Cafe Society

Gerard Strong, exec chef of Central Bistro & Bar, on nearly hurling in Vietnam

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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.

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Lori Midson
Contact: Lori Midson