For a guy who’s made his living in professional kitchens, Max MacKissock recognizes that his early forays into cooking weren’t the stuff that dreams — much less careers — are made of. He remembers burning his tongue on fried smelts as a young child at a fish house back east. As a teen, he washed dishes by hand in an Italian restaurant for a threat-spewing chef. “I actually can’t believe I’m still in the industry after that terrifying intro,” he says. But MacKissock, who took a break after leaving the Squeaky Bean more than two years ago, is definitely still in the industry, and once again finds himself at an Italian restaurant, this time as chef-partner at Bar Dough, which opened in LoHi last fall. Read on to learn how Bar Dough came to be, MacKissock’s favorite neighborhood haunts, and who does the cooking at home, given that he’s married to James Beard Award-winning chef Jennifer Jasinski.
Westword: You left the Squeaky Bean in 2013. Why was Bar Dough the right project to get you back in the kitchen?
Max MacKissock: Not long after leaving the Bean, Blake Edmunds, Stephen Gallic and I started working on a project, partnering with a Colorado distiller to do this major deal. We had a space, concept, everything ready to roll, and at literally the last second our investor backed out. It was a tough blow; we had been working on it for the better part of a year. The next week, I was cooking at Old Major for an event. I saw Juan Padro [co-owner of Highland Tap & Burger] there, and he was like, “What are you doing?” I explained the whole deal falling through and halfway kidding said, “Why don’t you open me a restaurant?” He walked away chuckling, then came back about twenty minutes later and asked if I was serious. I said 100 percent. We met the next day, and he told me about Bar Dough.
Pizza is a hot category right now. What niche are you trying to carve out at Bar Dough?
Our pizza doesn’t fit into any of the traditional categories, and that’s okay with me. We use a wood-fired oven, but only at about 800 degrees rather than the traditional Napoletana temperature of 1,000. I feel that the dough needs more time to develop so it has a shelf; I don’t like soggy pizza. We spend a lot of time picking really high-quality ingredients. Cheese, tomatoes, meats, flour: All of these have gone through rigorous testing. My new figure is proof.
Where did you get your inspiration when developing the menu?
I’ve always loved Italian food; it is by far the biggest part of my pedigree. That said, I didn’t want to be regionally specific or even “authentic,” for that matter. The food is creative versions of Italian and Italian-American classics. We chef things up a bit with really good techniques, some dishes more so than others. My team — Blake Edmunds, Matthew Murphy, Cactus Douglas, Toby Prout and all the other guys — really keeps us moving forward. I feel like we just got caught up from opening and are really looking forward to taking the clamps off and having some fun with the spring menu. Expect a lot of changes.
What’s a career highlight?
I’ve been fortunate to garner a few acknowledgements over the years, and it’s always nice to know people like what you’re working hard for. That being said, any time I have a chance to cook for my parents in my restaurant, it’s something I’ll cherish forever. They are both my biggest supporters, and I love to make them super-over-the-top meals.
Hardest moment in your career:
I grew up reading Food & Wine and would save the “Best New Chef” issue every single year. I really, really wanted to win. I was a finalist a couple of times. The last time when I didn’t win, I took it really hard. I knew that it was my last chance. It made me question a lot of things. I will say it gave me new direction, though, which is great.
How long have you been in the business?
I started out as a dishwasher at Sonny’s Italian restaurant when I was fourteen years old. It was the worst job I’ve ever had. I worked in this little room with a tiny window that was the only ventilation. I would scrape rectangular-shaped pizza pans and wash dishes in a three-bay sink. That’s right: no machine. I was the machine. You would be dying if it was cold outside; in the summers it was borderline torture. For all of its faults, the job taught me to work with a sense of urgency, mainly because the chef — a 450-pound paisan named Joe Paisano — was always nearby, issuing threats.
Why did you decide to start cooking?
After a few years of prepping and dishwashing, it was the next logical step. I wanted to be up on the line with older, tougher guys. They were constantly talking shit to each other, and it looked like fun. I was always interested in cooking; I grew up watching cooking shows. Yan Can Cook, The Galloping Gourmet and The Frugal Gourmet were my favorites. I was always attracted to the higher end of food. It seemed very dignified, and I liked that. My mom was also very into cooking and always had Gourmet or Food & Wine kicking around.
What’s your earliest food memory?
When I was pretty young, maybe four or five, we were at Newick’s, a giant fish house on the coast of New Hampshire, having dinner after a day at the beach. I was starving, and no sooner had a bucket of fried smelts hit the table, I popped one in my mouth. These babies must have come directly out of the fryer and to our table, because they were the temperature of the sun. I reached for the first cup I could grab and took a huge sip to stop the burning. The funny part is that it was beer, Miller Lite, and I knocked back enough to give a toddler a nice little buzz — or fall asleep.
Did you have a mentor, and what did that person teach you that still rings true today?
I’ve had a lot of terrific teachers, but I never had a real mentor. I was always put into leadership roles probably a bit too early. I do look at my wife, Jen Jasinski, as a mentor, though. She has a wealth of knowledge, from the business side to butchery. She has helped me become a much better chef.
Biggest flop you’ve ever served:
When I was at Vita, I made lobster meatballs: Good idea, bad execution. They were fish-flavored racquetballs. I tried to make them better, but they never were very good.
If you could only work one station, what would it be?
I love garde manger. I love making sexy little plates.
Guilty food pleasure:
I have a lot, but I have a special place for chicken wings. Strictly Buffalo wings with ranch and blue cheese. For being pretty creative with food, when it comes to things like wings and burgers, I’m a purist all the way.
Favorite thing to eat for breakfast:
I eat an English muffin with smashed avocado and a fried egg almost every day. My new thing, though, is an acai bowl from Prosperoats. They are so damn refreshing.
Do you cook at home? If so, do you have a go-to dish?
Living in a house with another chef, people ask me all the time who cooks at home. The answer is definitively me. I would say I cook 90 percent of our meals. I love cooking at home; it calms me. We have a sick kitchen that Jen and I designed, so it makes it even better.
What kinds of restaurants/cuisines would you like to see more of in Denver?
I would love to see better Thai food in Denver. Some super-baller northern stuff all cooked over charcoal. Mmm.
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Best tip for a home cook:
A very important part of cooking is to use all of your senses. Most home cooks want black and white, but unfortunately there is a ton of gray in cooking. You need to be able to adjust and adapt. It’s really not all that difficult. Just use common sense and engage all of your senses.
What are the hidden gems in Denver’s dining scene?
There are tons, but I will stick to my neighborhood: Sunnyside. El Paraiso on Harlan Street is one of my go-to spots. It can be a bit of a circus in there, especially on the weekends, which is why I opt to sit at the “adults only” bar. The molcajetes are good, but I love the parrilladas. They come on little charcoal grills with a lot of fun things to stuff inside their delicious tortillas.
One of my favorite lunch-focused restaurants is Buchi Cafe Cubano. I always order the Aye Conyo sandwich and an avocado salad. The Aye Conyo is hands-down my favorite sandwich in the city, and the avocados in the salad are always perfect. They must hand-pick them every day.