This is part two of my interview with Eric Cimino, chef of Luca D'Italia; part one of our chat ran yesterday.
What's the best food- or kitchen-related gift you've been given? I love getting new cookbooks, especially the odd, quirky ones, and I'm always searching for older, collectible, illustrated books on herbs and vegetables. Right now, my favorite cookbook is Manresa: An Edible Reflection.
Favorite culinary-related item to give as a gift: A great bottle of olive oil is an awesome gift, because it's one of those things that people really love but don't often buy for themselves.
What's your fantasy splurge? I'd eat my way through Peru. There's a really exciting food explosion happening there right now, and the abundance of awesome ingredients that they've been mastering for centuries is really amazing.
If you could have dinner, all expenses paid, at any restaurant in the world, where would you go? I've always wanted to go to Arzak, in San Sebastián, Spain. Spanish cuisine is wonderful, and the integration of modern techniques with hundreds of years of traditional food culture really intrigues me.
If you could dress any way you want, what would you wear in the kitchen? It all depends on the restaurant environment. I appreciate the formality of the chef whites in a fine-dining setting, but I like the relaxed feel of a T-shirt and comfortable pants when the mood is more casual.
Best recipe tip for a home cook: Working from recipes is a great way to learn. Follow a recipe at least once, and then, based on your likes and dislikes, try and make it your own.
If you could make one request of Denver diners, what would it be? I'd ask them to be more adventurous and keep an open mind when dining out. You never know when something new might take you by surprise.
What do you expect from a restaurant critic? I expect a restaurant critic to start their dining experience with a clean slate -- no preconceived judgments. I also think anonymity can be a good thing, but my goal is for every guest to have the best dining experience possible.
Would you ever send a dish back if you were dining in a friend's restaurant? I wouldn't send a dish back, but I would probably talk to them later about why I didn't think it worked.
What piece of advice would you give to an aspiring chef? You have to stay focused and continue to make forward moves.
If you could train under any chef in the world, who would it be? I'd love to spend time training under Christopher Kostow, the chef at the Restaurant at Meadowood, and also chef Josh Skenes, from Saison in San Francisco. They're so incredibly talented and have so much to teach, and I love that their cuisines are very progressive without being gimmicky.
What skills and attributes do you look for when hiring kitchen staff? I look for passion, drive and energy when hiring kitchen staff. These are traits that can't be taught.
Favorite dish on your menu: Right now, it's the baccala ravioli with sweetbreads, hedgehog mushrooms and brown butter. The salt cod and sweetbreads really complement each other, and a squeeze of lemon balances everything out.
What dish would you love to put on your menu, regardless of how well it would sell? I really love skate, but people in Denver tend to have a hard time with unfamiliar seafood.
It's your night off and you're starving. What's your go-to quick fix? I'll make a breakfast burrito with bacon, eggs, cheese, salsa and potatoes if I have them. I could eat at least one burrito a day if my wife would let me get away with it.
Weirdest customer request: "Can the lamb tartare be made vegetarian?" That was definitely one of the strangest requests I've had from a guest.
What's your biggest pet peeve? Not owning up to your mistakes. If you drop it, spill it or break it, or if you make a mistake, own it. And if you make a mess, clean it up. It drives me crazy when someone in the kitchen won't take responsibility for his or her actions.
Your best traits: Patience, a positive attitude, a good work ethic, and a willingness to do what it takes to get the job done.
Your worst traits: I often try to be everywhere at the same time. I have to remind myself that it's just not possible.
Which talent do you most wish you had? I'd like to be more talented when it comes to making cheese. There's a real art to the cheese-making process; I wish I had it.
If you had the opportunity to open your own restaurant with no budget constraints, what kind of restaurant would you open? I'd probably head down to Central America and open a small restaurant on the beach that's attached to ten bungalows.
Biggest mistake a chef can make on the line: Not trusting your crew and not understanding their abilities and limitations.
What's been your worst disaster in the kitchen? I cut myself pretty badly on the meat slicer my second week at Luca and had to get stitches. It was painful, but I think my pride was more damaged, because I was the new guy trying to learn everything with one hand.
Craziest night in the kitchen: Last Tuesday afternoon, we had a power line to the building explode and then catch on fire right on top of the roof. Some of the staff was on the roof with fire extinguishers, while the rest of us were scrambling to get all the prep put away in the kitchen and salvaging whatever product we could. And because there was a blackout, we didn't have service at Bones, Vesper or Luca. The good news is that I got an unexpected Tuesday night off, and by Wednesday, things were back to normal.
Biggest moment of euphoria in the kitchen: I haven't had any major moments of euphoria in the kitchen, but the first time everything really clicks on the line, everything is running smoothly and everyone is working really well together -- every time I get a little glimpse of all that hard work paying off -- that's euphoric.
Kitchen rule you always adhere to: The number-one rule in all Bonanno restaurants is no pots on the cutting boards. That's a rule I never break.
Kitchen rule you're not afraid to break: My wife is one of our servers, so I guess I'd have to say dating -- or marrying -- someone I work with.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef: It's yet to come. I still have so much to learn as a chef, and I'm looking forward to a long career in this industry.
What's one thing that people would be surprised to know about you? I have a whole string of food allergies, including melons, avocado and some unripe vegetables. I also have a degree in psychology, which might be one of my biggest assets when it comes to working in the kitchen.
If you hadn't become a chef, what would you be doing right now? I'd most likely be making custom plateware for restaurants. It's a hobby that I'd like to pursue if I could find the time and facilities to do it.
What's in the pipeline? There aren't any major changes in store for Luca, at least not in the foreseeable future. We're really happy with the direction the restaurant is heading, and we're looking to stay the course for now.
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Last meal before you die: New Mexico-style red-chile enchiladas -- flat, layered enchiladas with cheese, onions and a fiery-hot red-chile sauce -- with a fried egg on top. It's a perfect, simple and delicious meal that's been a Cimino family tradition for as long as I can remember.