Samir Mohammad The Village Cork 1300 South Pearl Street 303-282-8399 www.villagecork.com
Long before Samir Mohammad could legally drive a car, he'd flipped burgers, rolled taquitos, tossed pizzas, blistered his hands cooking red and green chile, washed dishes, waited tables, prepped and drunk from the bottom of a keg. "Yeah, I started cooking in restaurants when I was around twelve, so pretty early on," says the 25-year-old Miami-born chef who was raised in Taos. Now the executive chef at the Village Cork, a lively neighborhood wine bar at the start of Old South Pearl Street, he's focused not on beer and rolled tacos, but on global wines, rooftop vegetable gardens, curing his own prosciutto and pancetta, and growing herbs on the high shelves in his exhibition kitchen.
Mohammad credits his uncle for steering him toward a professional cooking career. "My uncle was a chef all over Taos -- he worked everywhere -- and I was always interested in watching him cook and hearing him talk about his restaurants," he recalls. His parents were in the restaurant business, too, and when they opened a Hawaiian grill and coffeehouse in Taos, sixteen-year-old Mohammad dropped out of high school to work in the family business. He eventually got his GED, enlisted in the military and headed off to boot camp before finally landing in Hawaii aboard a United States Coast Guard ship. "I was mess cooking -- you know, the kitchen bitch," he says, laughing. But being a kitchen bitch had its advantages, he learned. "While I was cooking on the ship, I found out that the Coast Guard had a kick-ass culinary school in Petaluma, California, so I enrolled in their eight-month program and graduated in the top of my class," Mohammad relates.
For the next three years, he cooked for crew members aboard a ship stationed in Alaska; when his military service ended, he returned to Taos, where he snagged a gig on the sauté station at Joseph's Table -- a stint that convinced him to keep cooking. "That kitchen was like a classroom; there was always something new to learn," Mohammad says. "We were taught to really appreciate local ingredients and to use every scrap of food, including the skins from purple onions, which we'd throw in a coffee grinder to make purple powder to garnish the plates."
He kicked around Taos a while, headed west to Arizona for a three-year stretch at a resort on Lake Havasu, then moved to Denver, where he was initially hired as a line cook at Pesce Fresco. Three days later he was promoted to exec; two years later, when new owners were about to take over at the end of 2009, he was fired. "Joel Diner had approached me to see if I was interested in buying the place, and then, for whatever reason, he decided to sell it to someone else who just happened to be a chef, so I kind of knew that my days there were numbered," divulges Mohammad. "I was supposed to be there for another three months, but Joel gave me the go-ahead to interview for another job and then fired me as soon as I got back from the interview."
That interview was for a position at Shanahan's Steakhouse, but according to Mohammad, partner Marc Steron passed, calling Mohammad "overqualified." An ad on Craigslist led Mohammad to the Village Cork, where he couldn't be happier. "I interviewed, staged, knew this was where I wanted to be, and the rest is history," he says.
Six words to describe your food: Fresh, seasonal, well-balanced, rustic, delicious and simply executed.
Ten words to describe you: Humble, passionate, workaholic, respectful, perfectionist, anxious, visionary, progressive and environmentally aware.
Favorite ingredient: Pork. It's so versatile; every section and cut is unique, flavorful and different in taste. With beef or chicken, you get different cuts, but for the most part, it all just tastes the same. Plus, you aren't gonna get any pancetta outta beef.
Best recent food find: The Denver Urban Homesteading farmers' market on Second and Santa Fe. I've met a lot of great farmers and ranchers there, plus they have organic eggs, three or four different meat vendors, lots of spices, a pasta company and, this time of year, great potatoes and beets.
Most overrated ingredient: Caviar. It's just not that great for the price you have to pay. I would much rather eat a bowl of green chile stew.
Most undervalued ingredient: Sweet soy sauce. I call it Asian demi. I love to use it in hearty vegetarian dishes like my mushroom ragout in place of Worcestershire sauce, or with fresh tuna -- or even just drizzled over some risotto.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: Organic quinoa from White Mountain Farm in the San Luis Valley. I use the white and black quinoa, and I swear it's some of the best quinoa I've ever cooked with. I also get my chèvre and Taleggio from Jumpin' Good Goat Dairy in Buena Vista. Their chèvre is seriously the best I've ever had; you can really taste the love in the cheese.
One food you detest: Velveeta, if that's even considered a food. I think it's disgusting. I once quit working at a restaurant because the so-called chef started putting Velveeta in his chili. Why the hell would you ruin chili, or any other food for that matter, by using that hydrogenated-oil shit? But that's it: Any other food is okay by me.
One food you can't live without: New Mexican Hatch green chile, because it takes me back to my childhood in Taos. It's the one food that I could probably eat in anything, even ice cream. I love making a pancetta green chile stew with Yukon Gold potatoes, sweet onions, carrots, garlic, fresh sage and thyme. And I always serve some warm tortillas to go along with it.
What's never in your kitchen? Personal issues. The kitchen is my sanctuary and place of worship. It's where I go to create, and while I'm there, I put everything else in my life aside and concentrate on my love and passion for food. It shouldn't be clouded with other issues. I like to keep my sanctuary very zen. And you will never, ever find Tabasco sauce in my kitchen. Cholula or sriracha, yes, but never Tabasco.
What you'd like to see more of in Denver from a culinary standpoint: I would like to see more restaurants supporting local farms and ranches and using what we have in our own back yard. Farmers work super hard, and they're completely devoted to growing and raising the best products they can, despite the fact that they don't make a lot of money. They do it because of their love for freshness and quality, and we should respect and support their efforts.
What you'd like to see less of in Denver from a culinary standpoint: The number of burger joints is starting to get a bit out of control. If someone out there is planning to open another burger joint, at least try to use as much Colorado-grown food as possible.
Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: Jellyfish with seaweed. Thanks, Mom. The texture is what was so weird. It didn't taste bad; it was very crunchy and mild-flavored, but it took quite a bit of chewing to get it down. I can pretty much eat anything once, though.
Weirdest customer request: When I was at the Nautical Beachfront Resort in Lake Havasu City, Arizona, a customer wanted his calamari tossed in our hot wing sauce. I thought it was the weirdest thing ever, but we actually ended up putting it on the menu. It was pretty tasty if you were hammered.
Favorite Denver restaurant(s) other than your own: Sam's No. 3. It's just good ol' comfort food: potatoes, eggs and green chile. You can't go wrong there, especially after a long week of cooking for everyone else. I also think Thai Lotus is amazing. They have the best larb and curries, and even though I can't read the secret menu, they never seem to disappoint. I like just pointing to a dish on the menu and waiting for whatever surprise comes out of the kitchen.
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Favorite celebrity chef: Anthony Bourdain. He's a humble chef and a critical foodie. He not only creates amazing food through his own peasant cooking style, but he's so open to learning about new foods and cultures. And he's not shy about telling you that your food sucks.
Celebrity chef who should shut up: Guy Fieri. Is he really a chef? If so, his title should be stripped, because he does commercials for T.G.I. Friday's. I hate corporate food as it is, but when someone who calls himself a chef promotes the kind of pre-processed crap that T.G.I. Friday's puts out, he should no longer be considered a chef.
What's next for you? I want to cook at the Beard House with the big boys. Beyond that, we're looking into having a year-round greenhouse and maybe opening a second Village Cork, possibly in Boulder. I'm going to start making my own chèvre, gelato and sorbets, and I really want to incorporate a menu of locally sourced ingredients that constantly changes, if not every day, then at least several times a week.
Click here to read the rest of Lori Midson's interview with Samir Mohammad.