This is part one of my interview with Carrie Shores, chef of Table 6; part two of our conversation will run tomorrow.
Despite her wispy, petite frame, Carrie Shores, the executive chef of Table 6, is a woman of massive strength. The 35-year-old mother of two, whose childhood was anything but normal (her mother was a heroin addict), could have fallen into the dark abyss, but cooking saved her, she says.
Born on Long Island and raised by her grandparents until she was twelve, Shores remembers the kitchen as her refuge, a safe haven to escape the chaos. "My grandmother would hoist me up on a stool when I was a toddler, and I'd watch her tie up legs of lamb, and when I was all of four or five, she taught me how to swirl -- and scramble -- eggs, and that's where my love of cooking started," says Shores, who adds that her grandmother used to tell her she was "born a super-taster," referring to her keen sense of taste and smell.
"As early as six, I could cover my eyes and identify, either by smell or taste, whatever food I was eating or had under my nose," recalls Shores. But while she could have shamed a lot of those Top Chefs with her ability to pinpoint ingredients, she had other responsibilities that kept her from thumbing her nose in the air. "I was twelve and living in Denver at that point, but my mom was still a mess, so I was raising my sister, doing all the grocery shopping, cleaning and cooking. I had to learn how to cook out of sheer necessity," she says, remembering that she'd often call her grandmother for advice -- and care packages stocked with foodstuffs that she couldn't locate in Denver.
By the time she was sixteen, she'd landed her first job, as a cashier at the Mrs. Fields in the Cherry Creek mall -- it was a restaurant at the time, not just a milk-and-cookie kiosk -- and after two months, she was promoted to assistant manager. She eventually left to work in the bakery department at Wild Oats -- now Whole Foods -- and to finish high school at Emily Griffith Opportunity School. And once she graduated, she bought a one-way ticket to San Francisco to pursue a culinary path at the California Culinary Academy. "I started catering to generate income, then got married, had kids, bought a house, got divorced, sold the house and used the money from the sale to really pursue my dream," says Shores. "I felt like I was finally starting to take control of my life, and despite being a single mom, I had a super-positive attitude and wholeheartedly embraced my future."
And then she secured a stage at A16, one of San Francisco's top restaurants. The stage morphed into a six-month line-cook gig, and Shores says it was the most exhilarating six months she's ever experienced: "Absolutely everything about it was amazing, I loved the restaurant, I loved the food, I loved Nate Appleman, the chef at the time, and while it was the hardest job I've ever had, it was also one of the most eye-opening, intense experiences I've ever had; it was just balls to the walls."
Her kids, in the meantime, had returned to Denver with their dad, and Shores realized that they also needed their mom -- and she needed them -- so she moved back to the Mile High City and started searching for work. She staged at Fruition, under chef-owner Alex Seidel, and while she didn't get hired, Seidel knew a chef who was looking for a line cook: Scott Parker, the exec chef at Table 6 for nine years, who just left to command the burners at Session Kitchen, a Breckenridge-Wynkoop concept that will open this fall in Platt Park.
"I walked in the door of Table 6, and it reminded me so much of San Francisco; it was so comfortable and inviting," recollects Shores, who chopped off the top of her finger before Parker offered her the gig. "Despite the fact that I wrapped it with gauze and duct tape -- the worst thing in the world to do -- we connected immediately, and we had this great big-brother-little-sister relationship." She became sous chef at Table 6 in 2009, and moved into the exec-chef position when Parker departed earlier this month.
"This is my home away from home, and I have this great sense of leadership and ownership that I'm naturally good at," says Shores, who in the following interview encourages diners to speak up when they're disgruntled, advises aspiring chefs to shut up and listen, and hints -- you heard it here first -- about a new restaurant.
What do you enjoy most about your craft? Using my hands every day. I'm definitely the type of person who gets more done when I get up in there with my hands, and I love being able to taste a lot of cool flavors and work with some cool texture combinations.
Describe your approach to cooking: I'm pretty health-conscious, so I use a lot of simple ingredients that can pack big punches of flavor. To me, less is more; I never want to be fussy with ingredients.
What are your ingredient obsessions? That's a hard question to answer, because my obsessions can change on a whim. One day it might be quinoa, while the next day it might be white anchovies. It basically comes down to what sounds good to me at that moment, and then I just roll with it.
What are your kitchen-gadget obsessions? Everyone says the Vita-Prep, and that's because it really is everyone's gadget obsession, including mine. I also love spoons. I don't bring my personal ones here to the restaurant because I know they'd get lost, but I could spend a day going to garage sales and thrift stores looking for a perfect spoon.
Who or what inspires you? I get a lot of inspiration from watching people achieving their dreams, regardless of how hard that may be. Someone who overcomes hardships is usually the one we should be keeping an eye on. What doesn't kill us makes us stronger, right?
Favorite local ingredients and purveyors: We get a lot of cool local stuff from Fresh Guys Produce. They work closely with a lot of local farms, and this time of year, we get an abundance of local fruit and veggies. I like the chèvre we get from Ugly Goat Dairy, too. It's got a nice barnyard-y and sour thing going on.
One ingredient you won't touch: I'm not a huge fan of tempeh, seitan or fake seafood. Sorry, surimi, I know you're popular, but really?
One ingredient you can't live without: Salt, nature's perfect ingredient. If you can't have salt, then try kombu. Put it in a spice grinder and sprinkle it on food just like you would salt. Nutritional yeast works as a yummy salt alternative, too.
Food trend you'd like to see in 2013: More local foraging. I've always thought it would be cool for restaurants to have someone come in and train us on how to forage in our own back yards.
Food trend you'd like to see disappear in 2013: Food manipulation. I can understand why people do it -- it's science, after all -- but food in its purest form is where it's at. Sometimes a peach needs to just stay a peach.
Favorite dish on your menu right now: I'm kinda digging our smoked-brisket dish. We season and smoke whole brisket and then simply roast it low and slow for fourteen hours. It's paired with dirty rice, one of my favorite things in the world, and we use tasso and cured-and-smoked duck hearts in ours. It's also served with a simple baby mustard and kale salad and some pickled turnips.
What dish would you love to put on your menu, regardless of how well it would sell? Stuffed pig's trotters. I had them for the first time at A16, a restaurant where I used to work in San Francisco. Nate Appleman, the chef at the time, was a master of the pig and cooked them in a wood-fired oven until they were beautifully crispy. I could eat those every day.
What specific requests would you ask of Denver diners? Don't be afraid to speak up if you don't like what you've ordered. That's usually the main reason that people either don't return or give us a bad review. I know that I can't please everyone, but I want you to leave here feeling satisfied, not full of regrets, so if you you're not happy, please tell us so we can make it right.
What do you expect from a restaurant critic? First and foremost, honesty. And I think that not knowing when a critic is coming has its advantages. I wish that we would stop trying to be who we are in order to please someone else. I know that my goal is to make everyone happy who walks through that door, but I also know that's impossible. Still, if I don't know you're a critic, then I only know to treat you like everyone else, and that's what really matters.
What advice would you give to an aspiring young chef? To shut up and listen and to pay attention to everything that's happening around you at all times. If you've never had ADD before, then get ready for it, because you'll be asked to do a million things at once and you're expected to do every single one of them regardless of how busy, tired or stressed out you are.
What's your biggest challenge as a chef working in Denver? Not being close to the ocean. I definitely miss not having produce that's available all year long, as well as fresh seafood. I want fresh sardines on the menu, but they only have a two-day shelf life, and for me that means just one day since they take a day to get here. I remember having to clean pounds and pounds of those in San Francisco, but they were worth every second of effort.
What's in the pipeline? We've had nine years to perfect Table 6, so now I think we're finally going to venture out and open a new space with a new idea. More news on that coming soon. And then maybe we can finally fulfill Scott Parker's fantasy of girl-on-girl topless bacon cookery.
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What's next for Denver's culinary scene? Definitely doughnuts, and I also think there should be healthier options that aren't fake-meat-vegetarian-based restaurants. I've never understood the trend of wanting to eat something that tries to imitate meat; the texture and flavor are awful. There should be a food revolution in Denver that shows other big cities that we're in the running to be the next big food destination city. Let's focus on real food and real ingredients.