This is part one of my interview with Lou Ortiz, executive sous-chef at Los Chingones; part two of our chat will run on Thursday.
I come from a big, very Mexican family," declares Lou Ortiz, who grew up in Newark, the only son in a group of four kids whose mother specialized in Spanish-style cooking. "My mom never made a bad meal, and she never -- not once -- made a dry piece of chicken, and I've always admired that about her," says Ortiz, who's now cooking food reminiscent of his childhood at Los Chingones, where he's the executive sous-chef, working alongside chef-owner Troy Guard.
Still, while Ortiz appreciated his mother's meals, he considered the kitchen little more than a recreational playground: Architecture was his primary passion. "I always wanted to be an architect, because it's the kind of job where you can see the whole vision before it's even completed, and I always thought that was really cool," he says.
But Ortiz -- like a lot of chefs who turn to a cooking career once they've handled a knife -- soon changed direction. For his first job, he found himself in the kitchen of a Red Robin, and while he started at the low end of the totem pole -- as a busser -- by the time he left, he was a server trainer for the front-of-the-house staff, not to mention more than adept at flipping burgers. "I realized that I had a real affinity for service and cooking, and that this was the life I wanted to pursue," he says.
But first he focused on service: in the U.S. Marine Corps. "I remember asking the recruiter at my high school, who was also my assistant lacrosse coach, why he joined the Marines, and he said that he joined because he saw people who had more heart than he did turn it down, and that if he had what it took, that he should join because others won't," he recalls. Those words resonated with Ortiz, who soon learned that only two of the students in his high-school graduation class had signed up for the Marines. "That was enough for me to join," he recalls. "I felt an obligation to offer my services in the military and put my life on the line; I wanted to fight for something I believed in."
Between 2005 and 2008, he was deployed, off and on, to Afghanistan and Iraq, spending his downtime at the Newark base doing what he calls "busy work" -- and planning his next meal. "We all called it 'chow-to-chow-Sunday-to-Sunday,' explains Ortiz, noting that the phrase was indicative of "waiting for the next break so we could eat again." And he realized that food was more than just belly filler. "Food was camaraderie and an opportunity to be social and hospitable, and I really fell in love with the emotional significance that food held for me, and I knew I wanted to cultivate memories for other people," says Ortiz.
Once he'd fulfilled his commitment to serving America, he earned a degree in hotel, restaurant and institutional management at the University of Delaware, spending hundreds of hours in a campus-based pizzeria as part of his degree requirements. He advanced up the ladder quickly, starting as a general manager and then nabbing a promotion as the R&D director of the pizzeria's collection of stores, which stretched to Pennsylvania. But after several years "coming up with new pizzas and salads," he says, he noticed that he had the highest level of culinary expertise of anyone in the company, a lightbulb moment that encouraged him to "get out there and learn more than I knew."
And that meant jumping on the line. "I wanted to be a line cook and work directly under chefs, so I took a pay cut to learn everything I hadn't learned at the pizza place and at college," says Ortiz, who got his wish when he was hired as a chef de partie at a brewery in Delaware that he describes as a "fantastic chef-driven learning kitchen." By the time he left, two years later, he was the chef and manager.
Ortiz chose Denver as his next stop because his fiancée has family here, and when he'd visited the city, he'd fallen in love with the "people, the weather and the culinary-driven climate," he says, adding that Denver is a "more comfortable, breathable New York -- a city that's New York with your feet up." He hit the ground running, securing the sous-chef position at Big Mac & Little Lou's Seafood, a fish shack that opened last winter in Westminster. Soon after, a dinner at TAG, Guard's flagship restaurant in Larimer Square, enticed him to move away from the suburbs to the city -- specifically, one of Guard's restaurants. "A friend gave me a gift card to TAG, and when I had dinner there, it was one of the best experiences I've ever had, and I knew that I wanted to work for Troy," explains Ortiz. "I sought him out specifically to ask for an opportunity, and given my Spanish heritage and how much I love Spanish cuisine, Los Chingones was the perfect restaurant -- and the perfect opportunity."
In the following interview, Ortiz reveals that diners might soon be seeing python tacos on the Los Chingones menu, admits that the worst critics are the quiet types, and predicts that 2014 will usher in a swell of inspired restaurants.
Lori Midson: What do you enjoy most about your craft?
Lou Ortiz: Cooking gives me the opportunity to change lives and create memories. I believe in the power of food and the ability it has to turn a bad day into a good one or round out an amazing celebration. People come to restaurants for special reasons, like meeting an old friend or celebrating a birthday, and they put their trust in us to make those moments special. It's my duty to make it so, and I love what I do for that reason.
What's your approach to cooking? I enjoy making food that's interesting but approachable. I like it when people feel comfortable reading a menu that still makes them want to say, "Cool! Why didn't I think of that?" Innovating the familiar is the easiest way to please, in my opinion.
Ingredient obsessions: I love tomatoes. You find them in every genre of cooking, and they're incredibly versatile. The natural sugars that emerge from a charred tomato create a flavor that's unrivaled, and at Los Chingones, we use tomatoes in nearly all of our dishes. They add texture to several of our housemade salsas, coolness to our pig-ear nachos, and color to our garden guacamole. Whenever you try a savory dish and think that something's missing, adding tomato in some form -- paste, chopped, puréed or roasted -- will often fix it.
Your favorite smell in the kitchen: Walking into a restaurant in the morning and smelling applewood-smoked bacon coming out of the ovens is the best. It's impossible not to eat a piece -- or, more likely, five -- when they're crispy and done. I also love the smell of demi-glace rolling in a pot. Both of those smells are meaty and rich; they create a homey feeling in the kitchen.
Favorite kitchen gadgets: Tongs are an extension of my own arms, and I feel naked on the line without them. Because I've spent so many years in the kitchen, I simply assume that everything is hot during service, so tongs kind of just become my hands. I can do anything with them -- open hot ovens, push a pan to another burner, sauté, flip steaks.... I always have at least one set hooked on my apron -- and, more likely, two or three.
Favorite local ingredients and purveyors: I just recently started working with cactus water, which I love because it imparts an earthy, refreshing flavor. Cactus leaves aren't something that were readily available where I'm from, but at Los Chingones, we're juicing cactus leaves fresh every day and adding the liquid to our ceviche. We've also got a "secret" drink that's not on the menu that's a combo of fresh cactus juice and mezcal, and it's awesome -- earthy and smoky, with a little kick. I also love everything that Seattle Fish Company has and particularly appreciate their attention to fishing sustainability. They're doing an incredible job of educating chefs, and the product quality has always been fantastic.
One ingredient you won't touch: The only food ingredient I won't touch is truffle oil, and only because I'm allergic to it. I know. It sucks.
One ingredient you can't live without: Extra-virgin olive oil is a must, as it's the foundation for just about everything I make. It's such a great ingredient to utilize, and most dishes can be brought up in quality with just a touch. It's a must-have, especially to finish a plate.
Food trend you'd like to see more of: I love the continual growing interest in healthier food. From scratch-made breads, dressings and salsas to eating what's seasonal, local and at the height of freshness, I like leaving the guest feeling great about what they ate once they leave. I really like that more restaurants are opening with menus that cater to a healthier diet. Going out doesn't have to be a cheat, and restaurants are really taking notice of the demands of the public.
Food trend you'd like to see disappear: I've heard that roasted pigeon is going to be one of the hot new dishes of 2014. Can we just end that one before it starts?
What dish would you love to put on your menu, regardless of how well it would sell? Python tacos. It's something chef Guard and I have been talking about, and it may actually happen. I think it would great to have confited python as a protein for a taco to embody the brand of Los Chingones -- plus no one is doing it right now, which makes it even more appealing.
Favorite dish on your menu right now: I'm really proud of the menu at Los Chingones, and I think we have a bunch of standout dishes, but the octopus taco is seriously unbelievable. It combines sweet citrus with spicy pasilla chiles to complement the super-tender, confited octopus. We top it with crisped parsnips for that crispy, soft, sweet and salty combo that can't be beat. I could eat them every day, and usually do.
Most noteworthy meal you've ever eaten: The first time I ate at TAG, I had taco sushi for an appetizer and the Colorado hanger steak as my entree. The plate presentation, harmonious flavors, innovation and environment all came together beautifully to make for a perfect evening. It was my experience that night that made me want to work with Troy. There are truly great meals and experiences coming out of that place every day.
What specific requests would you ask of Denver diners? Be up front and honest about your dining experience; the worst critics are the quiet ones. We work to please our guests, and we want them to leave happy, so when you go to a restaurant, be willing to provide your honest feedback when the server asks how everything is/was. Chefs are always looking to improve and tighten what they do, but in order to do it right, we need to know when there's an issue, and that way, we can trace it back immediately. Letting us know that your food was amazing -- or awful -- helps us to perfect our craft, plus it provides an opportunity for us to remedy any experience you have that isn't up to your standards, or, for that matter, ours.
Would you ever send a dish back if you were dining in a friend's restaurant? Yes, I would. I'd want to know if someone wasn't enjoying their dish at my restaurant, friend or not, so I'd treat him or her that same way. Criticism is meant to be constructive. If you're a strong chef, you take that as an opportunity to improve.
Weirdest thing you've ever put in your mouth: When I was in college, I used to make weird, late-night meals that always ended up covered in ketchup. I'm pretty sure only I would have found them edible at the time. Oh, college. And when I was in the military, we used to eat MREs -- Meals Ready to Eat -- which is like astronaut food. It's all pretty awful, especially breakfast; the eggs looked liked sausage patties. They made McDonald's eggs look like the French Laundry.
What's always lurking in your refrigerator? Fresh vegetables and orange juice. I love them both, and as soon as I run out, I get more.
Last meal before you die: One last home-cooked meal from my mama. A chef can never replicate a meal made with the same care that your mother puts into her own cooking. It's not craft that makes it wonderful; it's love.