This is part one of my interview with Nate Booth, exec chef of the Rio, Boulder; part two of our chat will run tomorrow.
It's a question that just about everyone has asked: What's in those potent margaritas? According to Nate Booth, executive chef of the Rio Grande Mexican Restaurant in Boulder, it's "love." That, and three and a half shots of Jose Cuervo, triple sec and jugged margarita mix, the contents of which are fiercely guarded. But while Booth admits that the Rio is renowned for its mind-altering margaritas -- limit three -- he thinks the food menu deserves the same recognition. "We've significantly upped the quality of our ingredients, and we have a scratch kitchen, where everything we do is made in-house," says Booth, adding that the Rio's homage to homestyle Tex-Mex "reminds me a lot of the Mexican restaurants that I grew up with in Texas. It's the same kind of Tex-Mex food I loved at home."
"Food has always been a huge part of my life, and my mom was unbelievably good with pastry," adds Booth, who began his own cooking career after moving to Monte Vista, a small Colorado town in the San Luis Valley. "My first job was as a prep cook at a burger-and-beer joint, and while it was just burgers, I loved it, and that's where I really started to enjoy playing with food," he says. He stayed there through high school, eventually moving to New Orleans after a friend of his blindly pointed to the Big Easy on a map. "We were all drinking beers and trying to figure out what to do next, so one of my buddies put a blindfold on with a map in front of us, and his finger landed on New Orleans, so four months later, we picked up and left," recalls Booth, who secured a position at a small, influential French bistro. "I knew I loved cooking long before I got here, but once I got behind the line of an open kitchen, I realized that I wanted to cook for the rest of my life -- that I really enjoyed making people happy," he says.
But while his stint at the bistro cemented his career path, he wasn't quite as enamored of New Orleans. "I was there for a year, and by that time, it was time to go. We were all partying a lot, and while New Orleans is a great town to visit, it's not a great place to live," admits Booth, who then moved to Denver, where he landed a lead line-cook job at the former Wolfgang Puck Grand Cafe in the Denver Pavilions. Puck, a celebrity chef, visited the kitchen twice, and it wasn't to mentor his cooks. "He'd come on the line and yell at the kitchen crew, and then we'd never see him again until he came back the next time and yelled again, which sucked, because we were young and excited to see him," says Booth, who packed his knives and headed back to Texas, where he got a gig with Truluck's, a seafood-and-steak restaurant, graduating from grill guy to sous-chef to executive chef, then opening locations throughout Texas and in San Diego.
And he would have remained in San Diego, he admits, were it not for a now-ex-wife from Texas. "You can take the girl out of Texas, but you can't take Texas out of the girl," he jokes. But Booth had no desire to return to the Lone Star State, so they compromised and headed back to Denver, where Booth was quickly hired as the sous-chef at Shanahan's. He left after five months to open Fleur Bistro, which closed not long after it opened, then spent some time as a chef consultant in Durango before joining the Rio earlier this year. "I had to go through five, maybe six interviews before I got the job, but it was completely worth it," says Booth, who in the following interview admonishes lazy-ass cooks, admits that sous-chefs are the real heroes of the kitchen, and confesses that he's still searching for the courage to open his worm salt.
What do you enjoy most about your craft? First and foremost, I enjoy creating a great experience for everyone I come into contact with: customers, purveyors, employees and the community. I also enjoy the variety that each new day brings; every day is different from the last. And, of course, nothing surpasses the feeling of a Friday-night rush; the controlled chaos is my adrenaline fix.
Describe your approach to cooking: I have a simple approach to cooking: Use quality ingredients and great technique. Anyone can put fourteen different ingredients on a plate, but if the ingredients aren't high-quality and there's a lack of knowledge and skill set when it comes to those ingredients, your plate will never add up to anything.
What are your ingredient obsessions? Good salt, from all ends of the earth. I have a deep appreciation for the versatility and dynamics that salt possesses, and I've recently started playing with finishing salts to explore their potential. Right now, my favorite salt to play with is Salish alderwood smoked sea salt, a 100 percent all-natural salt from the Pacific Coast. It can really warm up and brighten a dish, especially now that we're venturing into colder months. I recently made a cioppino using that salt, and it complemented it really well. One salt that I haven't touched yet -- it's still sitting in my cabinet -- is sal de gusano, or Oaxacan worm salt. It's made with crushed, dried caterpillars and fleur de sel, but I haven't been brave enough to open it up yet.
What are your kitchen-gadget obsessions? My knives. I've put a lot of time and effort into finding "my" knife, and I've put many hours of love into the care of my tools. I never committed to a knife brand, though. I believe I've found the right knife for the right job regardless of label. Oh, and who doesn't love a good Vitamix?
Favorite local ingredients and purveyors: I'm from the San Luis Valley, so I might be a little biased, but the Alamosa striped bass are terrific, and they're raised by a great family-owned company.
One ingredient you won't touch: That's a tough one, because I'll try anything at least once, and I haven't really come across anything that was just horrible, but I guess if I had to choose, I'd say heavily processed foods.
One ingredient you can't live without: Salt and eggs -- lots and lots of eggs. I have a five-year-old son who'll eat a dozen eggs a day if you let him. But my appreciation for the egg goes far beyond trying to keep my son's belly full. I love all the different ways you can use eggs, coupled with the power punch of nutrition you receive from something so small and delicate. We're going hen shopping soon.
Favorite dish on your menu right now: Pork tacos, baby! There's a lot of love in those tacos. They spend a ton of hours braising, and then we crown them with poblano peppers, cabbage slaw and grilled pineapple-and-Granny Smith-apple tampico.
What dish would you love to put on your menu, regardless of how well it would sell? Posole. We have an amazing green chile at the Rio, but with winter upon us, I'd love to add a hearty posole to the menu. A Big Tex margarita with a hot bowl of posole and a few of our scratch-made tortillas -- that's a perfect lunch on a cold day.
Weirdest thing you've ever put in your mouth: I remember going to my grandfather's house when they were weaning and castrating piglets, and while I really don't mind the flavor now, seeing the pigs being castrated followed by the "meat" going straight from the pig to the skillet on the campfire was just a little too much for me at the ripe old age of five. And ever since then, I can't eat them.
Food trend you'd like to see more of: I really enjoy all of the new and different choices that we all have when it comes to dining in Denver and the surrounding areas, but the trend I'm most supportive of is all the high-quality yet approachable eateries that are on the rise. You no longer have to rely on stuffy restaurants to get a meal that someone's put a lot of thought and care into. I love how you can go to so many locally owned small eateries and find really great food.
Food trend you'd like to see disappear: I think there's a time and place for everything. The greatest part about food is that nobody can tell you what you do or don't like. Your taste is all your own.
Most noteworthy meal you've ever eaten: There's a small restaurant in Durango called Seasons, where my best friend, Neal Drysdale, is the chef, and during a recent wine-tasting dinner there, every single course was spot-on; the entire meal, from start to finish, was just incredible. From the house charcuterie plate to the cassoulet, to the finishing touch on the dessert made by his amazing pastry chef, Jen, the whole experience was just surreal.
Most underrated Denver restaurant: Three years ago or so, there was a restaurant in the Beauvallon called Se7en, which had the best curry and scallion pancakes. It was an amazing place, though never busy -- hence the underrated part -- and I'm sad that it's not there anymore. My family and I loved this place and have missed it dearly since it closed.
Who's the most underrated chef in Denver? The hardworking, no-breaks-given, no-weekends-off, no-holidays-off, no-time-for-a-family-or-life, sixty-plus-hours-a-week guys -- the sous-chefs, the backbone of most kitchens. These are the guys that make sure the kitchen is rocking.
What specific requests would you ask of Denver diners? Have fun. I mean, you're going out, and you're probably with a close friend or your family, so let yourself have a good time, and go in without any preconceived notions; just let the kitchen stress and worry -- that's our job, so just sit back and enjoy the show.
What do you expect from a restaurant critic? I've worked at so many places where people pretty much stop and only focus on the critic's table, and I don't think that's a true showing of the food, service or overall experience. I don't think restaurants get better this way, and the Rio, which uses frequent secret shoppers, truly cares about its guests, and we want to know if something is wrong so we can fix it as soon as possible. I always hope that mistakes never happen, but no one is perfect. What I really want from a critic is for them to come in and expect to be treated just like any other guest.
Your biggest pet peeves: Laziness and a bad attitude. That crap is for the birds, and I don't have time for it. If you don't want to be here, or you're looking for a relaxed station, you can walk right back out the door you came in, period. We all work way too hard in the kitchen to put up with negativity or laziness.
Your best traits: I love what I do, and I think that joy spreads through the kitchen. When we're fifty tickets deep and the printer has a string of tickets hitting the floor, I have the ability to keep everyone's head up and motivated. I strongly believe that the kitchen has to be high-energy and high-intensity from start to finish.
Your worst traits: I expect a lot out of my guys, and when I don't get it, I lose patience. But then again, if I've said it more than twice, you'd better get it right.
What's in the pipeline? To keep doing my best for the Rio and to make this company even better than it is now -- and being a great dad to my amazing boy, Truitt.