the side. I wanted a hobby, and I wanted to cook for my friends and family, so I went to pastry school," she says. And then she stuffed her suitcase and headed for Denver, to escape a souring relationship and be closer to her father's family. Her first job here was doing dish duty at Panzano, which lasted all of a week. "Ben Davis, who was the opening chef of Panzano, thought I could do more, so he started teaching me how to make fresh pastas, and then I worked in the bakery as the assistant pastry chef," remembers Rodriguez. When the head pastry chef got kicked to the pavement, Rodriguez got the job. And after Davis left the line and Jennifer Jasinski took his place, Rodriguez moved up yet again, becoming Jasinski's sous chef. She stayed at Panzano for three years, until Jasinski opened Rioja with Beth Gruitch. (Jasinski and Gruitch later added Bistro Vendȏme and Euclid Hall to their empire.)
"Even when I was working at Panzano, I always had second and third jobs. I worked at Tamayo, Samba Room and Nicoise with Kevin Taylor because I wanted to give my kids opportunities, and I wanted to invest in Rioja," says Rodriguez, who was the sous chef at Rioja for six years before getting a kitchen of her own. "When Matt, the chef at Bistro Vendȏme, left, I wanted the job, so I asked for it," she recalls, adding that it took courage to make the request. "Jennifer used to say to me that if I didn't try, I'd never know what I could accomplish, but I was nervous. Doing this is a big challenge, because while I love French food, I'm still learning all about it." Still, she says, "I was ready to push myself, to create my own food and make my own decisions -- good and bad -- and the fact that Jennifer trusted me made all the difference. If it weren't for her, I wouldn't be here."
In the following interview, Rodriguez reflects on her biggest mistakes, reveals the details of her upcoming foie gras menu, and questions why on earth anyone would want a chef to cook the shit out of a $50 steak.
Six words to describe your food: Simple, flavorful, delicious, approachable, French, fun to eat and affordable.
Ten words to describe you: Loca, the mama, passionate, creative, happy, hardworking, dedicated, ambitious, fun and a bitch.
Favorite ingredient: I love cheese, because it's so versatile and there are so many different flavors, textures and varieties -- too many to ever eat. I'll never stop eating cheese, even if I gain 100 pounds. I'll be a fat, happy person.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: Cheese, and if it's local, that's even better. I love the cheeses from Haystack Farms, Avalanche Dairy and especially Alex Seidel's sheep's-milk cheese from Fruition Farms.
Best recent food find: Old-school charcuteries from old cookbooks. I love to read all about housemade sausages, pâté and rillettes -- they're just so interesting -- and charcuterie encompasses so many techniques and processes: curing meats, emulsifying, smoking, grinding, preservation, air-drying...all different casings. There' s so much to learn and try, and it's really fun wrapping my head around it all.
Most overrated ingredient: Beets. To be honest, I used to love them, but now every restaurant insists on having a beet salad. You see them everywhere, and they pretty much all have the same flavor profiles.
Most underrated ingredient: I love agave nectar. You can use it as a substitute for sugar, and it doesn't change the flavor of your ingredients at all. Plus, it's an all-natural product, and it helps give a great consistency to vinaigrettes. It's also great in margaritas.
Favorite spice: Cilantro or coriander. I use coriander at the restaurant and cilantro to cook at home. The dried fruit of the coriander plant are the seeds, and I love the citrusy flavor you get, especially when they're crushed. It's cool how different the dried seed's flavor is from fresh cilantro or Chinese parsley leaves.
One food you detest: The slimy texture of okra is horrible, and I've never gotten much flavor from the stuff in the many times I've tried it. I know I'm gonna piss a few Southerners off, but I just can't do it. It's weird, though, because I love nopales, and they're slimy, too. It's probably because I grew up around nopales. Maybe if I'd been force-fed okra, I'd like it. Not.
One food you can't live without: Pork. I grew up on a farm in Chihuahua, Mexico, and we always had at least ten horses, thirty cows, ten pigs and too many stinky chickens to count. I always thought the pigs were cute, especially as babies, but that didn't stop me from thinking about how delicious they were to eat. We cooked pork for every meal. If you want something really, really delicious, fry your doughnuts in pig fat. Just saying.
Weirdest customer request: We have a few guests that return the steak tartare and ask us to cook it! They obviously don't know what it is. We also had a guest who asked us to special-order a filet of beef, done very classical chateaubriand. We ordered it just for him, made all this gorgeous garnish -- and then he asked for it well done. I seriously couldn't believe that wanted us to cook the shit out of a $50 steak.
Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: Fried crickets.
Biggest kitchen disaster: It was my first Saturday -- the busiest night of the week -- running the line at Bistro Vendȏme, after I was made the executive chef, and I asked my expo to organize the plates, which are on a high shelf above the pass. I'm a mere five-foot-two, and the shelf is about six feet high, and when I went to reach for a few plates for a pick-up, I noticed that the expo had pushed them over the edge, so they were just teetering there. Then they fell and broke into my steam well. I had to eighty-six all my sauces, and I had just made some awesome things to show off. I also had to eighty-six my two specials that I'd worked so hard on all day. The expo was so nervous; he thought I was going to fire him, and even though I was trying to calm him down, inside I was so pissed and angry that I wanted to kill him. It was my first week, and I didn't want to scare anyone, so I just tried to clean up and move on. It sucked.
What's never in your kitchen? Frozen, pre-packaged and unnatural foods are a big no-no in my kitchen.
What's always in your kitchen? We always -- and I mean always -- have salt on hand. It's in everything, even in my desserts. I also have alcohol in the kitchen -- for cooking, not drinking. Well, maybe when I'm done with my shift...
If you weren't a chef, what would you be? Maybe a food writer. I'd have a good excuse to eat a lot.
What's one thing about you or your restaurant that people would be surprised to know? Bistro Vendȏme is French, and people don't expect a Mexican girl to be the chef in a French restaurant.
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Hardest lesson you've learned: I made some big mistakes years ago at a restaurant when I tried to fight for other people's rights...because they weren't fighting for themselves. Now I know that people need to fight their own battles -- that I can't do it for them. I've learned that I need to fight my own battles, as well. That's real life.
What's next for you? I'd like to open my own little place with my own real housemade comfy food.