This is part one of my interview with Kevin Morrison, exec chef-owner of Pinche Taqueria; part two of our conversation will run tomorrow.
"Just shut the fuck up and give me the taco." That was the order Kevin Morrison received years ago, when he was making street tacos for friends at his house in Golden. "We were doing shots of tequila, and I was making beef-cheek tacos, describing in detail how I braised it with fresh tomatillos, onions, garlic and cilantro, and as I was eloquently illustrating the details of what I was making," he recalls, "someone told me to shut the fuck up and just let him eat." And that, says Morrison, is how Pinche Tacos got its name. "I'm a Scottish guy from Indiana. What the hell do I know about tacos?"
Quite a lot, it appears, considering that Bon Appétit restaurant editor Andrew Knowlton named Morrison's taqueria off Colfax Avenue, which opened last year following the success of his roving taco wagon of the same name, one of the Top 50 New Restaurants in America. Westword also named it the Best New Restaurant of 2012.
"I'm a big believer in signs," says Morrison, "and I remember picking up a paper and seeing stories about tacos, turning on the Food Network and watching shows about tacos, and I started recalling trips to Mexico and everything I ate, and then I knew I wanted to do authentic Mexican food with a modern twist."
Morrison, who's 48, has been cooking for the majority of his life, starting at fifteen, when he got his first gig at a pizza joint in Indiana. "I always knew I wanted to work in restaurants," he says. "I still have memories of being ten and standing in front of the open kitchen at a pizza restaurant and just watching everything that was going on. I was incredibly intrigued by kitchens."
And he'd go on to cook in several galleys, in Indiana, Chicago, Aspen and Denver. He admits that he tried the college thing, at the insistence of his parents, but after a semester at Indiana State, he was done. "I felt like I'd learned enough to move on," quips Morrison. "Don't get me wrong: I had a great time there -- on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. That's when I really excelled in college."
He went to culinary school, too, at Joliet Junior College in Chicago, but he skipped out early. "I figured I'd learned enough to move on -- again," he says, noting that he'd also fallen hard for a girl who was attending college in Indiana. "I dropped everything, got in my car and moved to Bloomington," he recalls. He later married (and subsequently divorced) the girl, but tossing culinary school didn't exactly damage his career path.
Morrison cooked in several illustrious kitchens in Chicago, including Coco Pazzo and Vinci, before moving to Aspen for a played-up stint that resulted in disappointment. "My job in Chicago was super-high-stress, and I was offered the head-chef job at a restaurant in Aspen that sounded amazing," he says. "The owners flew me out to Aspen before I started, wining and dining me and taking me skiing, and then after three months of interviews, I finally got to Aspen to start the job, and the manager handed me the menu that I'd done and it looked like the red pen had blown up." In essence, he explains, "they wanted a Number 10-can chef, a guy who would open cans all day and do Americanized cheap Italian food." He stayed for less than six months, departing to cook alongside alums from the French Laundry, Charlie Trotter's and the Little Nell in the cafeteria on Aspen Mountain.
"It was awesome," he says. "I was working with all of this amazing talent, and we had carte blanche to do whatever we wanted." But when ski season ended, so did the job, so Morrison packed up and headed to Denver, where he was hired as a sous chef at Barolo Grill. He left to start his own produce company, sold it and then hooked up with a former colleague to open the state's first Spicy Pickle. "I'd always wanted to own a sandwich shop, and in the three years I was there, we opened three and franchised another 37," he remembers. And then he got the boot. "I was fired, so I assumed I should leave," deadpans Morrison. "And by then, I'd learned enough to move on...."
By that point, he'd also wrapped his head around tacos, unleashing his taco wagon in the summer of 2010. And next year, he'll add a second brick-and-mortar in Highland. "We're working around the clock to get it open," says Morrison, who in the following interview reveals what happened to the Band-Aid on the night he cooked for Rick Bayless, explains why we deserve better restaurants on the 16th Street Mall and assaults the twenty-minute cocktail.
How do you describe your food? Simple, value-driven and craveable.
Ten words to describe you: Passionate, motivated, flexible (no, really), too understanding, energetic, entrepreneur, fun, adventurous, demanding and laid-back.
What are your ingredient obsessions? Right now it's chiles, especially the Serrano. It's a simple and familiar chile with a well-rounded, crisp, clean flavor.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: Raquelitas tortillas and Superior Farms lamb's tongue. As a chef, you want to make as much as you can in-house, so before we launched the truck, our goal was to make tortillas to order, and while we finally nailed the tortilla, it wasn't cost-effective, but the tortillas from Raquelitas are amazing. As for the lamb's tongue, we partnered with Superior Farms during Harvest Week, and while I knew I wanted to use lamb on the menu, I wasn't sure what cut I wanted. After a brainstorming session, they suggested the tongue, and it was the perfect choice. I love it.
What are your kitchen-tool obsessions? A sharp knife. When we first opened the taqueria, we didn't have a knife service, mostly because we always sharpened our own when we were on the truck, so that's what we were comfortable with. And then when we opened the restaurant, our knives were getting destroyed -- the guys are on the line from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. seven days a week. We were so focused on the business that we didn't realize we needed to hire a knife service. Luckily, on his first day of work, my new kitchen manager, Poncho, called a knife-sharpening service. When he told me, it was like WTF? Why didn't I think of that?
One food you detest: Jalapeño peppers reminds me of the person with no personality at a party. Who wants to be around that?
One food you can't live without: As a chef, I love citrus. It makes food pop and balances out most dishes. Mexican or Italian citrus is a great asset.
Best food trend of the year: Gluten-free diets. At first I hated them, but it's taken me out of my comfort zone and pushed me from a culinary standpoint as well as a business standpoint. We get so many requests that we've even added a gluten-free taco to the menu. Who knew that Mexican cuisine was such a great playground for gluten-free ideas? It's opened my eyes to new opportunities as well as a new demographic.
Worst food trend of the year: The twenty-minute cocktail. I love where the industry is going with mixology, but, damn, twenty minutes to make a drink? Just make two in that case.
What's never in your kitchen? Huevones, which is Spanish for lazy people. I can't stand working with lazy people. We've hired kitchen guys with zero experience, but if they prove that they have a great work ethic, we welcome them with open arms.
What's always in your kitchen? Café de olla Mexican coffee. I love coffee, and this stuff blows me away. We always have a pot on the stove.
Craziest night in the kitchen: New Year's Eve 1985. I was working a banquet at a place in Indiana, and the chef suddenly told me to jump on the line at the restaurant. I was in the weeds all night -- I mean deep, deep in the weeds. That wasn't fun.
What's the best food- or kitchen-related gift you've been given? I received a self-published book from the Stanislaus Tomato Company that was written and illustrated as if it were a children's book. It was a story of a hot-dog vendor who purchased the best-quality hot dogs and fresh baked buns he could find, and as he made more money, he purchased more product, and he soon had people lining up to buy his hot dogs. His son graduated from college and wanted to help his father make more money, and his dad figured that the kid must be smart because he graduated from college, so he made him a partner. The son started purchasing lower-quality hot dogs and mass-produced buns at a lower cost, and soon -- no surprise -- the lines disappeared. I gave this book to the franchises at the Spicy Pickle when I was there, and they thought I was crazy. Hmmm.
What's always lurking in your refrigerator? Capers, lemons and delivery leftovers from some Chinese joint. I love delivery.
What's next for you? Pinche Highland. We're looking to open in January and have a full plate right now. We're getting lots of calls with other great opportunities, but I want to be smart, so I developed an advisory board prior to opening Pinche to help me with business decisions, and right now, Pinche Highland is our focus.