This is part one of my chef interview with Doug Anderson, owner and master baker of Hi*Rise. Read part two of my chat with Anderson.
At 32, Doug Anderson decided he wanted to work in a restaurant -- something he'd never considered while growing up on a ranch in Rapid City, South Dakota, the son of a cattleman who couldn't cook to save his life. "More or less, we ate because it was time to eat. The expectation was that there was food on your plate, so you'd better eat it or else," says Anderson, the owner/baker of Hi*Rise. "My dad was awful in the kitchen, but my mom did make really good cinnamon rolls -- the best on the planet, actually. But with five kids in the house, it really was all about just eating rather than the experience of eating."
That changed for Anderson many years later, after he'd moved to Denver in the late '80s and was a stay-at-home dad who began experimenting in his own kitchen, making pizza crusts and messing around with cookbooks. "We didn't want our kids in daycare, so I stayed home during the day, doing stuff in the kitchen, while my wife worked, and I eventually got to the point where I wanted a night job -- specifically, a job in a restaurant, since I'd never worked in one before," explains Anderson.
He had a keen interest in baking, so he got a gig baking bagels at the original Mo's Bagels in Boulder, where he eventually became the baking manager, churning out 300 dozen bagels every day just to feed the students and faculty at the University of Colorado. "I'd get in early in the morning and bake bagels for five hours straight," remembers Anderson, who stayed with Mo's for six years before leaving to take a job managing a Spicy Pickle while simultaneously searching for a store to call his own. "I wanted to learn the business side of running a restaurant, and the Spicy Pickle provided a great place to do that, but all the while I was there, I was looking for locations, and I kept coming back to the Ballpark neighborhood, because I just loved the feel of it," he says.
At the same time, he was also nurturing a need (knead?) to learn more about bagels, so he spent a week in New Jersey holed up at the Bagel Factory -- a bagel shop owned by a friend of a friend. Anderson was so impressed by the craftsmanship of those bagels that he asked the owner if he would considering selling the recipes to him. Instead, the owner simply handed them over, quoting from The Godfather. "He said, 'Someday, I'll call upon you to do a service for me, but until that day, accept this as a gift,'" Anderson remembers. His recipes at Hi*Rise are still based on those of the Bagel Factory, which include measurements, he says, like "half a coffee cup of salt."
Equipped with the knowledge and skill to finally open his own bakery, Anderson inked a deal on the Ballpark space in 2006, rehabbed it in 2008 and opened Hi*Rise in the spring of 2009. He'd hired a baker while he got the restaurant up and running, but she quit after four months, and "stole the hard copies of my recipe book and deleted all my files from my computer," he says. Fortunately, he knew a computer genius who was able to restore his files. "When that happened," Anderson recalls, "I took the opportunity to step into the baker's role, and I've got to admit that the breads here are a helluva lot better now than they were when she was here."
Over a recent spread of bagels, breads, sandwiches and cookies at Hi*Rise, Anderson raps on sign twirlers, the weirdest chili he's ever eaten and what it takes to make ordinary bread happy bread.
Six words to describe your food: Honest, approachable, fresh, satisfying, uncomplicated and flavorful.
Ten words to describe you: Ant or grasshopper? Ant -- with just a hint of grasshopper.
Favorite ingredient: Almost anything pickled, preserved or brined. Olives, capers, pickles, jalapeños, sun-dried tomatoes, slaws -- they're all great sandwich ingredients that add a whole different harmony to the standard chorus of meat-cheese-lettuce-and-tomato.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: We use locally milled bread flour and bagel flour that we get from our flour distributor. It's slightly softer (lower in protein) than the big mill products, but it mixes well and works great -- and I like knowing where it's from.
Most overrated ingredient: Lavender. I see it in breads and cakes and frostings, and to me it's totally a soap ingredient.
Most underrated ingredient: Buttermilk, which thickens better and results in better flavor than regular milk. We use it exclusively in our muffins, biscuits and waffles, and in anything with a batter besides cake. One of our cookie recipes even uses it.
One food you detest: Eggplant. As a small child, my Norwegian grandmother made a dish with eggplant, possibly a dessert, and I've been scarred for life. I'm not a picky eater by nature, but eggplant remains on the dislike list.
One food you can't live without: Cheese. Just a few basic ingredients, and, like bread, the rest is all time, temperature and intent. I'm a huge fan of harder and aged cheeses. Two words: Wensleydale cheddar.
Best recent food find: I love shopping at Avanza and Rancho Liborio. This spring I bought piloncillo -- the cone-shaped Mexican brown sugar -- and ground it down to nuggets in a food processor and used it in Belgian waffles. It melts a little, then re-crystallizes to make the waffles crispy while they're hot. It's delicious.
Favorite spice: Vietnamese Cassia cinnamon. It's not "true" cinnamon, but it's what we use in our cookies and pastries. We've made side-by-side comparisons of Cassia and regular cinnamon, and for us there's no debate when it comes to flavor.
Favorite dish on your menu: Typically, my favorite dish is whatever we've come up with most recently, although I still have an egg sandwich on a bagel nearly every day. I think the Italian sub is my favorite sandwich -- good garlicky salami, capicolla, roast pork loin, olive tapenade, romaine, Provolone, garlic mayo and red-wine vinaigrette on ciabatta.
If you could put any dish on your menu, even though it might not sell, what would it be? I'd love to be able to do more artisan and European breads -- breads like fougasse, epi, brioche and shwartzbrot. They're beautiful, delicious and so pretty that you almost don't want to eat them; they make life more beautiful.
Favorite dish to cook at home: Simple pasta with sauce and fresh herbs and vegetables, homemade pizza, or panini grilled on the ol' George Foreman.
Favorite music to cook by: There are always two of us baking very early in the morning, and we listen to the UFO-Bigfoot-conspiracy-theory overnight talk show on AM radio. Once the shop is open, the sandwich line listens to the music in the dining room, which is usually newish rock or '80s music. In the kitchen, it's fairly quiet, and the radio gets pretty eclectic -- NPR, modern rock, bluegrass, sometimes jazz, or hip-hop. I can only take so much of the oldies, though. I was there, I heard it, and would rather hear something new.
What's never in your kitchen? REO Speedwagon. Can't stand that guy's -- what's his name? -- singing. And table salt. If you taste table salt and kosher salt side by side, table salt is noticeably more overpowering and has a strong artificial or chemical taste. Part of that's due to its smaller grains. Kosher salt, on the other hand, is flaked and tastes more natural -- and we use kosher salt in everything we do.
What's always in your kitchen? Unsalted butter. Leaving out the salt means you can use it in anything and then add or adjust the salt later.
Rules of conduct in your kitchen: Work hard; keep a clean work station; follow the recipes; don't steal my Sharpie; have a thick skin and prepare for a fair amount of ridicule; pretty counts -- we eat first with our eyes; don't leave stuff for someone else to clean up; be flexible for me and I'll give you flexibility in return; taste what you're making, and if it's no good, then start over. Rule of thumb: If you wouldn't serve it to your mother, it doesn't go out of our kitchen.
Biggest kitchen disaster: Bagels are always boiled before baking, and we use a forty-gallon steam jacketed kettle to boil the bagels every morning. One morning, the kettle had just started boiling when a seal failed, sending high-pressure steam shooting out. No steam equals no boiling water equals no bagels, so before the water completely lost temperature, I started throwing bagels in as fast as I could to boil them and get them in the oven. It was about ten minutes of pandemonium, but I got them all baked -- and then got a hefty repair bill for the kettle.
What's the best food- or kitchen-related gift you've been given? Years ago, my boss gave me money to buy a KitchenAid stand mixer. It's been in every kitchen in every place we've moved, and it's still a workhorse. I've mixed bagel dough in that thing till the housing was too hot to touch. I love that machine.
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One book that every chef should read:: Crust and Crumb, by Peter Reinhart. Reinhart is one of the most recognized bakers in America today, and he doesn't just dole out recipes. He offers real technique, history, insight, and science so that you can understand why each step -- and each ingredient -- is necessary. I know chefs who dislike baking -- chefs who are even afraid of it -- but Reinhart demystifies so much of the baking process. In his later books, he presents whole-grain techniques that blew me away, but Crust and Crumb is all you need --- plus his recipes are in standard measurements and baker's percentages so that they're already formatted for larger-scale production.
Best culinary tip for a home cook: Cook, cook, cook; read about cooking; talk to other people about cooking; use social media to connect with people to talk about cooking (I'm a huge Twitter fan!); go to the library and check out books about cooking; take a cooking class; cook like you mean it, and don't be afraid to make mistakes. It's just as important to know why things don't work as it is to know why they do work.
Hardest lesson you've learned: Find out what bread needs to be happy. Our sourdough is one of our most popular sandwich breads, but in the beginning, eating it never made me happy. I didn't like the crumb, the crust or the flavor, but I kept working with it, reading about it and picking the brains of other bakers to learn more about it. Now I love that sourdough, but I still look for ways to make it better. From a business standpoint, I've learned -- and relearned -- that time is unforgiving. It makes less sense to procrastinate and more sense to do things right now. That sense of urgency has to carry us through everything we do.