This is part two of my interview with Aniedra Nichols, exec chef of Elway's Cherry Creek; part one of our conversation ran yesterday.
What's the best food- or kitchen-related gift you've been given? I've had quite a few, but my most recent toy was a Vitamix Professional Series blender. That thing is awesome. Thanks, Mom!
Favorite culinary-related item to give as a gift: Everyone needs a good utility knife, so I've given many knives as gifts. I'm also in love with The Flavor Bible and think that everyone should have a copy of that book in their library.
What's your fantasy splurge? Going to the Orient and eating Asian cuisine for a month so I could experience all the different flavors and cooking techniques they have to offer. I'd finish my tour in Japan by taking the bullet train to the countryside and visiting a bed-and-breakfast, where I'd take in the tranquil scenery while eating ramen.
If you could dress any way you want, what would you wear in the kitchen? Jeans, a ribbed tank top and Vans.
If you could have dinner, all expenses paid, at any restaurant in the world, where would you go? I want to go back to Florence and enjoy fresh pasta with braised beef cheeks, a margherita pizza with prosciutto di Parma and arugula, great wine, tiramisu and a double espresso. And I'd want all of this while people-watching.
What piece of advice would you give to an aspiring chef? Watch, listen, and learn from your mentors. We have a lot to offer in the way of advice, because most of us have been doing this for a long time and can speak from experience. It takes a lot of hard work and patience to grow in this industry. Check your egos at the door, take advantage of all the advice you've been given, and learn the tricks of our trades. Most important, have fun where you can, because that's why we do this, right, friends? And know that you'll never stop learning, especially in this industry.
If you could train under any chef in the world, who would it be? Roy Choi...so long as I didn't give him a reason to yell at me. I'd like to learn more about how his mind works and better understand his vision. He's come a long way in his life and has a great career, and I want to hear his story from his mouth and learn all about how he comes up with his flavor combinations. Plus, he's just so cool.
What skills and attributes do you look for when hiring kitchen staff? They need to actually prove that they have the skills and attributes that they claim to have. Some people may interview well, but when it comes time to grind, their work can sometimes tell a completely different story, which is why we offer a stage before we hire anyone.
If you had the opportunity to open your own restaurant with no budget constraints, what kind of restaurant would you open? I'd have a taco cart on the beach, the same as Cory Treadway and Tyler Wiard. We've all aspired to do that in the end -- and we always joke that we may as well do it together. We're of the same family.
It's your night off and you're starving. What's your go-to quick fix? Pho 79 if it's before 9 p.m.; otherwise, I've been known to join the folks at Solera for a charcuterie plate. Truth be told, I'm obsessed with charcuterie plates; I could eat them every day.
Favorite dish on your menu: Our bone-in ribeye is amazing. I can only have a bite or two, but let me tell you, those bites are unbelievable, and they're the whole reason I've become a beef snob. What dish would you love to put on your menu, regardless of how well it would sell? Roasted bone marrow, grilled bread and arugula salad with pickled onions and fig compote.
Best recipe tip for a home cook: Don't be too literal with a recipe; flavors and ingredients can be tweaked. Use recipes as a guideline and then adjust them to make your own recipes. And, remember, this is for cooking. Baking is different in certain aspects, because it's scientific.
Weirdest customer request: We were asked to put a cooked ribeye in the blender. The guy who ordered it had to eat his meals through a straw; I'm empathetic to that.
Would you ever send a dish back if you were dining in a friend's restaurant? Yes, and actually, I've done exactly that. Chefs should want -- and be open to -- constructive criticism. It's what I would expect from a friend/peer, and I'd be more upset with myself for not giving criticism, because if you know me, you know I'll tell you the truth. Otherwise, take the word "friend" out of the equation.
What's your biggest pet peeve? The one that really drives me nuts is not cleaning or picking up after yourself or refusing to put things back where you found them.
Your best traits: Good listener, honest, understanding and loyal.
Your worst traits: I have no patience for stupidity, or when someone tries to be sneaky.
Which talent do you most wish you had? I'd love to play an instrument, specifically the bass guitar, drums and piano. I'd also like to have the ability to hear music and play it without reading it.
Biggest mistake a chef can make on the line: Having a meltdown during service. Once your mood or attitude becomes negative, everyone notices, and the dynamic of the kitchen completely shifts. It throws everyone's game off when their leader crumbles. Never show fear.
What's been your worst disaster in the kitchen? I lopped off my index finger on new-menu night at Mel's Bar and Grill. I had to go to the hospital against my will -- it was policy -- when what I really wanted to do was just use lemon juice, Super Glue or whatever so I could stay. Those kinds of accidents always happen at the worst time.
Craziest night in the kitchen: Having to run the board solo on an Elway's Wednesday concert series. It really tests your stability.
Biggest moment of euphoria in the kitchen: When Elway's was asked to cook at the James Beard House in September 2011. I've done many wine dinners, but this one, by far, was the most tranquil and calm wine dinner I've experienced.
Kitchen rule you always adhere to: Being a leader and always communicating.
Kitchen rule you're not afraid to break: Making a mistake. Sometimes people are embarrassed or ashamed when they make a mistake, and then they feel guilty about it. But the truth is that we're all going to make mistakes; it's how you react to the situation that's most significant. Learn from the mistake, move on, and try not to make that same mistake again.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef: Finding myself as a chef and feeling confident in my food. This is a competitive field, but I've found my place in it. I recently ate a piece of Dove chocolate, which have quotes in their wrappers, and this particular one said, "You are exactly where you are supposed to be." That's right, I am.
Which living chef do you most admire? I most admire Eric Ripert. He seems so cool in his attitude, food and attire. And he's so dreamy...and talented.
What's one thing that people would be surprised to know about you? I grew up on an island, but I don't eat seafood.
If you hadn't become a chef, what would you be doing right now? Ideally, either a photographer or a career in sports medicine, which is what I originally studied in college.
What's in the pipeline? I'm thrilled to be a part of FIVE this year. We're going to the Aspen Food & Wine Classic in June and the Beard House in September. I feel like the sky is the limit, and I'm looking forward to where this year is going to take me. I'd love to be part of a charity and teach whenever I can; it's so important to give back.
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What's next for the Denver dining scene? Union Station is a hot topic. And with that, I want people to realize that Denver is up and coming, and that we as a community have a lot to offer, especially when it comes to the culinary scene. This is a city that takes pride in its products and our people, so keep an eye on us, because we're bringing the heat, for sure. There are a lot of talented chefs in Colorado.