This is part one of my interview with Josh Monopoli, chef de cuisine of Black Cat and Bramble & Hare, Part two of our chat will run tomorrow.
Josh Monopoli is definitely not cooking the same food he made as a teenager growing up in Savannah, Georgia. "My parents were great cooks, and we had family dinners seven nights a week, but I didn't start cooking until I was a teenager, and my signature dish was salami and pepperoni on an everything bagel that I'd pop into the microwave and then dip into salsa," recalls the 26-year-old chef de cuisine at Black Cat and Bramble & Hare, Eric Skokan's season-celebrating restaurants in Boulder. "There's no microwave in Eric's kitchen," notes Monopoli.
Monopoli didn't set out to be a chef, either. When he wasn't zapping energy into his bagels and pepperoni, he was strapped to the computer, working on his programming skills and website-design talents, but a stint as a dish donkey changed his career path. "I needed the money -- I wanted stuff -- and after three or four months scraping plates, the boss moved me up to making sandwiches and pizza and, eventually, the lot line," he remembers. And while he admits it was "a shitty restaurant," he realized, too, that sitting in a cubicle for the duration of the day, his eyes glazed over the computer screen, wasn't the future he wanted.
Instead, Monopoli headed for Atlanta, where he started cooking at a barbecue joint. "It was horrible," he confesses, adding that the manager -- a convicted felon, Monopoli says -- threatened to end his life with a screwdriver after the young cook dared to speak to the manager's girlfriend. "Apparently, I said something inappropriate," surmises Monopoli, who left for a catering gig -- and culinary school at Le Cordon Bleu.
"I learned that I didn't like culinary students very much," says Monopoli. "They graduate thinking that they're so awesome, and they don't understand what it's like to work hard. There's this sense of privilege and entitlement, and while I know I had a bit of a pompous attitude when I graduated, I also knew damn well that I still had a lot to learn."
And it was Holeman and Finch, a farm-to-table restaurant in Atlanta, that taught him to cook -- and think -- like a chef. "The chefs actually ran the food and talked to guests, and that's where I really started to get how to cook food properly, using science as knowledge," he says. He learned, for example, that a "mid-rare steak isn't mid-rare unless it's 49 degrees Celsius, and that an egg coagulates differently for every different degree of Celsius."
After two years behind the line, he left, dragging a U-Haul to Boulder to join his best friend, a sous chef at Centro, and to work in what he'd read was an "up-and-coming food town." And it didn't take him long to find a job. "I went to the Black Cat first, gave my resumé to a cook who looked at it, told me to wait and ran back and grabbed the then-sous chef, Jimmy Giesler, who used to be a chef in Atlanta," remembers Monopoli. Turns out that Giesler, who's now cooking at Riffs Urban Fare in Boulder, had also eaten at Holeman and Finch during Monopoli's tenure there -- and liked his take on lamb testicles. "After he ate at Holeman and Finch, Jimmy came back to Black Cat and put lamb balls on his menu," Monopoli notes.
And since he and Giesler had balls in common, Monopoli was immediately hired. "I got lucky," says Monopoli, who adds that Skokan's farm, from which the majority of produce for the restaurants originates, was one of the primary reasons he took the gig. "Aside from the fact that Eric might be the nicest boss I've ever had, having the farm at our disposal is just so cool," he explains. "There are no rules when you have your own farm, and when it comes to vegetables, the options are endless."
In the following interview, Monopoli confesses his addiction to spoons, concludes that truffles have something in common with "trustafarians," and admits that he doesn't get why Boulderites have so many food hangups.
Six words to describe your food: Yum-yum in your tum-tum.
Ten words to describe you: Hardworking, dedicated, very nice, studious, food lover and extremely hungry.
What are your ingredient obsessions? I love pork fat, black garlic, sumac and bourbon -- all for different reasons. Pork fat just tastes so good, bacon gives me lardoons, and black garlic is a relatively new ingredient that I just love using. Watching fresh garlic turn to this beautiful-smelling and -tasting fermented clove of greatness is very satisfying, and just a little of it adds umami to anything. Sumac is also great. I've only been using it this past year at the Black Cat, and I love it. Meats like pork and lamb dusted with sumac and seared or roasted -- oh, hell, yeah. And bourbon...well, it's bourbon, and it tastes great.
What are your kitchen-tool obsessions? Big spoons, little spoons, quenelle spoons and slotted spoons. I started collecting spoons a few years ago, and now I have an arsenal that I use every day at work -- and I have many more that sit in a busted Japanese Shigoku oyster box waiting for their turn...if it ever comes. Different sizes and shapes of spoons just have so many different uses, but my favorite right now is my angle-cut sauté-pan spoon from JB Prince.
Most underrated ingredient: First place goes to burrata. I haven't seen it on a menu anywhere in years. I wish it would appear more often, and on more menus. Okay, that's a joke: It's actually everywhere, but I actually think we should make Kool-Aid with it and drink it every day. Runner-up definitely goes to black pepper. It's just so great on everything. J.K. Rowling definitely had it right with that first Harry Potter book. That's a joke, too. Read Eric Skokan's Chef and Tell interview and you'll get it. Here's what I really think: Beef hearts are way underrated, which sucks, because they actually taste like beef, and it's the best steak I've ever had in my life. But no one seems to appreciate it. If you mention beef heart to someone, they wiggle uncomfortably, as though you're asking them to eat stomach. It's just another muscle, just like that fancy filet mignon.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: Most everything that we grow on the farm, especially our cabbages and cauliflower...so good. I also love Colorado peaches. Being from Georgia, that says something. I'm torn between the two states as far as who grows the best. But, man, Colorado peaches are so good, juicy and delicious.
Favorite spice: Szechuan peppers, because they add depth, a touch of spice and make your tongue tingle. The first time I had a true Szechuan dish was at Peter Cheng, in Atlanta, and it blew my mind. There were peppercorns by the near handful in each dish; it was love at first bite.
One food you detest: Truffles, because they remind me of walking by a trustafarian on the Pearl Street Mall. No, seriously, they stink so bad, I just don't get it -- the trustafarians, I mean. But the truffles? No, thanks. I'll just shave something tastier and better-smelling over my food.
One food you can't live without: Pigs. You can make so many different preparations from one pig.
Food trend you wish would disappear: Using the term "farm-to-table" to describe your food philosophy. To be clear, I definitely don't mean farm-to-table should go away. It's just that this is the way it should be everywhere. There shouldn't be tomatoes from the rest of the world on your plate, and there shouldn't be summer squash on your plate in the middle of December. Those that really do farm-to-table right do it without making a big deal of it -- they just do it without any pomp and circumstance, and they don't need any marketing gimmicks.
What are your biggest pet peeves? On a personal level, people who breathe with their mouths wide open, shake your hand awkwardly and don't look you in the eye. Professionally? All of the above, as well as self-absorbed servers, cooks who don't grab everything they need on their first run to the walk-in, and bartenders who don't know how to make a Brown Derby.
Weirdest customer request: An eight-top ordered four quail, three lamb and one bass, but not one single plate was ordered as the menu described. Each person wanted something completely different from what was on the menu -- and most of the stuff they ordered wasn't on the menu at all, so they just went ahead and created their own. We saved the ticket, and, yes, it's protected in plastic.
Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: I've had rooster testicles, smoked tripe stew, brains, whole-roasted lamb hearts stuffed with tongue and kidneys and pigskin banh mi. But the weirdest thing would have to be pork lung. I'm not going to say where it came from, in case the feds are listening, but I had my hands on one set of beautiful lungs. After some searching online, it seemed a soup was in order: ginger, anise, mushrooms, Tasmanian pepper berries, and I think some other stuff slowly cooked with the roasted and diced lungs. Weird? Yes. Good? Eh, I'd make it again.
Favorite dish on your menu: Sourdough doughnut stuffed with duck-liver mousse topped with grapefruit marmalade. It's like a big fluffy ball of rich, creamy, tangy love.
Biggest menu bomb: I tried to make tableside tofu...and never got there. Trying to get to where it tastes good is quite a feat, but I'm gonna do it some day.
Most humbling moment as a chef: Introducing my parents to chef Linton Hopkins, the exec chef-owner of Five Forks Restaurant Group in Atlanta, and having him tell them how much he appreciated me being a part of his restaurant.
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What's your dream restaurant? A small, fifteen- to twenty-seater, where there's just one seating every day. It'd be very casual, with personal service, and everyone eats ten to fifteen courses of food, some plated all sexy, while some would be served family style. It could work.