Culinary inspirations: Norman Van Aken. I'm a south Florida guy, so when I came out of CIA in 1990 and moved back to Florida, Norman was definitely the most creative and interesting guy at the time - really friendly, too - and he was so cutting-edge. He was the first guy that I'd met who wasn't just thinking about cooking the food, but about the artistic part of it, too. Thomas Keller is the dean of American chefs and a business genius. I actually think Thomas Keller should be president. "Thomas Keller for president": You heard it here first. Back in 2000, I got to eat at Joël Robuchon in Paris, and the entire experience was just aesthetic perfection, from the food presentation to the service. It's just so admirable that someone can achieve that kind of perfection in dining, especially when it's a restaurant that gets so much hype. But Joël Robuchon totally lives up to the hype. And then there's this guy, Michel Bras, who I just recently discovered, and he's doing some pretty inspiring things, too -- like taking pictures of lightning and then designing his food to look like the picture. He's a kooky, lunatic genius of a chef who's way left of left field, but I think what he's doing is pretty cool.
Best food city in America: For creative food, I love Chicago. My dinner at L20 might be in the top three meals ever. Blackbird is still good. I've had the kitchen-table degustation at Charlie Trotters and interesting Italian at Boka -- and then there's Alinea and Moto, which aren't my favorites, but they're definitely cutting-edge. Even the second-tier places like NoMI and Avec are great. For ingredient-driven food, San Francisco is my city. The commitment to fresh and perfect ingredients is just better there. As a famous poet once said, there's a "there" there.
Favorite Denver restaurant other than your own: The best restaurant in Colorado is L'Atelier in Boulder. You should print that.
Proudest moment as a chef: When Ferdinand Metz, a great chef and the former president of the CIA in Hyde Park, came into Opus for dinner, detailed positive notes on every dish on the tasting menu, and shook my hand and told me how much he liked the food. His signature is on my diploma and on the menu that I designed for him ten years later. CIA grads will appreciate this.
Favorite music to cook by: Led Zeppelin and Tom Waits. Of course, there is no music in a real professional kitchen, but I hear the music in my head.
One food you detest: I hate congee and natto. I have an open mind toward Asian food, but not glop. Salmon that's cooked through isn't a favorite, either, but that's how everyone orders it.
One food you can't live without: I can't live without pasta. I can eat good pasta any time, any place, anywhere. I'm from an Italian family, and it's just ingrained in my life. I eat in at least two times a week, even though I shouldn't.
Most embarrassing moment in the kitchen: When I was in Florida, I was working at a restaurant called the Topaz Cafe. We had to make something like fifty chocolate-covered balloons -- you know, blow them up and dip them in the chocolate to make molds, which was a huge trend back in the '90s. I had this very South Beach-y owner who said the balloons would pop, which I didn't believe, but guess what? She was right. The balloons popped and chocolate went all over her white dress, the ceiling, the floor, the bar, the wine glasses and the guests. We were covered from head-to-toe in chocolate, and we found chocolate splatter in odd places months later.
Favorite cookbooks: Cooking With the Seasons, by Jean-Louis Palladin. He's another French genius, and in my opinion, that book marked the beginning of food porn.
What show would you pitch to the Food Network? A show called The Chef and I, whereby I'd cook a meal with wine with a fussy sommelier as my assistant. In dramatic fashion, I would say, "Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera," every time I'd add an ingredient, just like Emeril and his "Bam, bam, bam." And a lot like Yul Brynner. Or like Two Fat Ladies meets the King and I meets The Odd Couple. Steal this idea and I will get you. As every waiter in L.A. says, I'm working on a script.
If you could cook for one person, dead or alive, who would it be? Jimi Hendrix and Muhammad Ali. I'm just a great admirer of Muhammad Ali, and cooking wild and crazy food for Jimi Hendrix would just be so much fun.
Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: Veal that was harvested very young. Let's just say very young. Watch out, PETA. And I once drank tequila with fermented snakes in Miami.
Current Denver culinary genius: Ian Kleinman. His exuberant personality fits what he's doing. Only zany, happy, big-hearted people like Ian should do zany, happy food -- and his is certainly wild and interesting. My chef de cuisine, Sean McGaughey, is pretty damn good, too.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
You're making a pizza. What's on it? Cheese, fresh basil, tomato and crushed red pepper. In college, I'd order a pizza with black olives, anchovies and hot peppers for no other reason that I'd know that no one else wanted any. Can I say that people who put pineapple on pizza should be keel-hauled?
You're making an omelet. What's in it? Crisp duck skin and Le Vacherin Mont d'Or cheese.
You're at the market. What do you always buy two of? Espresso. I drink a lot of coffee.