This is part one of my interview with Doug Mace, exec chef of Cy Steak and the forthcoming BaRed; part two of my chat with Mace will run tomorrow.
"I was a fat, chubby kid -- you know, the kind of kid who was always eating," admits Doug Mace, executive chef at CY Steak, a temple to marbled beef and slender strippers who occasionally strut their stuff on the runway that stretches across the dimly lit, sexy dining room next door to the Diamond Cabaret.
Mace was born and raised on Long Island, and food "was an integral part of everything in my life," he says -- in his kitchen at home, at restaurants and even in the car, where he and his dad would swell their bellies with mozzarella and pinwheels from the Italian deli on the corner. "I've just always loved food," sighs Mace, who was thirteen when he landed his first cooking job, at an Italian restaurant called Franina that still ranks as one of New York's top kitchens.
"I remember walking into the kitchen for the first time and being enamored with the overwhelming smell of garlic and fresh-baked bread," says Mace, who worked on and off at Franina for eight years, starting off as the resident floor sweeper before moving his way up to busboy, back-waiter and line cook. "The learning curve was never-ending, and the exposure to incredible products was limitless. No one had anything less than a perfect meal there, because everyone had the same high standards." He took time off from that kitchen to pursue an associate's degree from the Culinary Institute of America, which led to an externship at Morimoto, in New York City, where he was eventually hired as a line cook.
Cooking at Morimoto was "a phenomenal experience," he says, an experience that paraded him through nearly every station and taught him volumes about cooking for endless crowds. "I used to kill 150 lobsters every single morning, because you knew they were going to sell. It was always extremely busy, which I loved, but my favorite part of that job was eating there," Mace confesses.
He eventually left both gigs to move to Denver. "I needed to get away and do something for myself," he explains, "so I quit my jobs at Morimoto and Franina, packed my stuff up, bought a ticket and moved to Denver to ski and snowboard and get my bachelor's degree from Johnson & Wales." His first job in the Mile High City was at Epicurean Catering; he also spent time behind the line at Ocean Prime and Linger, which is where he was cooking when he met Cliff and Zach Young, the owners of CY Steak and BaRed, a small-plates restaurant and bar that will open next to the steakhouse by the end of the year.
"I was at Linger, but I had the pipeline open, so I was looking on Craigslist for jobs when I spotted an ad for an executive chef for an upscale steakhouse, and that's the kind of job I was looking for," says Mace, who came on board in April of this year. "I've never had a job where I've been so empowered to make decisions. There's really never a 'no' -- just good, solid advice from great people, which makes showing up to work so enjoyable," adds Mace, who in the following interview reveals that Taco Bell is a guilty pleasure, insists that age doesn't define experience, and admits that when he kisses a girl, he'd prefer the scent of roasted garlic on her breath.
What do you enjoy most about your craft? I love the chaos, or, to be more accurate, the "organized chaos" in the kitchen. You can plan ahead when it comes to prepping the food and serving the food, but in reality, there's a customer every day with a new request that throws your production schedule off and makes it necessary to think on your feet. I love being busy, because when I slow down, there had better be a bed or a couch nearby. My internal clock and body are used to running at top speed until I go home, and at that point, I'm in my bed sleeping.
Describe your approach to cooking: It's all about the food and the adventure from raw to cooked. I like to let the flavors do most of the speaking; too many people overcomplicate food. The Italian kitchen I first cooked in was about as great as it gets when it comes to food quality. No recipe had more than six ingredients or so, and no food has ever tasted so pure to me; it was the type of food that you had to try really hard to find something wrong with. Just because you can doesn't mean you should -- that's kind of how I approach cooking. I won't just throw fennel into a recipe unless it makes sense. Garnishes will be appropriate and contribute to the overall dish, and portion sizes will always please rather than disappoint.
What are your ingredient obsessions? Pantry items. In the kitchen in my apartment, you'll always find a plethora of pantry ingredients, including cans of San Marzano tomatoes, anchovies, vinegars, olive oils and flours. When I arrived in my new kitchen with Cliff Young, I told him that we we'd need to make a small investment in our pantry in order for me to operate here. When you cook a great dish, it's not hard to make something like a beautiful branzino or handcrafted pasta shine, but it's those less stunning ingredients that work so hard to support the main component.
What are your kitchen-gadget obsessions? I have two obsessions, both of which are non-negotiable for me, as they should be for any chef. The first is a great peeler, and the second is a decent sharpening stone, either oil or water, for your knives. I grew up cooking in a fine-dining Italian kitchen, which meant that when I finished sweeping floors and polishing stemware and glassware, I was given the privilege of peeling fifty-pound sacks of potatoes and carrots. It's like my mentor said: "Douglas, peel this carrot for me, and I will learn everything I need to know about you." It's about remedial tasks. Something as easy as peeling potatoes and carrots seem pointless, but when you pay a cook $15 to $20 an hour, a $14 sack of potatoes can cost you a fortune. With respect to the sharpening stone, the most dangerous knife is a dull knife. If you slice carrots for julienne cuts with a dull knife, for example, the carrot will most likely roll, sending your knife slipping down the side right toward your hand. Skills and experience can prevent these stupid accidents, but the knife always has a mind of its own, so just keep it sharp. I mean, it only takes two minutes of your time each day to sharpen it.
Favorite local ingredients and purveyors: I love Rocky Ford melons, but my favorite local ingredient is any cheese from Fruition Farm. Alex Seidel and his crew are doing amazing work at their dairy farm.
One ingredient you won't touch: Rose water. I've had exactly two dishes where rose water was present -- and pleasant -- but in every single one of the other fifty experiences, it was nasty on the palate. It's an ingredient that you need to know how to use properly, so if you don't have experience with it, do without it. Please.
One ingredient you can't live without: Roasted garlic. My girlfriend and I were talking one day with friends when the question of what you'd like your significant other to taste like when you kiss them came up. My friends responded with things like mint, bubblegum and strawberries. My answer was roasted garlic, which made them cringe, but I stand by my answer. It brings depth to salad dressings and sauces, and, hell, it's even amazing smeared on a toasted baguette.
Food trend you'd like to see more of: Simple and elegant food that's true to its roots. Very few recipes need more than six or seven ingredients to make them spectacular.
Food trend you'd like to see disappear: Snobby eating establishments, and along with that, the hipster evolution. I don't want to look at a menu and have to understand five languages. If you're using a classical preparation, make it approachable; and for that matter, I don't want a 1919 train conductor lookalike serving my food. If you're wearing your favorite band-merch tank top and have cut the shirt down the side, don't wear it to work if you're going to be the one handling or serving my food.
What specific requests would you ask of Denver diners? Be open to new interpretations of dishes that seem similar to you. It's amazing how simple a grilled cheese is to make, but one chef's personal preparation might blow your mind. I always suggest that you be willing to try something twice. Just because the first time you ordered foie gras resulted in a total bust doesn't mean that the second time won't be transformative.
Most underrated restaurant in Denver: I love the Greek food at Melita's Greek Cafe, and I love the hominess of Pete's Kitchen -- plus it always cures a hangover.
Most underrated chef in Denver: I think most Denver chefs get the appreciation they deserve, so I'm giving a shout-out to the guys who work the al pastor cart at Taco Mex, in Aurora.
What's your biggest challenge as a chef working in Denver? Denver restaurants don't care enough about résumés when they're hiring staff. A résumé can't say it all, but it's a good guideline for understanding the experience of the person that you might be hiring. No job is beneath me, but I am not a prep cook, nor am I a dishwasher. The mentality that everyone should begin at the bottom in order to move up just isn't my style. While every person needs to earn trust and respect, don't be surprised when a professional walks in to apply for a position within their capabilities and then turns your offer down for a $12-an-hour line-cook position.
If you could dress any way you wanted, what would you wear in the kitchen? Black slacks, a white coat, a neckerchief and a tall chef toque. I dig the classic uniform, so go ahead and call me weird.
What are your biggest pet peeves? People who don't think before they act. Just asking questions can prevent a lot of mistakes in the kitchen. That, and dismissing me because of my age. I'm a young chef, but even at 24 years old, I have more than ten years in the kitchen. But chefs don't look at me at the same level as some of the older chefs, simply because I'm young.
Your best traits: Managing money and a solid grasp for running a business. I like to work backwards, in that I start with a final goal and then form a way to achieve that goal. It's much easier to meet financial points that way.
Your worst traits: I ask a lot of myself, and at times I do that to others as well. I forget that in order for this business to work, I need two kinds of people: those who think like cooks and those who think like chefs.
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What's in the pipeline? My first million dollars. I don't know where it's going to come from, but it's there somewhere. My bosses, Zach and Cliff Young, and I are opening BaRed, a bar and restaurant with all small plates and a raw bar. It's going to be simple but dramatic, elegant but approachable. And we've been discussing the possibility of another venture after BaRed is up and running -- something substantial, and something people will tell their friends they have to visit when they're in Denver.