This is part two of my interview with Bob Blair, executive chef/owner of Fuel Cafe. To read part one of this interview, click here.
Culinary inspirations: I was the second-oldest of eight kids, so we hardly ever got to go out to dinner. But when my mom was away, traveling, my dad would splurge on lobster or take us to the Unicorn, this high-end French-Vietnamese restaurant in Littleton that was really cool. He introduced me to all sorts of interesting foods and places to eat at a young age. My mom wasn't a fancy cook, but her day-to-day stuff was good, and she instilled a great work ethic in me. She was also the first person to convince me to go to cooking school, but at the time, I was too stubborn to listen. I ended up listening to her in the long run, but it was ten years later than I should have. My travels to Spain (I'm a tapas-hopper), Italy, California and New Orleans -- all places where I love to eat -- have inspired me, as have all the places that I dream of going to but haven't been to yet. And every cookbook I've ever read is inspiration. We have a stack of fifty cookbooks at the restaurant, and I usually buy four or five cookbooks each month. When my dad was alive, he'd buy me thirty, forty used cookbooks from some dusty-shelved bookstore for Christmas. I couldn't wait to devour them.
Proudest moment as a chef: When I was working as a catering chef, my boss sent to me to Umbria for a week-long cooking class that was taught by a 68-year-old woman we called Mama. Most of the class was full of home cooks, except for three of us -- me, Mama and this guy, Serge, who was a restaurateur in Quebec and Celine Dion's former private chef. I was just some little punk kid, but on the second-to-last day of the class, Mama couldn't cook -- she was sick -- so Serge and I cooked that night for everyone in the class and everyone staying at the B&B where the cooking classes were held. It was such a blast. Mama spoke Italian, Serge spoke French and I spoke English, so we couldn't understand each other's language, but we totally understood each other through cooking, through the sizzle. It was a real defining moment for me, and when I came back to America and realized that I'd held my own, it was the first time in my life that I'd ever felt worthy of calling myself a chef.
Best food city in America: Chicago has it all: high-end cuisine at Charlie Trotter's; open minds at Alinea; the best Mexican food at Frontera Grill; great food at Avec, Graham Elliot, Publican, Sepia, Hot Chocolate, Green Zebra, Moto...the list goes on and on. Did I mention that Chicago also has the best hot dogs anywhere?
Favorite New York restaurant: I wish I'd been to New York enough times to visit all the restaurants I hear and read about, but I never get to New York. It's always Chicago, San Francisco or New Orleans for me. But my wife just told me that she has a business trip to New York coming up next summer and I'm going with her, so I can't wait to answer this question later. I want to go to Babbo, Prune and, of course, Momofuku.
Favorite music to cook by: For day-to-day cooking, I like listening to Ryan Adams. When it's an hour before the doors open and we need something to drive the kitchen, we listen to Rush.
Culinarily speaking, Denver has the best: Small independent group of restaurant owners, chefs, bartenders and servers who strive to support the other independents. It makes me ecstatic when other chefs come to Fuel, and it makes me especially proud to be mentioned in the same sentence as some of them.
Culinarily speaking, Denver has the worst: Ratio of steakhouse chains to independent restaurants. It makes me crazy that we have more than one steakhouse on a single block.
Favorite cookbooks: Moro. The authors, Sam and Samantha Clark, do amazing things with vegetables, although the book is all about truly authentic Spanish food in England -- dark, concentrated flavors. I only know of one restaurant in America that's doing justice to Spanish cuisine like they are: Mas Tapas in Charlottesville, Virginia. I wish Denver had a true tapas restaurant like that.
What show would you pitch to the Food Network? Give me a topic, whether it's food, wine, music or travel, and then let's make a dinner party evolve from that topic. Start with Brazil and end up with feijoada completa and caipirinhas. Or start with choucroute and end up with great beer and homemade pretzels with beer-cheese sauce and convince people to wear lederhosen. I love having conversations with people about food -- listening to them describe their favorite places to visit, their favorite dishes that their grandmother use to cook, or where they had their first date, and then turning those memories into a celebration.
Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: A worm when I was four or five.
Current Denver culinary genius: Patrick DuPays at Z Cuisine. He makes the best French food in Denver, respects his ingredients, respects tradition, and works his tail off to source the best ingredients he can get. His pork belly with lentils is like French soul food.
You're making a pizza. What's on it? Whatever my three-year-old, Celie, will eat at the time. Right now, it's a plain cheese pizza with either bleu cheese or goat cheese.
You're making an omelet. What's in it? Nothing. Give me tortilla española instead.
Best culinary tip for a home cook: Whenever you subscribe to a cooking magazine, promise yourself that you'll actually cook at least one thing from every single magazine.
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After-work hangout: Home with my wife and daughter and a glass or two of wine.
If you could cook for one person, dead or alive, who would it be? My sister, Anne Marie, who passed away several years ago. She was always as excited as I was to cook. She never cooked anything simple.
You're at the market: What do you buy two of? Beers for my staff and bottles of wine that none of us have ever tried before.
Hardest lesson you've learned: Don't wait until it's too late to follow your dreams. I wish I would have had the guts to get a restaurant up and going years ago. I always thought I could do it, but always made excuses why I shouldn't. These days, when it comes to decisions about the menus at Fuel, we just let things happen. I work with two great fellow cooks in the kitchen, who I think are starting to follow their instincts a lot more, too.