This is part one of my interview with Dave Lindberg, exec chef of Bonanno Brothers Pizzeria; part two of our chat will run tomorrow.
Imagine -- no sugar, so salt, no butter. "My mom didn't understand why I always wanted to go and hang out at a friend's house," says David Lindberg. "She raised me so damn healthy -- my splurge was Cheerios, but my friends? Their moms had Fruity Pebbles and Skippy peanut butter, so I'd sneak away and eat all the bad shit and then go home and eat the good stuff."
See also: - Part two with Dave Lindberg, exec chef of Bonanno Brothers Pizzeria - Photos: Bonanno Brothers Pizzeria opening in Park Meadows Saturday - Chef and Tell with Frank Bonanno of Luca, Mizuna, Osteria Marco and Bones
No wonder Lindberg, now the executive chef of Bonanno Brothers Pizzeria, didn't have cooking aspirations while he was growing up in a small town just south of Seattle. "My childhood was really all about eating healthy and making sandwiches. I consider whatever I can put between two layers of bread cooking," he cracks.
But a trip to San Francisco during his sophomore year of college changed Lindberg's perceptions of cooking -- and his career path. "I went to San Francisco with a friend whose brother was a big-time chef, and we were escorted through the kitchen, and I was completely blown away," recalls Lindberg. "There were thirty people in the kitchen, all in chef's jackets, sauté pans were flaming everywhere, guys were peeling 200 pounds of potatoes, the chef's table was all dressed -- it was a crazy atmosphere that I loved." Two weeks later, just before his finals, he abandoned his textbooks. "I knew that school wasn't for me, that I was there for all the wrong reasons -- to party and play football. I was just done," he says.
But his education was far from complete. He simply switched classrooms, moving from a traditional landscape to a culinary climate. "That experience in San Francisco -- that was going to be my career," says Lindberg. "I wanted to seize the moment -- the time was now -- so I went to full-service culinary school and loved every minute of it."
And it loved him back. On Lindberg's first day, he was relegated to the breakfast short-order-cook station alongside four girls who didn't know how to break an egg, much less fry or flip it. "Everything went downhill fast, but I later learned that I'd saved the morning," he recalls -- because the chef then asked whether he had "a fast car to the east side of Washington."
"I had no clue what the guy was talking about, but he gave me a number, I called it, and an hour later I was working in one of the best restaurants in Washington state at the time," says Lindberg. "The chef offered me food and a beer and then asked me if I wanted to cook that night, and I did -- for almost three years."
Lindberg graduated from the kitchen as a sous chef before taking off to the Cayman Islands for a change of scenery. "I was planning to stay for thirty days, and on day 29, I got a job and wound up cooking down there for four years," says Lindberg, who was there when Hurricane Ivan devastated the islands, leaving him with little more than his flip-flops and the shirt on his back. "It was a war zone. Everything was destroyed, so I spent another month helping people out, and then I had no choice but to leave."
He ended up in Palm Springs, where he cooked at a French restaurant before an opportunity arose to open a new restaurant in the desert. But the unbearable heat ultimately beat him down. He'd heard that Denver had an up-and-coming food scene -- and a better climate -- so he scooped up his knives and moved to the Mile High City in 2008, landing a job at the DIA Marriott, where he managed to squeak out a year. "It was the closest place to my apartment, but it was the unhappiest cooking year of my life," he admits. "Everything was ordered and thrown on a sheet pan and pushed into the oven. It was horrible."
Lindberg left to work on the line at Oceanaire, cooking alongside exec chef Matt Mine for nearly a year before he got wind that Luca d'Italia was hiring a pasta cook. "A friend told me about the job, and even though I didn't know squat about making pasta, I showed up and they gave me a stage," says Lindberg. "At the end of the night, I knew that I really wanted to work there, and I was super-lucky: They hired me on the spot, and it was the best thing that ever happened to me. It changed my life."
He'd go back to Washington once more, lured by promises of ownership -- and lots of money -- from a former employer. But six months into it, he realized that "the bastard was full of shit."
Frank Bonanno, who owns Luca, had warned him that he was making a mistake, and Lindberg admits he should have listened. After ditching the "bastard," he got back into a kitchen rolling pasta, and then came the call: "I had gotten my head on straight and was working at an Italian restaurant in Seattle when Frank called and said that he was opening a new pizza place and wanted to know if I'd come back and be the chef," recalls Lindberg. A month later, he was back in Denver. "I have no regrets. I love Frank, and he gave me another amazing opportunity," says Lindberg, who in the following interview confesses to a preoccupation with mayonnaise and white bread, advises Lone Tree suburbanites to embrace crudo, and pleads for more competitions that praise the pig.
How do you describe your food? Simple, rustic, uncomplicated, straightforward and full of lots of fresh ingredients. I also love making the classics.
Ten words to describe you: Competitive, sensitive, happy, direct, caring, loving, funny, loud, athletic and big. I'm known as "Big Dave" on the block.
What are your ingredient obsessions? Butter, cheese, bread, oils and salts. They all work together to make food simple and delicious.
What are your kitchen-gadget obsessions? Sharp knives, nice peelers, Vita-Preps, KitchenAid mixers, Hobarts and, of course, pizza ovens.
What's your favorite local ingredient, and where do you get it? Palisade peaches. I'll never forget the first one I had; it was the sweetest, juiciest peach ever. Sorry, Georgia. I love that our local farmers' markets carry them.
One ingredient you won't touch: Those sliced, canned black-truffle pieces are flavorless, woody, overpriced and pointless. I believe there are some things you should never can; black truffles are one of those things.
Food trend you would love to see in 2013: I'd love to see more competitions among restaurants and chefs. The Cochon 555 "Prince or Princess of Porc" competition that took place in Denver a couple of years ago is a great example of that. Who can make the best pig dish? Who can blow the minds of pig lovers everywhere? All of these different kitchens going crazy, trying to create their own interpretations of pig goodness -- who doesn't want more of that? I think small competitions like this would only build and improve the Denver food scene. There could be competitions for best pasta, tacos, pizza...the possibilities are endless.
Food trend you'd like to see disappear in 2013: Maybe I'm old-school, but molecular gastronomy just isn't my thing. I think the ingredients should speak for themselves. Food shouldn't look like a science fair or a chemistry project on a plate.
One food you detest: Alfalfa sprouts taste like weird soap to me. I'll eat anything -- or try anything, at least -- but there's something about alfalfa sprouts. Just the smell of them makes me think I must have been traumatized as a child.
One food that you can't live without: Mayonnaise. Is that weird? Whatever. I just love it. I even love plain mayonnaise sandwiches on white bread. My mom used to make them for me as a kid and never questioned why I only wanted mayo. Kewpie is my favorite.
Favorite dish on your menu: The lonza and the bresaola, both of which have been house-cured by yours truly with the help of my Red Wing, Andrew Boyer.
Biggest menu bomb: I haven't had any bombs yet at the pizzeria, probably because we're still so new, but I'll admit that the Lone Tree community isn't quite that hip or excited about crudo -- Italian-style sashimi -- just yet. Don't be scared.
Weirdest customer request: Anyone heard of the carne pizza? This one guy wanted that pizza...without pizza dough. He wanted everything heated up on a plate -- mozzarella, Parmesan, ricotta, pepperoni, meatballs and housemade sausage, and sauce on the side. He said he had a toothache.
Weirdest thing you've ever put in your mouth: Kombucha with chia seeds in it. How the hell do you get past that texture? I know that chia seeds are good for you -- and I eat them -- but something about that drink.... I mean, do you chew it? Do you just swallow it? I don't know, but it's just weird to me.
What's always lurking in your refrigerator? Homemade pickles and natural peanut butter. It's my second-favorite sandwich combo right after mayonnaise and white bread.
Last meal before you die: A T-bone steak Rossini-style with a side of homemade mushroom-and-garlic pierogi and a bottle of 1990 Borgogno "Riserva" Barolo. Cookies-and-cream icebox cake for dessert, then maybe a nice glass of Moscato D'Asti followed by a shot of Jim Beam.