Cafe Society

Part two: Chef and Tell with Sean Yontz of Mezcal, Sketch and Tambien

This is part two of Lori Midson's interview with Sean Yontz, executive chef of Mezcal, Tambien and Sketch. You can read part one here.

Culinary inspirations: Ferran Adrià, the chef at El Bulli, because of the way he's completely changed people's perception of Spanish food; Thomas Keller, because of his dedication to food and service; and Jean-Georges Vongerichten, who melds together so many types of cuisines and whose food is just awesome, no matter which restaurant of his you're eating in. My mom and my grandmother were huge influences, too, because they taught me how to cook and appreciate food at a really young age, and my brother, Cy, really keeps me on my toes. He's the executive chef at the Rio Grill in Carmel, and he's always one step ahead of me -- always pushing me to try harder.

Best food city in America: New York. Not only are the industry people passionate about food, but the diners are passionate, too. There's a lot of mutual respect between the industry side and the diner side. Diners in New York respect restaurants and how hard the chefs, waitstaff, cooks and dishwashers all work -- and the industry respects the diner. I think customers tend to support restaurants a little more in New York than anywhere else, and the restaurant talent in New York beats every other city, hands down.

Favorite New York restaurant: It's almost impossible to pick just one. Beyond the typical favorites -- Per Se, Masa Grill, Jean Georges and Daniel -- there's a small Mexican joint in the East Village called La Palapa Cucina Mexicana that I love. The kitchen does everything -- tortillas, Mexican cheeses and chorizo -- from scratch. La Esquina is another rad tequila bar for late-night Mexican food, and, of course Momofuku is great for steamed buns.

What you'd like to see more of in Denver from a culinary standpoint: There are some amazing chefs here, and I think we're headed in the right direction. All of us just need to keep working hard to give diners something to be proud of. I've been cooking in this town for 25 years, and I'm very proud to be part of the culinary community.

What you'd like to see less of in Denver from a culinary standpoint: I think we have enough steakhouses. Don't get me wrong: I'm a huge fan, but enough is enough. Let's try and support more independent kitchens that are working their asses off to put some great dishes out there.

After-work hangout: It's sad to say, but I usually hang out at my own places. You can't really beat tacos, ice-cold Carta Blanca and the best tequila selection in the city. But if I go elsewhere, I usually head over to the Highland Tavern. It's a solid neighborhood hangout, and they just opened up their kitchen; the food is very good.

Favorite music to cook by: Fu Manchu, a California stoner rock band, heavily influenced by the surf scene in Southern California.

Favorite cookbook: White Heat, by Marco Pierre White. It came out when I was about eighteen years old and he was just 26 -- the youngest chef to ever receive three Michelin stars. The attitude, the recipes, the photos -- they all killed it.

What show would you pitch to the Food Network? How about if they send me to Japan, Thailand, India, Spain, Brazil, Argentina and Peru for awhile? Then I can come back and they can do a show about it. It'd be all about my adventures and escapades eating all sorts of crazy and exotic foods in all sorts of weird and wonderful places.

You're making a pizza. What's on it? Cheese and button mushrooms. I love button mushrooms on pizza.

You're making an omelet. What's in it? I don't eat omelets. I eat huevos con chorizo.

Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: Durian fruit in Southeast Asia and crickets in Oaxaca.

Hardest lesson you've learned: When I opened my first restaurant, Vega, I remember sitting in the kitchen by myself thinking, "Okay, all my life I've been waiting for this moment -- my own restaurant, nobody to tell me what to do, how to cook, who I can hire, what to buy, what not to buy. I can't fuck this up. It's do-or-die time." So what happens? I fucked it up. I learned that running a restaurant is a lot more than just cooking the food you want to cook. It's a business, and first and foremost is pleasing the customers, not yourself.