Westword: The Top Chef season that filmed in Denver debuts this week, and you’re representing your home town. That’s exciting! Tell us a bit about your experience.
Carrie Baird: I watch Top Chef; I’m a fan of the show. They called me, and I was like, “Are you sure?” I was very excited. I went through the process two years ago and wasn’t picked, but they asked me when I wasn’t cast the first year if I’d be willing to go again. So I was cast, and then learned it was a Colorado season. I’m humbled, to say the least, to represent Colorado.
Did being from here give you an advantage?
I’ve lived here since 1999, and I know what Colorado wants. When it came to seasonal ingredients that we were playing with, Brother Luck and I had a hand up, without a doubt. All the advice I got was, cook to your judges. Look at your audience and cater to them. We kicked ass keeping that in mind.
Did you do anything to prepare?
There’s no way to compare Top Chef with life, and there’s no way to prepare for Top Chef. In real life, you never have to feed 200 people in twenty minutes. I practiced and tried all these new techniques and upped my modernist game, but truth is, it’s sink or swim. That doesn’t apply to regular life. You don’t have a twenty-minute timer to be at Whole Feeds. You don’t have just a car ride from A to B to menu plan for [judges] Padma [Lakshmi] and Tom Colicchio…. My game plan was to not reinvent the wheel. I didn’t do something I hadn’t done before. Watching it, if you know me well, you’re going to be like, I know that dish or technique or flavor. I cooked the things I already know.
Learn any lessons that you’ll carry back to the restaurant?
The lessons I learned were [from] watching fellow contestants and their cuisines. I came out with recipes for the best fried chicken or biscuits. There were a lot of interesting flavor profiles. I made great friends, too. Because we became close, we shared those recipes.
Okay, let’s talk a bit about how you got into this business, and how you wound up at Bar Dough.
I grew up in Idaho. I did a year at Boise State, but I didn’t like it, so I followed some friends to Breckenridge to pursue skiing; I wanted to ski and snowboard and live up there. That turned into twelve years. I was mainly snowboarding, but I had to support myself. I started waiting tables, and I was a barista here and there, but I was bored. I always wanted to cook — I’d always cooked with my dad. So front turned to back. I went to culinary school at Cordon Bleu in Portland and then came right back to Breck, where I worked for Vail Resorts. I was not even thirty and I was managing hotels, but I didn’t feel like I’d reached my potential. So I moved to Denver and got a job with chef Jen Jasinski. I remember thinking, how will I measure up? She’d just won the James Beard Award. She was the best in the city. That was 2012, and I stayed with her for nearly four years. Her husband, Max MacKissock, was also a Summit County guy, and I’d known him for twenty years. So when my time with Jen was done, I ended up with Bar Dough.
You grew up cooking with your father — any dish in particular?
One of the best food memories I have is, my dad was a big hunter, and he’d always get an elk or deer and make stroganoff. We made it weekly together, with my two sisters. I was probably ten. All five of us would sit there, and we’d critique it. We’d say, “This is a seven. I used a different mustard.” And we’d rate it again the next day, because it would be better the next day. That was my first memory of really enjoying food. My sisters were terribly picky, but we’d be talking about that stroganoff day in and day out. We were talking about how to make it better, what we did this time. I didn’t know it at the time, but we were writing a recipe. And now it’s ours.
You took over at Bar Dough in July. How are you applying your own touch to the menu?
I’ve always had kind of a hard time coining my flavor. I like to think that I take really classic food and put a twist on it that no one thinks of. I know people always say that, but that’s how I’ve managed to be pretty successful. I like to do peanut butter with pepper jam, for instance. It’s strange but familiar. With Bar Dough, we’re classic in our Italian cuisine but unexpected. It’s super-fun and thought-provoking, and it speaks to how I like my cuisine to be: familiar, but in a totally different way. We have two new pastas on the menu; one is a rigatoni tre uccelli, which means “three birds.” It’s a play on turkey, duck and chicken. I roasted all these birds, then cooked them in a reduced chicken stock with a ton of aromatics to get this sticky poultry broth. It’s finished with Midnight’s Moon, which is the best cheese in the world — it’s a goat’s gouda — and orange zest. The second one is a ravioli in brodo. The ravioli is green-colored with kale and parsley, and inside is potato and Fontina [cheese]. It’s garnished with basil, Calabrian chile oil and rendered guanciale fat. The new menu items are really speaking to fall; they’re very appropriate to the season, and are very warm and comforting.
What’s exciting about cooking in Denver right now?
I got here in 2012, and in these few short years, I’ve seen restaurants open by the hundreds. Great superstars have risen up, as have obvious leaders: Max, Alex Seidel. Jen Jasiniski. They’re paving the way for the next generation to become great and giving us the opportunity. Denver is changing. It’s really neat that people are cooking out of their cultures. That stretches the food scene a lot. I don’t think it’ll be long before we have bigger names coming here and we’re winning all the awards. We have a lot to say.
What would you like to see more of?
We need more dumpling houses. I need Federal to be twice as big. I think Blake [Edmunds, Señor Bear executive chef and Baird’s boyfriend] and I have eaten our way through all of it. I would like to see a little bit more originality. When New York and L.A. have a ramen blow-up, we get five ramen shops. I’d like to see real original ideas. We can set our own tone; we don’t have to be one step behind.
What’s always in your fridge?
Cheese, eggs, English muffins and tortillas.
What do you cook at home?
So what happens to all that food in your fridge?
I usually throw it out! We eat a lot of Cosmo’s pizza. I’d like to say we cook, but we don’t. If we do, we put something in the pressure cooker and never eat it all. I’m trying to stop doing it, because it’s wasteful. We have beer that’s been in the fridge a long time.
How about a shift drink?
Montucky and a shot of whiskey. We support our Montana family with Montucky.
Is Bar Dough doing anything for the Top Chef season?
The Colorado Tourism Board is throwing a party for the premiere at the Maven Hotel in cahoots with Bravo and NBC. They invited the local chefs, so Brother Luck and I will be there, and there will be a cocktail party and we’ll watch the show. Bar Dough has TVs; I work Thursdays, so we’ll watch them here. And Segretto has them, too, so we’ll have a party up there, as well. It’s so nerve-racking, but I’m excited.
2227 West 32nd Avenue
Hours: 3 to 11 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 3 p.m. to midnight Friday and Saturday, 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. Sunday