This is part one of my interview with Alex Figura, exec chef of Lower48 Kitchen; part two of my conversation with Figura will run tomorrow.
"My parents always joke that it's unlikely that I'll ever miss a meal," says Alex Figura, the executive chef at Lower48 Kitchen. "My mom and dad made dinner every night for my sisters and me, and I'd always help in the kitchen, first by force -- I always had to peel the shrimp and fry the chicken -- and then I started to actually like cooking. I knew from an early age that I wanted to work with food, but I wasn't sure in what capacity."
Born and raised in Alexandria, Virginia, he enrolled at Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia to get a degree in food marketing -- but then his parents took him to Vetri, the city's most celebrated restaurant, on his nineteenth birthday, and while it wasn't the most sensational meal he'd ever had, it was good enough that he chucked college to cook full-time in Vetri's kitchen. "It was the hottest spot in Philly, and I knew I wanted to work there, so I did a stage, and then another stage, and then another, and when two guys quit and another two got fired, I got hired to fill in the blanks," recalls Figura, who was responsible for pastry, baking and composing the restaurant's first courses.
Figura spent more than two years behind the line at Vetri -- most of the time in over his head. "For the first eighteen months, I didn't really know as much about food as I would have liked," he admits, "but I had two saving graces: I was always there and worked really, really hard, and one of the lead cooks liked me, and we worked very, very well together." It was a kitchen that allowed him to "make pastas and pastries, bake bread and butcher whole animals" while seeing "every single facet of cooking," he recalls.
Still, Figura had an itch to cook overseas, so he left Philly for Spain. "I was a young cook and a little cocky, and my goal was to work at some of the best restaurants in the world to see what separated them from the pack, plus I wanted to explore different cuisines and cultures," explains Figura, who sent letters to fifty Michelin-star restaurants, all in Spain. He received three replies, one of which came from the chef of L'escaleta, a restaurant in Cocentaina. "The man who hired me was a young chef -- and fabulous -- and he really took me in as his son and taught me so much," remembers Figura. The most important thing he learned was how to cook rice -- important, he says, "because while it's such a basic technique, when you really get into it, there are so many steps involved in making it truly great."
Figura cooked at L'escaleta for six months, then moved on to another Michelin-starred restaurant just outside of Madrid, and after four months there, he returned to Alexandria and landed a job at Blue Hill at Stone Barns, a world-renowned restaurant and working four-season farm in Tarrytown, thirty miles north of New York City. Marc Vetri, chef-owner of the eponymous Philadelphia restaurant where Figura got his start, had treated him to dinner there as well as a tour, and Figura was "completely blown away by the kitchen" and the farm. "I remember one night we were doing a dish that needed basil, which we didn't have in the kitchen, so I ran out to the fields and grabbed basil, and it occurred to me then that this was one of the most unique restaurants in the world," says Figura, who soaked up the "amazing learning experience" for eighteen months before burning out.
"I was working eighty, sometimes ninety hours a week -- as soon as you put your foot through the door, you were off to the races -- and it wore me down," admits Figura, who escaped to Denver, where he had family. But he continued to add top restaurants to his repertoire, becoming the protein cook at Frasca Food and Wine. "I took the job mostly because of Brian Lockwood, the chef de cuisine at the time at Frasca, because I loved his set of disciplines, plus he's calm and just an extraordinary cook," says Figura, who eventually left Frasca for one more jaunt to Spain. When he returned, he opened Lower48 Kitchen with owner Mario Nocifera, with whom he'd worked at Frasca. "I knew it was time for me to create my own food. Mario and I shared the same goal of offering something unique to Denver -- a really engaging menu that pushes the limits and an outsider's perspective -- and then everything just fell into place," says Figura, who in the following interview extols the virtues of nuts and seeds, discredits commodity chicken, and requests that diners educate themselves about food allergies before playing the gluten-free card.
Lori Midson: What's your first food memory? Alex Figura: This isn't my first food memory, but it's definitely the most vivid. My mother, sisters and I attempted to make a croquembouche, which is a cone that consists of choux pastry balls bound with caramel lace. In this instance, we made chocolate truffles and bound them with toothpicks and icing sugar. It was extremely intense. A close second would be my mother's lasagna with her Bolognese and béchamel -- a winner, in my book.
Ten words to describe you: Patient, calm, intense, quiet, disciplined, gritty, creative, sensible, relaxed and energetic.
Five words to describe your food: Fresh, light, bright, strong and subtle.
What are your ingredient obsessions? Nuts and seeds. I love all types of them, even the ones that aren't technically nuts, like peanuts. They're so versatile and have such a variety of savory and sweet uses, from butters and milks to pralines and brittle.
One ingredient you won't touch: Commodity chicken. It has no taste, and the treatment of the birds is horrific. In fact, the further you look into it, the worse it gets. They're pumped up on antibiotics and so sick that they can't live without them -- or, for that matter, barely even walk. It's one of the greatest travesties in our food culture, right along with feedlots.
Food trend you'd like to see emerge in 2014: More pickling and fermenting, two techniques that have been around for centuries and are just now coming back into the picture. They offer such a wide range of flavors and textures, plus the majority of the techniques help preserve food for a long period of time, which helps to develop a more complex flavor. They're also natural "tonics" for the human body and help promote overall health.
Food trend you'd like to see disappear in 2014: People who are uneducated about allergies. A good example would be gluten intolerance. Only 1 percent of Americans actually have this devastating disease, which means that a lot of people are just jumping on the bandwagon without realizing what it is, exactly, that's wrong with their immune system. We have a close friend who has celiac disease and owns a certified-gluten-free bake shop, and we hope to host a dinner with him in the near future to help bring awareness and educate the public on this matter.
Favorite piece of kitchen equipment: The smoker. We have a little smoker at Lower 48 and use it constantly for a variety of items, including proteins, oils and even ice cream bases. There's nothing like working with open fire, woods and charcoals. It imparts such a wide variety of flavors, depending on what you're using, not to mention a huge range of temperatures to get the final product you're trying to achieve.
Your favorite smell in the kitchen: There's nothing like the smell of freshly baked bread. It fills the room and creates a warm feeling; it feels like home. I also love the smells in my parents' kitchen, whether it's my mom making granola or desserts or my dad grilling steak. Whatever it is, you can't beat it.
It's your night off and you're starving. What's your go-to quick fix? Pizza and beer or burgers and beer. Can't go wrong with either one.
Favorite dish on your menu: We just changed our menu, which we do pretty much on a weekly basis, but at the moment, it would have to be the beef and burrata. We get beautiful boneless country ribs from Laramie Cattle Company, which is right outside of Morrison. And they only slaughter once or twice a month, because they have a very small herd. We serve the ribs with creamy burrata, pickled radish pods, green garlic and mustard seeds.
What dish would you love to put on your menu, regardless of how well it would sell? Fideau, a paella-style dish that's made with very thin spaghetti instead of rice. It usually has pork and shellfish in it, which is my favorite combo.
Weirdest customer request: One of our protein cooks was working at a restaurant where a guest said they couldn't eat carbohydrates but then proceeded to order pasta. Crazy world.
Would you ever send a dish back if you were dining in a friend's restaurant? If I knew the chef or the person cooking the food, I'd say something to them directly, because at the end of the day, the person who's cooking the food should know what's right from wrong and what should be served or not served. The life of the restaurant depends on this.
Kitchen rule you always adhere to: Cleanliness, organization, communication and discipline. If you follow all of these rules, it'll help you run an efficient kitchen. One rule we also follow at Lower48 is cutting the tape. Whenever we make a label with tape, we cut it with scissors; that way, you get nice, even edges.
Kitchen rule you're not afraid to break: If we're not happy with the product or the dish, or we get a really nice product in but we only have ten of them to sell on a busy Saturday night, we aren't afraid to 86 it. We do our best not to, but it's part of the business, and if it happens, there's always a good reason behind it.
Best recipe tip for a home cook: Follow a recipe and make it twice, and then the third time you do it, make it your own. Being a good cook is about repetition.
What's the best food- or kitchen-related gift you've been given? When I left Frasca Food and Wine years ago, the chef de cuisine, Brian Lockwood, who has been very influential in my life, gave me a Deba knife, which is for butchering fish. I was completely caught off guard, and I cherish it greatly.
Favorite culinary-related item to give as a gift: It really depends on the person, but I usually choose books and knives. That said, it's always fun to increase to the size of someone's kitchen tool kit, whether it's with tweezers, Trudeau spatulas, peelers or scissors. They're all things that make your job fun -- and easier.
What's your fantasy splurge? Eating my way through South America. That continent has so much to offer, whether it's a three-star Michelin restaurant or just a person making tacos on the side of the road. It would be great to work there for a little while and see how they do things and the way they live, then move on to the next stop. It would be a great learning experience all the way around.
If you had the opportunity to open your own restaurant with no budget constraints, what kind of restaurant would you open? It would be extremely small, have all open fire with a bread hearth in the back, and it would be completely open: The kitchen would be the dining room and vice versa. It would have wood floors and tall ceilings, and I'd do down-to-earth cooking with simple preparations of phenomenal products. It would just be a small staff, ideally just Mario, Bear [sous-chef Gregory Schesser] and me.
Which living chef do you most admire? Brian Lockwood. We worked together at Frasca Food and Wine, and he's just a great person and the best cook I've ever worked with. And Pascal Barbot of Astrance, in Paris. I love his food and his playful mindset, plus he's such an innovator and has a unique vision when it comes to food.
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Last meal before you die: Steak and fries and a Canlis salad from Ann and Roger Figura, my parents, and for dessert, my mom's coconut-peach layer cake. It's really hard to beat that.