This is part one of my interview with Sam McCandless, chef de cuisine at the Squeaky Bean; part two of our conversation will run tomorrow.
When he was a kid, the mere thought of cooking panicked Samuel McCandless. "I was kinda scared to cook when I was young, and I have no idea why, other than that I was intimidated and didn't want to be bad at it," says McCandless, who went on to cook in some of the best restaurants in the country, under some of the best chefs in the country, and is now the chef de cuisine at The Squeaky Bean. The fear dissipated as soon his clogs shuffled into a professional kitchen, which happened to be in a retirement home in Billings, Montana, close to Red Lodge, where he grew up.
"Being around cooks and knives looked like a lot of fun to me, and as soon as I started cooking, I knew that's what I wanted to do with my life, plus I just really loved the speed and intensity," explains McCandless. "I learned pretty quickly on that food made people happy, which makes me happy." And McCandless, who started out as a plate-scraper, worked every station in that kitchen during the three years he was there, an experience that prepared him for much bigger -- and better -- things.
He was offered a stint at a French/Mediterranean restaurant in the same town, cooking alongside a chef who'd trained at Le Bernardin and Bouley, two of New York City's most prestigious restaurants. And while McCandless, who was initially hired as a prep cook, admits that the demands of the new kitchen were far more stringent than those at the retirement home, it didn't take long for him to find his groove. "I sucked to start with -- I was really bad -- but I don't like sucking, so I got good. And I got good fast," he remembers.
Still, there wasn't a whole lot happening in Billings, and McCandless soon moved to Boulder, where he had been accepted by the Cooking School of the Rockies. "It was an instant not-for-me," he recalls. "I didn't like sitting down, and I wanted to be around people who were more experienced than I, as opposed to being around one experienced teacher and twenty inexperienced kids." After just two weeks in culinary school, he tossed his textbooks and began cooking full-time at Q's, where he already had a part-time line-cook gig. "I liked it a lot," says McCandless, "but it was an old kitchen in an old hotel, and while I had no real plans to leave, a friend of mine from culinary school told me about a new restaurant that was opening in Boulder." That restaurant turned out to be Frasca Food and Wine.
Hired as part of Frasca's opening kitchen brigade, McCandless stayed there for just over a year, until he broke his leg. His wallet was broke, too, so he hobbled back to Red Lodge to recuperate at home, and eight months later, after he'd healed, he was offered the chance to open a high-volume restaurant-and-grocery concept in Scottsdale with Brendan Sodikoff, a then-chef/now-restaurateur whom McCandless had met during his tenure at Frasca. When Sodikoff was let go from that position, he headed to Chicago to take a corporate chef job with Lettuce Entertain You -- and McCandless followed, landing in one of the Windy City's top kitchens: L20, a Lettuce Entertain You restaurant whose kitchen was quarterbacked by Laurent Gras, a French chef who catapulted L20 to Michelin three-star status during the time McCandless was cooking in his galley. "I'd always wanted to work with Laurent -- the guy is the best chef I've ever seen by far -- and while he's also the most intense dude I've ever met, I had the opportunity to learn every single savory recipe that he created, and not many people can say they've opened a three-star Michelin restaurant," says McCandless. "That was epic."