This is part one of my interview with Dirk Holmberg, exec chef of Cafe 180. Part two of our interview will run in this space tomorrow.
Dirk Holmberg squirms if you call him a chef. "I had always wanted to be a chef, but I had -- and still have -- low self-esteem, and I never had the guts, at least in the beginning, to stand up and call myself a chef. I still have issues with it," admits Holmberg, who, despite his self-doubts, is very much the chef in charge of the kitchen at Cafe 180, a "pay what you can" restaurant in Englewood that's mostly staffed by volunteers whom Holmberg trains.
But Holmberg's apprehensions run deep. His hearing began to fade in the fourth grade, and over the past two decades, he's struggled with alcoholism. While he's been sober for nearly seven years, he did some time in the clink, lost jobs because of his addiction and sought shelter with friends -- until they kicked him out -- and then lived on the streets for more than a year. "When I was thirty, my alcoholism had gotten the best of me, and I ended up homeless for a year and a half, crashing on people's couches, on sidewalks and living in shelters," he recalls.
But through it all, Holmberg found solace in the kitchen. "When I was growing up, Kraft macaroni and cheese wasn't allowed in my house, because my mom did everything from scratch, and when my mom told me that if I wanted to lick the batter I had to help bake the cake, I started immersing myself in cooking," says Holmberg. During his elementary-school days, his friends would trot home behind him because he was the only kid on the block who was allowed to use the stove. "Then the invention of the microwave came along, and everything changed," he laments.
He started working in professional kitchens as a teenager, bumping from restaurant to restaurant, including Marie Callender's, IHOP, the long-gone Peppermill and a few Mexican joints, before eventually landing in the kitchen as a pizza chef at Macaroni Grill when he was 26. "Without knowing it at the time, it was my first introduction to a full kitchen brigade," says Holmberg, who put in nearly three years on the line before taking off.
"I loved it there. At the time, it was a really good restaurant where everything was made from scratch, including the pastas, and we were doing 1,000 covers a night, so the intensity was amazing," he says. But when he was passed over for a sous gig -- three times -- he walked out. "Now I know why I was passed up," he admits. "I had a drinking problem, but in all honesty, I began to find myself there, and while it was my own fault, I worked with some great guys and learned a lot about cooking."
Nonetheless, being snubbed left him dubious of the restaurant business, so much so that he took some time off to work with his uncle, who owned a lumber yard and had employed Holmberg on and off. He spent the next few years, which also included a brief stay at Applebee's, struggling with his addiction, and after a six-month stint in the hole, he "had a conversation with God" that inspired him to get his shit together. It took a while, confesses Holmberg, but once he got sober -- for good -- he began volunteering at local food banks, which is how he met Cathy Matthews, the co-founder of Cafe 180. "I knew that I wanted to work somewhere where I could make a difference, but I also knew that I needed to get out there and network, so a mutual friend put me in touch with Cathy, who was in the process of opening Cafe 180," recalls Holmberg. "I love my job, and my salary covers my bills -- and that makes me happy. What else can I ask for?"
As it turns out, not much. As he reveals in the following interview, Holmberg simply would like Americanized Mexican food to sink into a black hole, cheese to appear on every plate, and a sushi chef to perform talented tuna theatrics before he takes his last breath.
Six words to describe your food: Simple, flavorful, balanced, inviting, rewarding and fulfilling.
Ten words to describe you: Honest, compassionate, caring, forgiving, open-minded, thoughtful, dedicated, religious, spiritual and country.
Describe your restaurant: Cafe 180 is a dream, in a way. Never would I have envisioned a kitchen that's operated by volunteers, but it's cool that I don't have to be so harsh or strict. I can't tell someone to get it right or leave, because they're all volunteers, and I can't fire them. It's a little more relaxed here than at most restaurants. On the other hand, sometimes I wish I could just say, "Hey, can you please cut me some peppers or onions or cucumbers?" rather than have to stop what I'm doing in order to show them how.
What are your ingredient obsessions? Cheese. I feel that no plate can be complete until it has cheese, and I'm always searching the cheese section of the deli for the perfect enhancement to my meals at home for guests and friends. I gotta have it.
What are your kitchen-tool obsessions? A good pair of tongs. I'm completely lost without them. They're the most versatile utensil in my kitchen, and I literally use them everywhere and for everything.
Best recent food find: The chicken mole at 3 Margaritas. Most underrated ingredient: Basil. It adds the right amount of sweetness to almost any dish.
Food trend you'd like to see disappear: Americanized Mexican food. When I was starting out in the culinary field, I once made a comment that I'd like to start up a five-star Mexican restaurant in Denver. I was laughed out of the kitchen, which was a local Mexican food chain. "How can you make a five-star burrito?" they asked me incredulously. Really? But hearing that ignited my passion to one day discover what was really on the dinner plate across the border to the south.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: Our summer zucchini and squash from a community garden in Englewood.
Favorite spices and seasonings: Ancho and pasilla chile powder, because when I was growing up, there wasn't much beyond just plain chile powder. One day I got a wild hair and decided to look for chile powders other than the regular stuff, and ancho and pasilla were the two that I stumbled across. I use them consistently in all my chiles and other Mexican-themed dishes.
One food you detest: Spaghetti casserole. If you're going to make an Italian casserole dish to serve the multitudes, please don't use spaghetti. Why? It doesn't hold up very well. There are several heartier pastas that better fit the bill -- farfalle or penne pasta are two examples that come to mind.
One food you can't live without: I must have my spicy Mexican food. I indulge in it every opportunity I get. In fact, I've been known to eat pickled habanero chiles with slices of bread and cheese. I get people all the time who want to eat my spicy food, but I warn them that most people can't eat what I call mild. They usually don't believe me.
Rules of conduct in your kitchen: I expect things to be where they belong, and cleanliness is very high on my list, too. It's also hard for me to tolerate a lot of talking; there's just too much going on, and if someone needs to communicate something right away, I don't want to have to yell to get their attention.
What's always in your kitchen? I've got to have my grill. A wood grill is preferable.
What's in your refrigerator at home? My refrigerator is usually pretty bare. I shop as needed for whatever's on the menu for the night. That said, I have to have my milk...and my Swiss rolls.
Weirdest customer request: A very cold pizza. I had to put it in the freezer for five minutes.
Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: I still like my peanut butter and mustard sandwich.
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SHOW ME HOW
If you weren't a chef, what would you be doing? Historically, I've either been in the kitchen or working in the lumber industry, but I've recently found another direction in which to travel. Simply put, I'd love to be in some kind of outreach ministry position, serving the community through working with the homeless and people with low incomes and giving them direction as to where they can receive help with their needs. I'd also like to have a degree in counseling, but that's a lot of years of classroom, and I never was very classroom-oriented.
Most humbling moment as a chef: I was working at Macaroni Grill in Englewood and almost plowed right into John Elway with a tub full of dirty dishes. I was getting my feet wet in my first "real" kitchen, and on my way to take a quick cigarette break out back -- while taking some dirty dishes along the way as an excuse to get off the line -- I came around a column in a real hurry and there, right in front of me, was this giant, huge chest. I looked up, then looked up again, and lo and behold, there he was in person. He put his hand on my shoulder and said, "You're doing a fine job." Never will I forget that one.
Culinary heroes: My hat goes off to all the homeless-shelter food preparers. Most of these exemplary kitchen figures are volunteers who work a lot of long hours in an intense and demanding environment. Regardless of how you feel about homelessness, it's a basic fact that these people have mouths to feed. They're hungry and need to be fed, and I salute the men and women who cook for them and make sure they don't go hungry.