This is part one of my interview with Martin Campos, exec chef of Comida at the Source; part two of our interview will run tomorrow.
"I was an incredibly picky eater as a child," laments Martin Campos, who admits that while growing up in San Jose, he subsisted mostly on cereal, chicken nuggets and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches: "My parents would make dinner all the time, and all I wanted was chicken nuggets with tons of ketchup. I was religious about that."
But it was no joke when he found his true religion: seafood. "I had my first real food experience -- my first daring culinary moment -- when I was ten and ate seafood for the first time in Oregon," recalls Campos, today the 31-year-old executive chef of Comida Cantina at the Source. "I tried oysters, lobster, crab, mussels and shrimp and absolutely fell in love with seafood, and I'm pretty sure that every time we went to a restaurant after that experience, I ordered seafood -- not chicken nuggets." But when he was twelve, his family moved away from the ocean and to Fort Collins. And at nineteen, after spending his teenage years "ditching school" and skateboarding, he finally landed in a kitchen as a dish monkey at Rasta Pasta, an Italian restaurant there. "I went in with a bunch of friends for lunch one day, and the staff was easygoing and just a ton of fun, and my friends told me I should apply for a job, so I did, and despite the fact that I didn't have a day of experience, I got hired on the spot," remembers Campos, who stayed for two years before ditching the dishwasher to cook at a now-defunct bar and grill, where he became interested in flipping pans. "They had me doing specials every night, so I started picking up cookbooks and watching Iron Chef, and I realized that there was a lot more to cooking than I thought there was," says Campos.
After a year on the line, he also came to the conclusion that "I didn't know shit, because there was no one there to teach me anything, and it became really frustrating." A stint at Bisetti's, another Italian restaurant in Fort Collins, proved to be more enlightening. "There was always a full rail of tickets, and the cooks were knocking dishes out at this amazing pace, and there was an asshole line cook there -- Bill Greenwood -- who used to bully the hell out of me, but we had this bonding moment when he flung a roasted-red-pepper sauce in my face, and from then on, he taught me all sorts of tricks, how to do knife cuts and run the sauté station. He made me a better cook, and I later became the sous-chef at Bisetti's," says Campos.
Greenwood eventually left Bisetti's for Aspen's Hotel Jerome, and in 2007, he nudged Campos to become his sous. "I walked into the kitchen at the Jerome, and it was just, wow," recalls Campos. "The kitchen was just amazing and so beautiful, and I spent two years there, learning something new every day. It was nothing short of an eye-opening experience."
By then, Campos had a daughter, and the "fantasyland" that he calls Aspen soon grew old, so he moved to Denver and landed a line-cook gig at the Warwick Hotel. While he admits that going from the sous-chef position at the Jerome to a line-cook stint at the Warwick was a step down, he insists that line cooking is nothing to sneer at. "Even when I was a sous-chef, I never wanted to be the guy who pissed around on the computer," he says. "I always wanted to be the best guy on the line, so I was fine being a line cook for a while. I'm not above that in the slightest," he adds.
But not long after he started at the Warwick, he felt "stagnant," so Campos packed his knives and joined Andrew Lubatty, the executive chef at Avenue Grill. "That was a great experience," he says. "I learned so much from Andrew: how to make pies, tarts, cakes, soufflés and ice cream, and I just learned a lot about cooking in general."
And he might have stayed, had it not been for a phone call from Greenwood, the abrasive mentor with whom Campos had continued to stay in touch. "Bill had moved on from Aspen to become the executive chef of Eddie V's in Fort Worth, Texas, and he offered me a job as the opening sous-chef of the La Jolla store, which was an amazing experience," says Campos. Amazing, that is, until the steak-and-seafood chain was bought out by Darden Concepts, the same company that owns Red Lobster and the Olive Garden. "Once we were bought out, things really started to change, our product quality went down, we lost ordering and creative freedom, and we lost a lot of credibility, so I quit," he says. Still, he'd mastered the art of breaking down and butchering fish, and Greenwood, who'd also left Eddie V's, was back in Colorado -- at Beano's Cabin in Beaver Creek. Campos followed him, putting his butcher skills to good use, then returned to Fort Collins to be closer to his daughter, picking up a line-cook post at the Jax Fish House there. "I played around with a lot of seafood, but after a year at Jax, I felt like there was something else out there for me, so I put in my two weeks, picked up my bags and moved to Denver, hoping for the best," he says.
It turns out the best was yet to come. Eric Duffy, one of the owners of Tender Belly, was a friend of Campos's and a friend, too, of Rayme Rossello, the owner of Comida at the Source as well as the original in Longmont. "Eric made an introduction, I interviewed with Rayme, and just got this really great vibe from her when we talked. She works super-hard, and I knew that Comida would be a great fit -- and I really wanted to be a part of building up the culinary scene in RiNo and working with people who have such great products," says Campos, who in the following interview pleads for restaurants to stop the "swoosh" on the plate, explains why Steve Redzikowski, the chef of Acorn, is a chef to watch, and admits that he doesn't have patience for laziness.
Lori Midson: What is your first food memory? Martin Campos: Eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with my uncle Raul when I was three. I told him I wanted to open up a peanut butter and jelly restaurant.
Ten words to describe you: Funny (say some), passionate, quiet, hardworking, stubborn, creative, smart, goofy, nutty and mindful.
Five words to describe your food: Simple, fresh, seasonal, intentional and flavorful.
What are your ingredient obsessions? I love citrus, especially lemons, oranges and satsumas. I also love olive oil, vinegars, fresh herbs -- thyme, basil and oca, which is sort of like sorrel, in that it's really lemony with a bright bite to it. I like spices of all kinds, and I really enjoy raw seafood.
One ingredient you won't touch: Green bell peppers. They're bitter, unpleasant and overwhelming -- just a bad flavor overall. And I don't like raw onions.
Favorite piece of kitchen equipment: The burner; it makes magic happen and it boils water.
Your favorite smell in the kitchen: I really like the way stock smells. A trotter stock or beef stock makes you feel like Grandma is cooking Sunday dinner.
Food trend you'd like to see emerge in 2014: I'd like to see a more specific Colorado cuisine, not just green chile smothering some type of Tex-Mex dish or buffalo this or lamb that, but food that makes this region special, like Acorn's wood-fired flavors or great use of summer resources -- mushrooms, wild rhubarbs and spruce needles -- like they use at Beano's Cabin in Beaver Creek. I'd like to see more warm comfort foods in the winter and bright summer flavors for those hot months.
Food trend you'd like to see disappear in 2014: I wish restaurants would stop advertising themselves as farm-to-table and that chefs would stop putting the "swoosh" on every single plate -- and please stop with the funny two-inch-by-fourteen-inch plates. Nothing is wrong with a nice round plate.
What are the most challenging aspects of being a chef? The idiosyncrasies of others -- people's quirky habits and feeling like you sometimes have to babysit. The simplest tasks are the ones that are messed up the most, and keeping your cool can be challenging, and remaining calm even when you don't want to can definitely be challenging. And then there's the surprise of the whole business in and of itself -- like when someone doesn't show up or the restaurant is slammed; you have to be able to adjust.
If you could make one request of Denver diners, what would it be? Give every restaurant a good college try. It seems like there's a lot of badmouthing of restaurants, but they all deserve a chance to make you happy. And try the chef's specials. He or she didn't put out a dish because it sucks or because they had to: They put it up because they worked hard on the dish and are proud of it.
What do you expect from a restaurant critic? I expect a critic to walk in without any negative prejudice, look at all aspects of the restaurant and respect what the chef is trying to do in that setting. Just because one restaurant does something one way doesn't mean that there can't be another way for it to be done. I always hate it when restaurant critics don't talk about the food as much as they should, or explain why they're praising or criticizing something. Anonymity is important, too. When a restaurant knows that a critic is coming in, they often get special attention, but if they come in anonymously, they actually get to see the consistency of the place.
What's your biggest pet peeve? Laziness. I don't have patience for people who aren't motivated or don't care about their surroundings, kitchen and the other people around them. It's pretty annoying when you have to constantly repeat yourself and they still never get it.
Your best traits: My understanding of people and their faults. I don't hold grudges, and I don't blow things out of proportion. I take most things in stride instead of adding to the problem, and I'm pretty straight to the point. I like to treat people with care and kindness. I treat people with respect.
Your worst traits: I'm impatient and stubborn, and I always have a hard time being told what to do, because I want things a very certain way. You could say that I don't always pick the right battles.
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What talent do you most wish you had? I'd love to slam a basketball into a ten-foot hoop -- you know, MJ it down. I also wish I could knock a 100-mile-per-hour fastball out of the park, every time.