This is part two of my interview with James Rugile, executive chef of Venue. To read part one of this interview, click here.
Culinary inspirations: Thomas Keller of the French Laundry for his pursuit of perfection and emphasis on technique, and Dan Barber of Blue Hill at Stone Barns for his emphasis on sustainability. He sources most of what's on his menu directly from his own farm, which I really respect.
Proudest moment as a chef: It was really humbling to cook for chefs Dan Barber and Andoni Aduriz when they were in town for the International Association of Culinary Professionals conference a few months ago. The board had approached us before the conference to ask us if we'd host a group of fourteen people, including Dan and Andoni, so we put together a tasting menu with nine courses paired with wines. We did a fun take on egg in the hole with a quail egg in brioche, Euphoria, a sheep's-milk cheese and guanciale. Having the opportunity to cook for a James Beard Award winner and a chef who has one of the best restaurants in the world is a little intimidating, but I was really flattered that they chose to enjoy their evening at Venue. Not only that, but they were incredibly gracious and appreciative. It really made me feel good -- and confident about what we're doing at our restaurant.
Best food city in America: I'm sure most people would agree that New York and Chicago are the best food cities in the country, but I really appreciate places like Portland that have small, super-inspired, chef-driven restaurants like Le Pigeon.
Favorite music to cook by: Michael McDonald, the Silver Fox. He really sets the tone in our kitchen when we're all in there just having fun. But if I'm cooking by myself, I'm listening to Scandinavian speed metal. It's really fast heavy metal with intricate guitar work.
Rules of conduct in your kitchen: Work clean, respect your ingredients, taste everything and guarantee consistency in every plate you send to the dining room.
Favorite New York restaurant: I really like what Sam Mason, the crazy-talented pastry chef who used to be at WD-50, is doing at Tailor, his new place that really exemplifies his creativity and talent. His drink list is a collaboration between the chef and bar manager, which is very cool. They do weird, experimental stuff like their own pumpernickel rye whiskey and smoked Coca-Cola -- stuff that's really chef-forward.
One food you detest: White pepper. It overpowers everything and tastes like old, stale sawdust.
One food you can't live without: Sandwiches, like a good Italian hoagie with mortadella, sopressata, capicolla, provolone and all the fixings. And Honey Bunches of Oats. I like the concept of food and milk in a single spoonful.
Most embarrassing moment in the kitchen: About two years ago, I was cooking at Black Pearl. We occasionally used fresh coconut, but only on one dish, so the fifty-pound case of coconuts we had in the kitchen sat around for a while. One night we needed more shaved coconut, so I grabbed one from the case and started to crack it open. I hit it with my knife once, twice, and with the third strike, it blew up like a grenade in my hand and shot up to the ceiling. Rancid coconut water had fermented inside the shell and set it off like a rotten champagne bottle. The smell was awful, and I had to fully change outfits to get rid of the stench.
Favorite cookbook: I really appreciate The French Laundry Cookbook. It stands the test of time and is still a great reference for me from time to time. I also really enjoy Culinary Artistry and every other book by Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page.
What show would you pitch to the Food Network? I'd create a show based on the backgrounds and stories of today's top chefs, like an interview series where I would get to sit down with people like Daniel Boulud, Thomas Keller, Ferran Adrià and Eric Ripert and get a personal, in-depth understanding of how they came to appreciate food, and what steps they took in their culinary careers to land where they are now. It would be a show where they'd reveal how they managed to achieve their success and the hardships they endured to become great -- an analysis of The Making of a Great Chef, if you will.
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SHOW ME HOW
You're at the market. What do you buy two of? I don't grocery-shop much for food. My refrigerator at home was busted for months, and it didn't even seem to affect me. I eat 98 percent of my meals at work or out at other restaurants...but I always seem to have two cans of tuna in the cupboard. Don't ask me why, but while I was growing up, we always seemed to have two cans of tuna in our pantry. I'd like to think that I'll use it as an emergency source of nourishment at some point...but I recently realized I don't even own a can opener.
Weirdest customer request: When I was eighteen, I worked breakfast at an upscale resort in Aspen, where I was assigned to work the omelet and egg station in the dining room. One of our regulars always requested his eggs "sunny-side up, turned over." If I'm not mistaken and my research is accurate, he wanted them over easy. But for some reason he couldn't grasp that. It perplexed me.
Hardest lesson you've learned: It'd be nice if, as an executive chef, I could be in the kitchen cooking all the time, but the job requires so many managerial duties: writing schedules and recipes, calling repairmen, becoming the repairman, costing and doing inventory. My passion is cooking, and if I had my choice, that's what I'd be doing all the time, but I've learned that I can't push all the other responsibilities aside. It's hard, man. There are so many tasks that aren't detailed in the job description, but they're an integral part of running a restaurant, so I've had to find a balance between being a chef who also runs a restaurant and being a cook who just cooks.