This is part one of my interview with Gerard Strong, exec chef of Central Bistro & Bar; part two of our chat will run in this space tomorrow.
I'm a Scorpio, and I'm pretty proud of that," volunteers Gerard Strong. "I can be fiery, I'm from New York, I'm up front, and I definitely let people know what I think." Strong, today the chef of Central Bistro & Bar, grew up in the Hudson Valley in a large family dominated by a working mother -- a matriarch, he says, who "could put together a great meal for ten at the drop of a hat."
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At seven, he and his best friend made home videos of themselves cooking chili. "Believe it or not, it came out really well," Strong remembers. But he had no aspirations of becoming a chef, since "I was way more into music than food," he explains. "I started playing in a folky-funk jam band when I was sixteen, had a record contract at eighteen, recorded two albums and toured the East Coast in a Winnebago for a few years -- and then we broke up and parted ways."
Not long after, Strong was diagnosed with a rare illness, a sickness that restricted him from eating any solid foods for six months. While he was bedridden, he made a list of all the foods that he'd never eaten in the past, and once he could finally add solid foods to his diet, the first thing he did was go to a restaurant. "My mom sent me to the best restaurant in the Hudson Valley, and I still remember eating ostrich carpaccio and pork tenderloin and literally weeping," he says.
It was an epiphany -- and the first step to becoming a chef. The next step: "A friend of mine owned a restaurant in New York, and he hired me as a garde manger, and six months later, I was the sous chef," recollects Strong, who then went to culinary school at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park. "I was raring to go; I couldn't start school fast enough."
He graduated with an associate's degree in 2004, secured a job at Blue Water Grill...and walked out two weeks later. "I was making $300 a week, working double shifts six days a week and sleeping on a friend's couch -- that wasn't what I was looking for," he says, adding that it was the first -- and only -- time he's waltzed out of a kitchen.
The walk turned out to be a lucrative move. Within a few weeks, he was cooking at Union Pacific, a restaurant that was the jewel in the crown of then-celebrity chef Rocco DiSpirito, who was famously tossed from the restaurant soon after; it closed that same year.
Nonetheless, for a time Strong was cooking in one of the best kitchens in New York, and it solidified his enthusiasm for cooking. He returned to the Culinary Institute of America, banged out a bachelor's degree in culinary arts business and management, and learned "how to run a business," he says.
As part of his externship, he staged at the Flying Fish in Seattle, and when he graduated, he returned to the Emerald City -- and to that restaurant, where he put in time alongside Christine Keff, a chef who won a James Beard award in 1999. Strong sliced and knifed fish for a few years, then left after he was "screwed over for a sous-chef position," he explains. After a stint at Galusha, another big-name, now-defunct Seattle restaurant, Strong left the kitchen entirely to work at Whole Foods as a prepared-foods team leader, where he oversaw sixty cooks. "It was an awesome experience, and it taught me a lot about managing people," he says.
But after two years, "I was bored with the speed, the pace and the corporate structure," Strong says, "and, more than anything else, I missed cooking and creating food. I missed connecting with guests, and I realized that restaurants are where I belonged."
His next kitchen stop would prove to be a chef's dream job. Strong was hired as the sous at the Palace Kitchen, part of Seattle star chef and restaurateur Tom Douglas's empire of restaurants. "I got so lucky; this is a restaurant group that really only hires from within, and it was an amazing, fantastic experience that made it incredibly tough to leave," stresses Strong, "but I hated having to endure nine months of rainy weather every year, so despite working for a restaurant that had its own farm and incredible ingredients, I needed a place that had sunshine."
Strong had friends in Denver, and he'd done his research. "I knew from poking around that Denver had a great up-and-coming restaurant scene, so my girlfriend and I packed up our shit and moved here in 2011 -- and I love it," he says. He landed at Z Cuisine as a line cook and quickly progressed to chef de cuisine. And while he concedes that he and chef-owner Patrick DuPays didn't always agree, he maintains that they had something in common: "We both have strong personalities, but we had a very dynamic relationship based on passion and our commitment to food and the restaurant," says Strong. "It was great getting to know farmers, it's a beautiful restaurant with incredible food and impeccably sourced products, but I just kept thinking...what was the next thing for me?"
He responded to an advertisement on Craigslist for an exec-chef position at Central, and while he didn't get it -- the job went to Lance Barto -- Strong was tapped as the opening sous chef. And when Barto left suddenly last fall, Strong replaced him. "The draw was the opportunity to open a restaurant, and it's been a great ride so far," he says. "It's like a dream come true: There are great owners, I have an awesome sous chef, great support from the staff, and we're all having fun making this an engaging neighborhood restaurant. It's everything I could want in a job and a restaurant."
In the following interview, Strong explains how fast-casual restaurants put pressure on his, confesses to the kitchen bomb he'd like to forget, and admits that curiosity nearly made him hurl on the streets of Vietnam.
How do you describe your food? Succinct, bright, seasoned, consistent, evolving and honest.
Ten words to describe you: Jovial, understanding, dedicated, curt, mentor, organized, salty, bashful, amicable and curious.
What are your ingredient obsessions? Right now, I'm really into green garlic, spring onions and Colorado goat cheese, all of which I'll use in as many dishes as I can -- aiolis, dressings, fresh raw salads, even desserts -- for as long as I can, usually until they're no longer available.
What are your kitchen-gadget obsessions? I love my new barding needle, which I recently used to truss the massive pig we got for the smoke-down we hosted at Central in April.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: I'll buy anything that Broken Shovels Farm and Creamery peddles, especially the Dark Moon cheese, which is one of my all-time favorites. It's got this incredible complexity, but manages to taste really clean at the same time. At the moment, I'm using it on our artisan cheese plate.
One ingredient that you won't touch: Transglutaminase -- or meat glue. It's banned in the European Union because its full effects are unknown, although the primary use and function is to bind scraps of meat together; a lot of fast-food restaurants use it, but I'm opposed to adding chemicals to food.
Food trend you'd like to see in 2013: I'd like to see more smaller, quality neighborhood restaurants open up, which in turn will create and foster new neighborhood meeting points; they will expand cuisine, educate guests and ideally give people a competitive option to Chili's or Applebee's.
Food trend you'd like to see disappear in 2013: Edible flowers. A lot of fine-dining dishes utilize flowers in order to make the dishes look more appealing, but nine times out of ten, they're not a functional garnish. I believe that food itself should elevate a dish -- not superfluous aesthetics.
One food you detest: "Detest" is a pretty strong word, but if I had to choose one thing, it would have to be tendons; I've mainly only had them in pho, but I just can't get past the texture.
One food you can't live without: Al pastor tacos from Los Carboncitos. A good al pastor taco takes away all your worries. It's what I crave after a long shift, when I've usually forgotten to eat.
Favorite dish on your menu: Our grilled spring-onion appetizer, a single dish celebrating grilled spring onions by pairing them with a goat-cheese croquette in a housemade breadcrumb-and-Marcona-almond crust; a buttery, warm tangle of soubise onions; grilled spring onions; and a small salad of pea tendrils, fava beans, watermelon radish and almonds, all served with two slices of a Grateful Bread ciabatta baguette.
Biggest menu bomb: It was a long time ago, and I'm still trying to repress it. I was in culinary school at the CIA and working as a cook at a place called the Sugarloaf Inn. The first dish I put on was pork tenderloin and this silly poached-apple element that I used to prop the pork loin up so it hovered above the applesauce I made. It was so silly, because as soon as you cut the tenderloin, the whole structure fell apart. It wasn't until a few went out that one of the servers had to deliver the bad news that my little design basically rendered the dish impossible to eat. For about an hour, when those first few plates left the kitchen, I thought I was a total badass.
Weirdest customer request: A guest at Central ordered raw ghost chiles. He kept asking for hotter and hotter peppers, and we had a few kicking around in the cooler, so we sliced them up and gave them to the guy. I thought for sure he was going to have issues, but not only was he completely fine, he was very happy.
Weirdest thing you've ever put in your mouth: Gelatinous black cubes floating in ice water that I ate out of a white bucket on the street in Hanoi, Vietnam. The seller handed me a cup shared by everyone else on the street and ladled out one scoop, then waited for me to slurp it up before he moved on. I took one sip and almost threw up. Everyone started laughing at me, and some stranger took the cup from me and finished it. My curiosity at that time outweighed my rationality.
Last meal before you die: An eel-and-avocado sushi roll, a slice of pepperoni-and-pineapple pizza, a handful of Spicy Buffalo Wheat Thins with garlic hummus, and a bowl of pho.