It's been just three weeks since Cafe|Bar opened its doors, but executive chef Eric Rivera already feels very much at home. The 26-year-old, who was born in Ohio and raised in Colorado, had spent the past three years leading the line at Lala's Pizzeria + Wine Bar, but at the end of August, he left his whites - and pizza - behind to regain his sense of self. "I left Lala's because I'd lost my sense of adventure," he discloses. "I felt stymied and road-blocked, my passion for cooking wasn't growing, my focus was being pulled away from food to other areas of the business, and I needed a change of scenery."
Cafe|Bar, says Rivera, is exactly the swap he needed. "I want to see myself grow personally and professionally, and I can see myself doing both of those things here," he maintains. "The fact that I have unlimited creative freedom when it comes to the food -- not to mention the ability to showcase what I can really do -- makes this a perfect place for me."
And the gleaming exhibition kitchen, which puts him front and center, is the ideal spot to sling a sauté pan. "I got my first kitchen job at sixteen at Noodles & Co. on sauté, and I can't even begin to tell you how much I loved having that sauté pan in my hand," he says. "You can do so damn much with it, you have full control over the food, and it's high intensity - a major adrenaline rush - and in this kitchen, I get to use a sauté pan a lot, and I love that."
He's loved cooking since he was a kid, hovering in the kitchen of his Puerto Rican grandmother. "Her kitchen was my first real introduction to cooking, and she had such an intense passion for food that it made me want to try my own hand at cooking, and once I did, I immediately fell in love with it," says Rivera, who's wielded knives in several restaurants in Colorado Springs and Denver, including the Denver ChopHouse and Marlowe's, where he was the sous chef for three years. "We transformed Marlowe's while I was there - everything about the kitchen, we changed for the better -- and it was a crazy-amazing learning experience that transformed me as a chef," he remembers.
But it was a culinary jaunt to Portland, Seattle and Vancouver two years ago that really opened his eyes. "It gives me goosebumps just talking about it, but, oh, my God, the food, the produce, the markets, the chefs, the restaurants, especially in Vancouver - all of that changed me, and when I got back to Denver, I had a new focus," he says. "I moved toward simplicity and a less-is-better approach, and I knew when I got back that I really wanted to become way more involved with our local farmers and producers, which is something that we've been able to accomplish at Cafe|Bar."
In the following interview, Rivera takes a breather from his kitchen - and the stress of opening a new place -- to share his thoughts on floppy shoes and pretty legs, butt cracks and gourmet burger joints, and an exploding salmon eyeball.
Six words to describe your food: Fun, creative, healthy, simple, inventive and approachable.
Ten words to describe you: Husband, student, teacher, friend, creative, happy, easygoing, focused, energetic and outdoorsman.
Favorite ingredient: Mushrooms. They're versatile, flavorful and dynamic, and I love all the different textures. Some of my favorite mushrooms are morels and lobsters.
Best recent food find: Nasturtium leaves. I'd never heard of them until recently, when I saw them on a food blog, and now I'm really excited to use them in my kitchen - maybe next year in a summer salad with stone fruit.
Most overrated ingredient: Foie gras. It's way, way overused, and while I don't mind seeing it on a specials menu, I do mind seeing see it all the time, on every menu, mainly because it takes away the "wow" factor that foie is so known for. I also don't think it should ever go on a menu - at all -- unless it's during the fall or winter months. Foie is, in essence, all fat, and it's such a rich indulgence that it should be classified as a seasonal dish.
Most underrated ingredient: Olives. There are so many different kinds with so many varieties of flavor, and they can be utilized as a dominating flavor or as an undertone in a dish.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: White Mountain Farms quinoa greens, which is like a thicker, more flavorful spinach. Unfortunately, they're only around only for a very short while.
Favorite spice: A smoked porcini mustard shallot spice blend that I get from the Savory Spice Shop. You can use it with any type or kind of meat or vegetable, and it's got a really unique flavor profile that makes it a fun addition to any dish.
One food you detest: Green bell peppers. I've tried and tried to push through, but I just can't develop a taste for them, especially when they're in their raw form.
One food you can't live without: Fresh baked bread with good olive oil is really simple and so satisfying. I wish I was a better baker, or at least had the patience for it, because I'd bake bread every day in my kitchen if I could.
Rules of conduct in your kitchen: Respect each other; teach one another; learn from one another; and never forget the "mom" principle: Don't give out anything you wouldn't be proud to serve your mom. There are no floppy shoes allowed in the kitchen, either. Why? Because I can't stand it when people shuffle their feet. The kitchen staff has to make sure the fryer is always on, too, and no shorts are allowed in the kitchen unless your legs are prettier than the prettiest girls' legs in the restaurant.
Biggest kitchen disaster: I was working at a pizzeria and forgot to turn on the oven, so it wasn't preheated in time for the lunch rush, and I don't need to tell you how embarrassing it is to work at a pizzeria, which revolves around ovens, and then forget to turn them on. Even more embarrassing is that I've made that same mistake twice.
What's never in your kitchen? A microwave. There's never a reason to have one in a professional kitchen, and I don't even like having one at home. Ass cracks, other than mine, are never in my kitchen. No, seriously, I'm notorious for that. The kitchen staff always makes fun of me because of it.
What's always in your kitchen? A Robot Coupe, which is the "tank of the kitchen." I can't even begin to tell you how many times I use this machine on a day-to-day basis. And goodies for the cooks, whether it's ice cream sandwiches, strawberry milk or frozen Snickers bars.
Favorite food from your childhood: My mom's smothered burritos. She seemed to be the only one who can make them just right, and she didn't make them very often. They were just special.
Favorite dish on your menu: Brussels sprout salad. The flavors work so well together, and Brussels sprouts, while they've made a comeback, are still underused.
Weirdest customer request: No salt and pepper on absolutely anything on the plate. The couple said they were allergic to salt and pepper, which I find very hard to believe. How is someone allergic to salt, when your body requires it? I didn't know what to do, so I cut up raw vegetables and made a salad with some sort of dressing. They were happy with it.
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Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: A salmon eyeball. I was working in a steak house in Colorado Springs, and one of the line cooks dared me to eat it. It was really hard to bite, because it was so slippery, and when I finally did manage to bite into it, it exploded. I suppose I could get through the ordeal again, but I wouldn't want to have to try.
Last supper: A chunky peanut butter and jelly sandwich with Oreos and a glass of milk. I want my last meal to be fun, and I want to make sure that I enjoy it. There's no reason to make it serious or pretentious: You're going to die.