Bob Wiltshire Morton's Steakhouse 1710 Wynkoop Street 303-825-3353 www.mortons.com
This is part one of Lori Midson' Chef and Tell interview with Bob Wiltshire, To read part two of that interview, check back here tomorrow.
Blame Bob Wiltshire's mother and a vocational high school for his culinary prowess. "When I was very young, I would bake fresh breads and cookies with my mom and my sister, but since my mom wasn't a great cook, she joked that I got into cooking for self-preservation purposes," says Wiltshire, the executive chef of the Morton's in LoDo.
He knew, too, that he wasn't up for a predictable high-school experience, where academics took precedence over experience: "I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, but I knew that a regular high school wasn't for me, so I enrolled in a vocational high school." There he had to sign up for three shop courses, and "I chose culinary arts, computers and machine shop," he recalls, "and then they gave me welding, which was an awful experience." Eventually, he did wind up in culinary classes, and "I was really pretty good at it," says Wiltshire, who went on to enroll in the culinary arts program at Johnson & Wales in Rhode Island, a move that landed him a gig in a fish-fry joint he describes as "the largest and busiest restaurant I've ever worked in, with sixty feet worth of tickets on any given night."
A good friend convinced Wiltshire to give up the fish-fry life for Colorado -- specifically, Fort Collins, where he snagged a position at Jay's Bistro. "I took the first job I could get, and it turned out to be a good one, because I started out as a line cook during lunch and, within a year and a half, became the executive chef," remembers Wiltshire, who worked the line for three years. "I was asked to leave, but I was okay with that, because the owner's whole life was the restaurant, and I didn't want to make the restaurant my whole life," he says.
So he headed down to Denver, walked through the door of Morton's, snapped up a line-cook stint and was ultimately given the top job when the executive chef got the boot. "After nearly eight years, I still really enjoy coming to work," says Wiltshire. "The company takes really good care of me, I love the people I work with, I have great hours and a fun life, and we're really like a little family here."
That's not to say that he's oblivious to the snide criticisms often associated with working for a corporate chain, especially a steakhouse. "I realize that we have a ton of steakhouses in Denver, but Morton's was one of the original steakhouses, and we put out the best product we can and offer really great service -- and that's why people keep coming back," Wilshire insists. "As far as I'm concerned, people can say and do whatever they want, but my job is to make people happy, and we're successful at doing that." Fact is, he contends, "if you give most people in Denver a choice between a fancy restaurant with food they've never heard of or a steakhouse, most people will go for the steak."
In this interview, Wiltshire talks about how he'd love to feed a slab of beef to Lance Armstrong, his nonchalance when it comes to bugs, his puzzlement over foam and how he wishes that Denver bartenders would pay as much attention to napkins and coasters as they do to mixing cocktails.
Six words to describe your food: Fresh, simple, elegant, nutritious, creative and innovative.
Ten words to describe you: Caring, athletic, passionate, goofy, sincere, adventurous, spontaneous, healthy, Trekkie.
Culinary inspirations: The love and respect of food and the happiness that it gives people. Food is a social bonding agent that brings people together. Specifically, the Thanksgiving luncheon that we do for underprivileged children every year -- the kids have such a good time -- reminds me of why I love to cook for people.
Best food city in America: Boston. The fresh seafood, atmosphere and feeling of being on the harbor, eating lobster and clam chowder on a nice summer night or day -- it all just reminds me of growing up in Boston.
Best food city in the world: When it comes to food, there's no better city than Paris. From the outdoor markets where you can buy a little cheese, a baguette and any kind of meat, to the coffee shops, brasseries, creperies and great wine, Paris represents what food is really all about: flavor, freshness and simplicity.
Favorite music to cook by: Music is my worst subject. I have an iPhone and have zero music downloaded, and I don't know the names of bands. But when we do listen to music, it's usually good old-fashioned rock and roll, and sometimes sports radio.
Favorite ingredient: Fresh, homemade stocks. I love making fresh soups, and the stocks give a nice depth of flavor and richness you can't find with canned stock or bases.
Best recent food find: The fruity hot teas at Wasabi Sushi Bar in Belmar. They're so much better than the regular old teas that you find at the market, and they serve them in these cool plastic tea presses. They go very well with sushi, and they're a nice change from drinking a beer or sake.
Most overrated ingredient: The foolish foams that molecular gastronomists put all over their food. It seems so bizarre to me to use a purée of something, shake it in an aluminum cup and then spray it all over the plate. I once watched an episode of Iron Chef where the guy put foam on everything. What's wrong with using food in its natural form?
Most undervalued ingredient: Fresh herbs. They give food a really nice flavor and make a dish stand out.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: It's not an ingredient, exactly, but I love the cinnamon rolls at Johnson's Corner. They're big, tasty, have this great glaze on them, plus you can share one among four people -- and they're not good for you, which is why I like them. I always pick one up on the way to or from Fort Collins.
One food you detest: Green bell peppers have never made anything better.
One food you can't live without: Fresh-baked chocolate chip cookies. They take me back to my youth, with the whole mixing of the ingredients and the smell of them baking in my mom's kitchen. And, of course, they have to be accompanied by an ice-cold glass of milk.
What's never in your kitchen? A microwave. Not having one forces me to make everything properly and never use shortcuts.
What's always in your kitchen? A sense of humor, lots of steaks, funny stories, calories and insanity.
What you'd like to see more of in Denver from a culinary standpoint: Bartenders who hand out napkins and coasters when you order a drink. Really? I can't get a napkin with my cocktail? That's the worst. So is getting all sticky when my cocktail spills and I have nothing to wipe it up. It's a small detail in service that's so often overlooked.
What you'd like to see less of in Denver from a culinary standpoint: Big egos. There are some chefs here that think they're the be-all and end-all -- chefs that concentrate way too much on themselves rather than on their guests, their food and their staff.
Weirdest customer request: We have guests that request a bowl of Funyuns with their entree. We go to the store and buy a bag just for them.
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Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: Chocolate-covered bugs that I bought at a candy store at Colorado Mills. They weren't bad -- just a little earthy and crunchy. I was camping over Memorial Day weekend, and there was a little black bug on my sandwich. I ate it.
Hardest lesson you've learned: One of the hardest situations I've ever been in was when I was asked to leave a chef job, but in retrospect, I realize that in some ways, I orchestrated that outcome myself. You need to work hard, but not give up your life to succeed. Some things just work out for the best, even though it's not evident at the time.
What's next for you? I'm really happy where I am, and I'm living my life the way I want to live it. That said, I'm still looking to run into a black bear or a lion while I'm hiking.