This is part two of my interview with Steve Redzikowski, exec chef of Acorn and Oak at Fourteenth; the first part of my one-on-one with Redzikowski ran yesterday.
Most underrated chef in Denver/Boulder: My sous chef at Oak, Bill Espiricueta. This cat reminds me of some of my old cooks in New York City, and you'll be hearing about him sooner rather than later. I can completely lose it with him -- I'm crazy -- and seconds later, he's right back in my ear talking about how he wants to make tweaks to this and that. He doesn't take what I say personally, and he always wants to give 100 percent.
Most underrated restaurant: All of them. This isn't as easy as it looks, and if you have the nuts to open the door, you've got courage.
What skills and attributes do you look for when hiring kitchen staff? I don't give much weight to résumés, but I do want a great attitude and a strong, strong, strong, strong work ethic.
What advice would you give to an aspiring young chef? Put yourself in the toughest kitchens you can find, and work for free, because it'll make you humble and allow you to just focus on food and motivating those around you. And for God's sake, lead by example. Don't be afraid to jump in the dish pit and get a little dirty. If, on the other hand, you're after money, then work at a country club where food isn't the primary focus.
What's the biggest challenge of being a chef? Bringing in great product and having to pay the FedEx guy. Guests don't understand how much money we pay to have all those nice ingredients shipped to us, and because of the high costs, we need to charge a dollar more here and there.
What cookbooks and/or food-related reading material do you draw inspiration from? I draw inspiration from cookbooks like Culinary Artistry, Jean-Georges's original cookbook and Setting the Table, by Danny Meyers.
What recent innovation has most influenced the restaurant industry in a significant way? Something old that's new again: the return of wood-fired cooking. Bon Appétit magazine just released its list of the Ten Best New Restaurants of 2013, and about half of them had wood-fired elements. Go figure.
What's your fantasy splurge? Drop me off in New York City and let me eat and drink. I could spend every dollar I've ever made, and I'd be a fatty in no time flat.
What is your favorite culinary-related gift you've been given? Our Boulder restaurant, Oak at Fourteenth. Bryan Dayton approached me to do the restaurant with him, and I'm very grateful for that.
What's your favorite culinary-related item to give as a gift? Culinary Artistry. It makes a young cook think about flavor combinations and encourages you to come up with your own flavor combinations.
Best recipe tip for a home cook: Keep it simple, and start with great fresh ingredients.
When guests want to thank you for a meal that really wows them, what do you wish they'd send to the kitchen? I really wish they'd direct their thanks toward the cooks; they're the ones who are cooking the meal over and over again, and they deserve all the praise.
What do you expect from a restaurant critic? I don't expect anything from them; they're a guest in my restaurant. I don't need to know if a food critic is in the house, because everyone is a guest. In my mind, we treat everyone the same. The only time it really matters is if my family is in the restaurant, because that's when I get nervous -- I want to make them proud.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef: I don't think it's happened yet. Just like when I saw Oak's kitchen humming without me, I'd like to see both Acorn and Oak doing that at the same time. That's what makes a "chef" -- setting up a team for battle each and every night and then helping them become the best cooks they can be.
What's the biggest mistake a chef can make on the line? Refusing to ask for help. We've all gone down like a sack of yetis -- and will again if we don't work together as a team.
If you could cook in another chef's kitchen, whose would it be? I'd go back to Restaurant Jean-Georges, because that kitchen is so clean and so hard-core; and also back to Cyrus. I passed on a job at the French Laundry to work at Cyrus, simply because Douglas Keane's food was so mind-blowing.
What would you cook for Vongerichten and Keane if they came to one of your restaurants? Shrimp and grits, or the meatballs. They're simple and hearty and just what I think they need after working their asses off for the last twenty-plus years.
If you had the opportunity to open your own restaurant with no budget constraints, what kind of restaurant would you open? It would have nothing to do with budget but everything to do with approach. Always dreaming, I am.
Biggest moment of euphoria in kitchen: Six months after we reopened Oak at Fourteenth, following the fire, I had my first day off, and I remember walking by Oak around 7 p.m. and seeing a fully packed dining room -- on a Monday, no less -- and then I saw the calm hustle of the kitchen crew executing service. I don't cry often, but there was a salty discharge from my eyes, and it was easily one of the proudest moments of my life. Thanks, team Oak.
Craziest night in the kitchen: There are two. The first is when I was in New York, prepping at Jean-Georges, when the two planes hit the Twin Towers on 9/11. Jean-Georges's kitchen has glass windows facing Broadway, so all of us in the kitchen could see the madness and the terrified looks on the faces of people running uptown as fast as they could. The second night was when I was at the Little Nell, and all the restaurants in Aspen except us had to close because a man dressed as Santa was dropping homemade bombs in the middle of downtown. I think we fed almost every tourist in every nook and cranny of the restaurant with huge family-style platters. It was a heavy-duty ass-kicking.
What's one thing that people would be surprised to know about you? I'm kind of a hermit and like to keep to myself outside of work, probably because I feel awkward outside of Oak and Acorn. I don't know the chefs around here all that well, but I think it would be great to interact with some of the locals to get their views of the area.
Biggest pet peeves: Lazy cooks. I try to motivate my staff each day, so please just meet me in the middle and move your ass. Ha! And I'm sick and tired of food TV, which is the biggest downfall of our industry. No one even knows what a real chef is anymore. Top Chef, my ass.
Your best traits: I'm a cook, not a chef. Some of the self-proclaimed "chefs" today forget that they were once great cooks, and that's what keeps your staff following you and wanting more. I'll also never be happy with anything I do, so I hope it keeps it interesting for our guests that I'm always trying to get better and put the guest and my staff before anything else in my life.
Your worst traits: It takes me a little longer than it should to trust the people around me, but I've been doing much better, thanks to my amazing staffs at Oak and Acorn.
What's always lurking in your refrigerator? Sake -- and lots of it -- in my fridge at home, and at work, yuzu. I guess I want to be Asian.
Last meal before you die: Fugu. I don't want to waste my time or anyone else's, so let's just get it over with.
Grossest thing you've ever put in your mouth: Yellow mustard. The smell is disgusting, horrible, and it tastes so fake. I don't know what they put in it, but whatever it is, it shouldn't be legal.
If you hadn't become a chef, what would you be doing right now? I'd be Bruce Lee's apprentice.
What's in the pipeline? No more restaurants! But I'll do everything I can to make Oak and Acorn the best they can be. Ultimately, I'd like to start a family.
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What's next for Denver's culinary scene? I don't know what's next, but I'd like to see a purveyor that puts his nuts on the line to open a place where he sources amazing seafood and has connections like they do on the East and West coasts. It seems like you have to pull teeth to get anything out of the norm here, and you have to use FedEx all the time. If there were a way to make it more convenient for kitchens to obtain seafood, everyone would benefit. We already have some of the best produce and meats anywhere, so let's put our brains together and see how we can get some killer seafood here on a regular basis without all those crazy shipping costs.