This is part one of my interview with Eric Cimino, chef of Luca D'Italia; part two of our chat will tun tomorrow.
Like a lot of kids, Eric Cimino had a grand plan for when he arrived at adulthood. He wanted to be a psychologist, figuring he'd excel because he was the guy everyone hit up for guidance. He even graduated from Northern Arizona University with a degree in psychology, but like a lot of college survivors, he soon discovered that his original master plan wasn't the one he wanted to pursue. "I realized that I couldn't listen to people's problems all day long; I just couldn't see that future working out in the end, plus I cared too much to disconnect myself," confesses Cimino, today the executive chef at Luca D'Italia.
Born in Santa Fe, Cimino was deeply exposed to New Mexico's fabled food landscape as a kid, "spending time with my dad," he remembers, "and cleaning whole bushels of chiles and getting them bagged up for the wintertime." And while the family's kitchen table was never the place for extravagance, "there was always a solid home-cooked meal waiting for me, including red or green chile -- and sometimes there was Christmas, which is both," he says.
After college, Cimino took a gig at a mom-and-pop pizzeria, where he did prep, flipped pies, ran the ovens and even put in some management hours, all of which he enjoyed far more than the idea of sinking into a chair and asking a patient to share his feelings. "I really loved the restaurant environment because it was so fast-paced and unpredictable and there was always so much energy," he explains, "plus I was a night owl and had no problem with working late-night hours." He spent four years at the pizza joint, then spent the cash he'd earned on a one-way ticket to Europe.
Cimino touched down in Barcelona, spent three weeks in Spain and two weeks in Portugal, then explored Paris, Belgium, Germany, Budapest, Prague and Italy. While he was in Sicily, in the tiny town of Trapani, he realized that he belonged in a kitchen. "I was staying at this bed-and-breakfast and just started falling in love with everything there, with the culture, with the food, with the garden and with the 180 olive trees I woke up to every day," says Cimino. "The owner and I would make a big list of things we wanted at the market, and then we'd come back and he'd cook, and once I'd gained his trust, he eventually let me cook for friends who would come over, and it was all just this amazing, eye-opening and culturally rich experience."
Cimino still had another stop -- Morocco -- but he knew where he wanted to go after that. "While I was traveling throughout Europe, I had made the decision to go to culinary school, but I'd spent all my money, so I moved back to Tucson, worked in restaurants and finally earned enough money to go to CIA at Greystone," says Cimino, who adds that the location -- in the heart of the grape-soaked Napa Valley -- was an education in and of itself. "I got this great culinary education and wine education; I had tons of fresh produce at my fingertips; and I was able to really understand the direct connection between food and the seasons, which I absolutely loved." He also got to cook at the Girl & the Fig, the now-shuttered Cantinetta Piero in Yountville, and at Chiarello Family Vineyards, where he was responsible for all of the winery's food pairings.
In 2012, after two years in Napa, Cimino and his girlfriend -- now wife -- moved to Colorado. "We had visited Denver and fell in love with it, and we saw that it was a city that was gaining a lot of momentum and had a ton of culinary potential," says Cimino, who was hired as a pantry cook at Luca just four days after he arrived in the Mile High City. "I had a job before I had a place to live," he jokes.
Chef-restaurateur Frank Bonanno, who owns Luca (and nine other metro-Denver restaurants, with another on the way) soon moved him up to the pasta station, and last year, when Hunter Pritchett exited Luca's kitchen to relocate to Los Angeles, Bonanno pinpointed Cimino to take the reins. "I love Frank's energy, spontaneity and wild ideas, and I get to work closely with all the other inspirational chefs in his restaurants. I feel very privileged to be part of a bigger team than just Luca," concludes Cimino, who in the following interview admits that he detests peanut butter, recounts the night he got too close to the meat slicer, and details his confrontation with a turkey.
Lori Midson: What's your earliest food memory? Eric Cimino: I was four years old and living in Helena, Montana. My family and I were at a friend's farm for Thanksgiving, and I remember playing outside and being confronted -- and chased around -- by a very angry turkey. That turkey was the one they chose to cook up for dinner, and that experience was my first direct connection to food.
Ten words to describe you: Calm, serious, patient, passionate, teacher, counselor, dad, pensive, meticulous and busy.
Five words to describe your food: Deliberate, flavorful, creative, fun and thought-provoking.
What are your ingredient obsessions? I love eggs because they're so versatile, and I enjoy the flavors of fermented and preserved foods. I'm especially obsessed with white anchovies because they're salty, pickled and delicious. I'm also a big fan of offal (tongue, sweetbreads, liver, etc.); they're ingredients that have such a depth of flavor and interesting textures.
One ingredient you won't touch: I absolutely hate peanut butter with a passion, and I've had a dislike of it for as long as I can remember. I can't stand the smell, flavor or texture.
Food trend you'd like to see emerge in 2014: I'd love to see a surge of quality late-night food options -- not just greasy fried food.
Food trend you'd like to see disappear in 2014: The fancy-burger trend should call it quits.
Favorite piece of kitchen equipment: A much-loved wooden spoon that's perfect for risotto.
Your favorite smell in the kitchen: I can never get enough of the smell of onions sweating in rendered bacon.
Most memorable meal you've ever had: A meal I had in the Djemaa el-Fna open-air market in Marrakesh, Morocco, still rates as one of the most memorable food experiences I've ever had. The people, sights, sounds, smells and energy were just incredible. I remember the tajines with perfectly fluffed couscous, the escargot in butter and herbs, and the overwhelming flavors and spices -- it all just blew me away. I also had an amazing meal at Eleven Madison Park two summers ago that changed the way I look at food. Many of the dishes were very complex yet still managed to show restraint. The progression of the meal was also eye-opening; each dish on the tasting menu was carefully planned out and arranged in seamless succession.
Your three favorite Boulder/Denver restaurants other than your own: I love my ethnic food. I go to El Taco de México for the burrito al pastor smothered in green chile, and I can't get enough of Pho 96 for the combination soup and the Vietnamese egg rolls; the freshness of the herbs with the clean broth gets me every time. For the money, Sushi Sasa has one of the best lunch deals in town, and their menu is always on point.
Most underrated restaurant in Boulder/Denver: Pizzeria Basta in Boulder deserves a lot more recognition than it gets. The food is always consistent, clean, fresh, well seasoned and straightforward, plus they also have great cocktails, which is always a bonus.
Which living chef do you most admire? I have a ton of respect for one of my past chefs, Craig Difonzo, who's the chef at Lungomare, in Oakland. He's a super-talented and knowledgeable chef, not to mention a great leader, motivator and teacher.
Who is Denver's next rising-star chef? Andrew Van Stee from Noble Swine Supper Club and, now, Monkey Town 4, makes awesome, creative and delicious food, and I'm always impressed by the amount of hard work and dedication he puts into his projects.
What do you enjoy most about your craft? I enjoy the fact that every day brings new challenges and that I'm constantly learning and growing.
What are the most challenging aspects of being a chef? It can be difficult to maintain relationships with people who don't work in the restaurant industry, mostly because of the demanding hours. It's also a challenge learning how to work with all the different personalities that this industry seems to attract.
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What's next for the Denver/Boulder dining scene? The area with the most room for growth has to be late-night restaurants. There are very few high-quality/non-fast-food options, and in this industry, we work late and want to have some good -- and healthy -- places to eat when we get off of work. We need to be putting better food into our bodies to counterbalance all the other stressors we deal with on a daily basis.