This is part one of my interview with Steve Redzikowski, exec chef of Acorn and Oak at Fourteenth; part two of my one-on-one with Redzikowski will run tomorrow.
Steve Redzikowski grew up on Long Island, the middle son of an Italian matriarch whose cooking was indicative of her heritage. "We had pasta and red sauce every single night. Some nights, you'd get the eggplant Parm, and on some days, you'd get manicotti, but whatever it was that she made, it was always with red sauce," remembers Redzikowski, who admits that he never contemplated a career in the kitchen until long after his first job cooking in one. "I worked at a diner, cleaning the place after school, and then I got a job at another diner making toast and pulling plates, and then I got a job at a pizza joint -- but they were all just that: jobs, and the only reason I did any of them was to make some cash," says Redzikowski. Cooking was just a means to an end.
See also: First look: Acorn opens in the Source
Still, the more time he spent entrenched in kitchens, the more he pondered what it was, exactly, that he wanted to do, and figuring he'd already logged several years behind the line, he began researching culinary schools -- and then took the plunge, enrolling at Schenectady County Community College in upstate New York. "I don't recommend culinary school -- at least not that one," warns Redzikowski. "My advice is to just get your butt into the back door of a restaurant and work for free. True, you're not making money, but you're not wasting money on a useless education, either, and, really, why would you pay someone for something that you can learn for free in a real-life situation?"
As it turns out, Redzikowski heeded his own advice, using his free time away from the classroom to pound on the back door of Le Cirque, at the time the pinnacle of the New York dining scene. "I remember being at a Walden bookstore and researching which New York restaurants were the best, and while I was doing that, I came across Le Cirque, as well as Jean-Georges Vongerichten's first cookbook, and I was like, 'Oh, my God, these are killer restaurants. I want to work there,'" he says.
And he did. First at Le Cirque, the "most magical kitchen I've ever seen," even putting "Disneyland to shame," he says. "It was a superstar-loaded kitchen." And when he landed a full-time gig on the line, following a few months of peeling vegetables for no compensation, he marched back to his culinary-school instructor and promptly turned in his textbooks. But his instructor, justifiably impressed by his pupil's good fortune, offered him an internship instead, telling Redzikowski that if he kept a journal of his experiences, he'd graduate. And it was during his stint at Le Cirque that Redzikowski came to the realization that what he wanted to do was cook. In eight months, he became the restaurant's saucier at the age of eighteen, and his chef, a German, took notice of the young wunderkind. After Redzikowski had been there a year, he encouraged him to spread his culinary wings. "He said that I knew the line as well as I was ever going to, and that I needed to go elsewhere to move up," recollects Redzikowski. And that chef made a phone call...to Jean-Georges Vongerichten. Suddenly, Redzikowski was two for two.
"I couldn't believe it," Redzikowski says. "I bought his cookbook -- a cookbook that floored me -- and there I was, cooking in Jean-Georges's kitchen." And he was supremely terrified. "I was so frightened -- I mean, really frightened," he remembers. "It was the most intimidating kitchen I've ever worked in, but I moved up, the chef took a liking to me and taught me a ton, and it was an amazing experience."
But Redzikowski was anxious to move to the West Coast, and a chef, whose name happens to be Thomas Keller, was anxious for Redzikowski to work at the French Laundry. "Believe it or not, Thomas Keller actually left a voice mail on my parents' message machine, and I was, like, what -- doesn't he have people who do this?" asks an even-now-bewildered Redzikowski. He had locked in a stage at the lionized Yountville restaurant, but he secured another stage along his journey: in Aspen, at the Little Nell.
He never thought for a moment that he'd stay. "It was off-season in Aspen, it sucked, and I kept saying that there was no way I was going to kick around that town any longer than I had to," says Redzikowski. But then he met Paul Wade, then-chef at the Little Nell, and Keller was left in the lurch. "I loved Paul, I met some great people, and I think I'd lost some of my warrior mode and was a bit more sentimental, so I stayed in Aspen for a year and a half."
While he was there, he was introduced to master sommelier Richard Betts, who formerly directed the wine program at the Little Nell, and Betts introduced Redzikowski to Bobby Stuckey, who then put him in touch with Lachlan Patterson, with whom Stuckey was just beginning construction on Frasca Food and Wine. Redzikowski was tapped as the opening sous chef, his first management stint and a position he held for two and a half years. He admits, though, that he wanted to "become the best cook I could be before managing people, and I needed to just be a cook again in order to do that."
Stuckey, an alum of the French Laundry, hooked him up for another stage at Keller's restaurant, but again Redzikowski made a detour, stopping at Cyrus, Top Chef Masters winner Douglas Keane's now-closed restaurant in Healdsburg, California. "I did a fourteen-hour stage there, and when I saw Douglas's food, it was kung fu -- it just spoke to me," says Redzikowski, who never made it to the French Laundry. Keane was "an open book in that he showed me his business plans, his financials -- everything he could about opening a restaurant, which is what I'd finally decided I wanted to do," says Redzikowski.
And after a few years at Cyrus, a jaunt to Thailand and another cooking stint at the Little Nell, where he was the exec sous chef for two and a half years, Redzikowski moved to Boulder and opened Oak at Fourteenth with Bryan Dayton, his business partner and beverage manager. "The thing that sold me" -- other than Dayton's charm -- was the fact that the space had a wood-fired oven and grill. "That's what I'd been waiting for," he confesses.
Oak at Fourteenth originally opened in late 2010 and, not long after, erupted in flames. It would be more than a year before it reopened, giving Redzikowski far more time than he'd anticipated to reflect on his future. Recently that future embraced another restaurant, Acorn, which opened in September at the Source. Still, despite the exalted kitchens in which he's cooked, he is all about shifting the praise to his staff. "I have the best crew -- the best teams -- I've ever worked with. They're all studs, they inspire me to become a better cook, and they bust their asses. They're my investment," stresses Redzikowski, who in the following interview reveals what grosses him out, pleads for the retirement of tweezers in the kitchen and wishes that the FedEx man would stop taking all of his money.
What do you enjoy most about your craft? The close connection I have with all my kitchen staff. It's a second family, and while it can drive you crazy, it also motivates me to do better. Being a mentor to a cook is one of the most rewarding feelings in the world.
Describe your approach to cooking: My approach to cooking is easy: Source great ingredients and try not to mess them up. I think about each dish and ask myself, "Is it practical? Is there value? Would I eat this if I were dining out?" The answers to those questions should be "Yes."
What are your ingredient obsessions? I love the tomatoes from Red Wagon Organic Farm, and, for that matter, anything that comes from Red Wagon. I also really love yuzu, because it gives a little kick to dishes, and, of course, herbs: Basil, mint and thyme all add a fresh pop to whatever dish you're making.
Who or what inspires you? My kitchen staffs at Oak and Acorn inspire me. They work so hard and continue to push, and I know I could take these crews with me to New York City and be confident that we could hold our own. My sous chefs, Aaron Quilling, Amos Watts, Matty Collier and Bill Espiricueta, are beasts who continue to push me to work harder. I just try to keep up.
What are your favorite local ingredients and purveyors? Tomatoes from Red Wagon Organic Farm, Uncle Pete's honey from Boulder, and Palisade peaches.
What's one ingredient you won't touch? Egg salad or tuna fish. I get completely grossed out by the smell, taste and texture.
What's the one ingredient you can't live without? Lemons and limes help our dishes shine, plus they bring out the complexity in other ingredients, just like salt.
What food trend would you like to see more of? Family-style dining. In many cultures, sharing is a part of everyday dining, but here in the United States, it's more like, "I will have this and they will have that." I'd never dine with someone who I didn't like, or with someone who wouldn't be willing to share their food with me. Have a little taste of many things on the menu and share.
What food trend would you like to see disappear? Tweezers in the kitchen. People spend way too much time plating stuff, when their first focus should be what the food tastes like. And tweezers are just so finicky. What's wrong with just using regular spoons?
What's your favorite dish on your menu right now? At Oak, it's the roast chicken, which takes some time to master, but the crew has been nailing it lately. Thanks, Sean Smith! At Acorn, I love the market salad of tomatoes and peaches, but it will be gone very soon, so you might have to wait until next summer to get it.
What dish would you love to put on your menu, regardless of how well it would sell? Kobe beef, but I know that guests would gasp at the price for such a small portion.
What's the most noteworthy meal you've ever eaten? I ate at Els Pescadors in Barcelona, Spain, and it put all other seafood to shame. I felt like I'd been thrown into the ocean with a table and chair. I tried to make my own version of a few of the dishes I had there, but the seafood just wasn't the same quality, no matter how much I paid for FedEx. Then again, it was probably just me.
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What specific requests would you ask of Denver diners? I have no request of you; you come to see us and you make the requests. Wait! I do have one request: Stop Yelping. I will always make the time for any guest with constructive criticism.