This is part two of Lori Midson's interview with Brad Birky, chef/owner of the SAME Cafe. To read part one of this interview, click here.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef: Starting SAME Cafe with really no kitchen experience to speak of. True, I managed to get some culinary classes under my belt prior to opening, but the only restaurant work I had done before opening the cafe was flipping burgers at a Dairy Queen in an Illinois farm town during high school -- and I don't think that counts as experience. The fact that we've been open for almost four years and have managed to be successful with such a crazy business model is definitely my greatest accomplishment as a chef.
Rules of conduct in your kitchen: Listen to the boss, who isn't me, but my wife, Libby; keep a clean workspace; and leave with all of your appendages intact. Favorite restaurant in America: My favorite restaurant, Northside, no longer exists. It was my grandma's place near my home town of Tremont, Illinois, and even though she isn't with us anymore, I can still remember being in her restaurant. The little smoky bar would serve up fried chicken and onion rings made from scratch. Watching my uncle prepare her food probably planted the seed for my love of the restaurant world, and having a mom who could cook up just about anything really motivated me. My mom is an excellent cook, and I'm sure she got some of her skills from my grandmother.
Best food city in America: San Francisco/Bay Area. My wife and I bounced around San Francisco, and the incredibly fresh seafood and availability of locally grown produce made it so hard to decide where to eat. Even small burrito joints serve up incredible food thanks to the long growing season, and the range of dishes, from the super-simple to the extravagant, makes San Francisco a city that has it all. We were blown away by everywhere we ate, especially Thomas Keller's Bouchon Bistro in Yountville.
Favorite music to cook by: Classic rock, especially Rush or Led Zeppelin. I haven't really grown up. My wife thinks I'm trapped in 1984, but I say you're only trapped if you see yourself wanting to get out. My music tastes are right where they should be.
What's the best food- or kitchen-related gift you've been given? A thirty-quart mixer that was donated to us about a month ago. We call her Queen Elizabeth; she stands eight feet tall and dwarfs everything else in her kitchen. Naturally, we then had to name our original twenty-quart mixer, who we now call the Duke of Earl. Favorite dish to cook at home: Anything on the grill, especially pork. I was raised in central Illinois farm country, where pork is king. You can't go wrong with a nice, thick bone-in pork chop.
Favorite dish on your menu: Chicken and chorizo tortilla soup. The spice from the chorizo, balanced by the acid of lime juice and sweetness of roasted corn, is fan-freakin'-tastic.
If you could put any dish on your menu, even though it might not sell, what would it be? The great thing about our concept is that our menu changes daily, which gives us tons of flexibility when it comes to what we serve. We can put a risky item on the menu for a day, and if it doesn't go over well, then we just don't put it back on again. I've always loved cooking breakfast foods and would love to add those to our lineup, but I'm not willing to get up at 5 a.m.
What show would you pitch to the Food Network, and what would it be about? Local-Seasonal. I'd travel around the world working with local growers and make simple, tasty dishes from their seasonal produce, the goal being to teach people how to cook with seasonal ingredients -- specifically the ingredients found in their own background or region.
Current Denver culinary genius: Jean-Philippe Failyau, the owner and executive chef of Park Burger and part owner of Osteria Marco on Larimer Square. He has great experience in the industry, and I love his philosophy that better ingredients equal better food. I live by this creed, and my wife loves Park Burger's housemade veggie burger so much that we stop in there often. He's cooking up something new for Denver, and I'm excited to see what he has in store.
You're making a hamburger. What's on it? I dread this question, because I love burgers and the various combinations of ingredients on them. My go-to burger has bacon, smoked cheddar and spicy barbecue sauce, but there are millions of combinations I'd be happy to eat any day -- some days twice.
Guiltiest food pleasure? Cheese on anything, especially french fries. Give me a bowl of fries smothered with cheese sauce -- doesn't matter with the cheese is -- and I'm one happy boy. Better yet, take me to Steuben's and give me an order of their gravy fries, along with a cold beer.
You're at the market. What do you buy two of? Cheese. I especially love anything produced by Haystack Mountain.
Weirdest customer request: For about a week straight, early on when we opened, I had an elderly lady come in with her walker and set two dollars on the counter. She'd announce that she wanted a fried egg on bread, and I'd have to repeat about a hundred times that we're an organic soup, salad and pizza joint that doesn't serve egg sandwiches. Every day when she approached the door, I tried a new tactic. I don't know how I finally got through to her, but she eventually stopped coming by. As hard as I tried, she wouldn't take any of the other food I had made. She was adamant about the egg sandwich -- with one egg.
Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: Fried chicken gizzards or rattlesnake.
Best culinary tip for a home cook: Keep it simple -- use fresh ingredients and let them speak for themselves.
If you could cook for one famous chef, dead or alive, who would it be? It would be awesome to cook for Julia Child. She brought classic techniques into American home kitchens and taught people to enjoy "real" food. Plus, it would be great to hear her laugh in person.
Favorite Denver restaurant(s) other than your own: We love going to Steuben's for their comfort foods made with natural ingredients. If we're looking for more of a date night, then we'll head to Deluxe, sit at the kitchen counter and enjoy the show.
Favorite celebrity chef: Rick Bayless is a down-to-earth chef, and I like his respect for the Mexican culture that he loves. He's passionate about the food he cooks, and that passion shines through.
Celebrity chef that should shut up: Rachael Ray. I hate the way she talks with her hands. I might be able to stand her if someone tied her hands behind her back.
What's your favorite knife? I almost hate to admit it, but I've become a Japanese Santoku convert. My favorite is the seven-inch Shun because it holds its edge and can fly through a ton of prep work.