Part one of my interview with Aaron Bennett, exec chef of Boulder's Bácaro Venetian Taverna, ran yesterday; this is part two of our chat .
Favorite restaurant in America: Probably Le Bouchon. When I ate there, I saw such an incredible attention to detail and such care put into even the simplest dishes that it really gave me something to strive for. I had a rabbit cassoulet that was so simple yet so perfectly cooked, seasoned and prepared that I realized most chefs can only hope to achieve that type of simple precision.
Most memorable meal you've ever had: I was the acting executive chef of the Ritz-Carlton in Georgetown, and a friend of mine who was doing PR for the culinary industry invited me to a private chef's tasting at Maestro restaurant at the Ritz-Carlton in Tysons Corner, in Virginia. When I arrived, Emeril Lagasse was there. There ware ten of us total in the private dining room, and the chef at the time, Fabio, pulled out all the stops and prepared a fourteen-course chef's tasting for us. One course was a white-truffle risotto with a fresh white truffle, the size of a small woman's fist, that was shaved onto each one of our plates of perfectly cooked risotto. It was an epic meal with wonderful company, and Emeril was very down-to-earth, normal and was interested in asking me questions about myself -- and my career -- which really floored me.
Favorite cheap eat in Denver/Boulder: Mustard's Last Stand in Boulder. I love pork, and that obviously means sausages and hot dogs. At Mustard's they do them just right -- and have ever since I can remember. I recall going there with my dad and older brother when I was maybe five years old, and they were making all their sausages in-house, which was awesome. I love making sausage and charcuterie. And it's a great place to people-watch, with the high stools and counter looking out on Broadway in Boulder.
If you only had 24 hours in Denver/Boulder, where would you eat? Tangerine in Boulder for breakfast, because they make the best buttermilk pancakes that I've ever had the pleasure to eat in my life -- plus they have a mentality like mine, where they make everything in-house and use almost exclusively local small-farm-produced ingredients. I'd also go to Zaidy's Deli in Cherry Creek for lunch because I love traditional Jewish food, and everything they do there is great, especially their latke Reuben sandwich. They also have the absolute best carrot cake I've ever had. And for dinner, I'd hit up Efrain's in Lafayette, because it has the best, most authentic Mexican food that I've ever had in my life. I go there at least twice a month, and during the seven years I lived in Aspen, I'd get crazy cravings for Efrain's costillas or their chili Colorado at least every other week.
What you'd like to see more of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: Food trucks. I know it's starting to take off here, but whenever I visit my brother in Chicago, I'm in awe of their total badass food-truck scene that's really coming out with some amazing food.
What you'd like to see less of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: Average or low-quality Mexican restaurants -- there's one on nearly every corner. Let's put it this way: If most of their plates come with chopped iceberg lettuce and shredded cheddar cheese, it's not the type of Mexican restaurant that I'm interested in dining at.
What's the best food- or kitchen-related gift you've been given? My Mom bought me a Shun knife for my birthday many years back that I love and use all the time.
What are your favorite wines and/or beers? I don't drink, but back when I did, I really enjoyed Pete's Wicked Ale, Sunshine Wheat or a good, cold Heineken. As for wines, I always enjoyed the real big reds you get from the Rhone region in France, like a good Gigondas. I always preferred old-world wines to new-world wines.
Favorite dish on your menu: My Long's Farm confit pork shoulder with pancetta-Dijon-braised cabbage and local cherry chutney.
Favorite childhood food memory: My mom, who's a seriously amazing natural cook and damn near chef quality, made -- and still makes -- this dish that her mother made when she was a child called "baked spaghetti." I grew up with it, and love it to this day.
Favorite junk food: Doritos.
Weirdest customer request: One Sunday brunch during my apprenticeship at the Brown Palace Hotel, a guy had me put raspberry purée and pistachios in his omelet with American cheese and smoked salmon. That one made me gag.
Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: Lamb fries, which are basically the sheep version of Rocky Mountain oysters. They were weird but awesome, and I'd for sure eat them again.
Best recipe tip for a home cook: If what you're cooking has more than ten ingredients, stay away from it. Also: Your best bets are recipes that someone has recommended to you and that you know will likely be good.
One book that every chef should read: Kitchen Confidential. It makes me feel like much less of a freak.
Culinary heroes: Chef Joachim Schaaf, who was my instructor during my apprenticeship; Thomas Keller; chef Bill Dexter at the Brown Palace; and Morimoto.
If you could cook in another chef's kitchen, whose would it be? Morimoto is a total badass, and I'd love to learn how to prepare Japanese food. In 2004, when I was the sous chef of the Ritz-Carlton Aspen, Morimoto asked us if he could use our kitchen to do some prep for the day during the annual Food & Wine Classic. When he was finished cooking, he not only cleaned the flat-top griddle he'd been using, but then got up on sheet trays and cleaned the vents on the hood system for us. That showed such class and respect...it just blew me away. Here was this famous rock-star chef who wasn't above getting dirty and cleaning up after himself. I've taken that lesson with me after all these years; I still stay till the end of the night every night to help my crew scrub the kitchen.
Favorite celebrity chef: Mario Batali is great at what he does, he's a total hedonistic freak, he makes amazing food, and when I met him in Aspen, he was super-nice and extremely funny.
Celebrity chef who needs a muzzle: Graham Elliot, who keeps claiming that he was the youngest four-star chef in the county at age 27, which he definitely wasn't. I worked under Paul Anders, who's currently the executive chef of Sweet Basil in Vail, at the Palace Arms Restaurant at the Brown Palace when he was 25 years old, and that was -- and still is -- a four-star, four-diamond restaurant. Aside from that little oops, I simply think he believes he's just too cool for school.
What's your best piece of advice to culinary-school grads? Don't pretend that you know everything. Go find a good, solid chef to work for, keep your head down, do whatever they ask of you no matter what, be creative, and try to never work anywhere less than a year.
Biggest compliment you've ever received: When I see a plate come back from the dining room into the dish station that looks like it's been licked clean by a dog. I call these plates "doggy-style" plates, and I love to see them.
Most humbling moment as a chef: Overcooking an entire sheet tray of filet mignon for an important banquet during the first year of my apprenticeship. I didn't hear the end of it for the following two years, and honestly, I haven't overcooked a steak since.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef: Becoming the head chef of the Ritz-Carlton in Aspen when I was 26.
What's one thing that people would be surprised to know about you? I love to ski and am very good at it.
What's your dream restaurant? A small, thirty-seat place with just one seating a night. I would go to the docks in the morning to get seafood from the fishermen right off the boats, then go to some farms to get some fresh produce and write an impromptu menu every day based on the ingredients I procured that morning. It would just be myself, a sous chef, a dishwasher, a cork-dork wine steward, a manager and maybe a server. It would be the type of place that's closes on Mondays and doesn't do special requests. If you don't like the menu that day, well, sorry, that sucks for you, because that is what we're serving today. Sounds great to me.
Last meal before you die: Dinner at Binion's Ranch Steakhouse in Las Vegas: traditional jumbo shrimp cocktail, a Caesar salad, a fourteen-ounce prime grilled ribeye steak with grilled asparagus and Béarnaise sauce. It's what I get at least once every single time I go to Las Vegas, and I love it. It's an old-school steakhouse done right.