This is part one of my interview with Matt Lewis, exec chef of Bones. Part two of our conversation will run tomorrow.
"Every time I walked through the door of my Italian grandmother's house, even if it was after dinner, the first thing she'd ask was if I was hungry -- it never stopped," says Matt Lewis, who admits that, yes, in fact, he was hungry -- hungry to eat, hungry to learn, hungry to cook.
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Lewis, the executive chef of Bones, the Asian noodle bar in Capitol Hill that's owned by Frank Bonanno, began his culinary career while a teenager in Cheyenne, where he did time as a prep and broiler cook at a local restaurant by night and took cooking classes during the day, occasionally participating in culinary competitions, which Lewis found himself winning more often than not. "I'd always enjoyed cooking and being around food -- it was fun and made me happy -- and during my junior and senior years of high school, I won a couple of state culinary competitions, pretty much blowing everyone out of the water," he recalls. "I knew at a pretty young age that this was what I wanted to do with my life."
He graduated in 2004 and moved himself -- and his trophies and medals -- to Denver to attend Johnson & Wales, but after two and a half years, he called it quits. "I was never a very good student," admits Lewis, "and to be honest, I hated just about every second of culinary school, and since I was a quick learner and already knew how to cook, I just decided that I'd work my way up the ladder in real kitchens."
His first gig, however, was nearly enough to convince him otherwise. He landed behind the line at Islamorada, the restaurant inside the Bass Pro Shop in Northfield. "I was young and making good money, and I loved the guys I worked with, but the food was cooked in such a manner that it was totally bastardized -- it was garbage," says Lewis, who admits that, if nothing else, the experience taught him to be efficient and fast.
And it didn't take long before he found work in another galley, Lo Coastal Fusion, a now-defunct restaurant in Englewood. Lewis was hired as a junior sous chef and stayed on board the boat for three and a half years. "I worked my ass off, but in the end, the concept failed, and while it was a very amicable parting, I needed to move on," he says. He left on his own terms -- but that wasn't the case at North, where Lewis got his foot in the door as a sous chef flipping pans in a high-volume kitchen that eventually became his own. "I worked my way up to exec sous chef, but then made a big mistake that I really regret," he reveals. In the scheme of things -- Lewis was caught drinking an airplane shooter of whiskey in the walk-in before his shift was over -- he could have done a lot worse, but it was enough to get him canned. "I definitely didn't leave because I wanted to, but it was a lesson learned, and it won't ever happen again."
Justifiably dejected but equally determined, Lewis touched down at Row 14, where he cooked alongside Arik Markus, Row 14's opening chef. And when Markus was abruptly let go, Lewis suddenly found himself in charge of the crash and din. "I spent about 24 days as the interim chef," he says, until Jensen Cummings, who had just departed the kitchen at TAG, was hired as the exec, and he and Cummings couldn't agree on a salary. "We hashed it out for over an hour, and we couldn't come to terms on money, so I wished him luck and left."
And that's when he joined Bonanno's empire of restaurants. "I staged for six weeks at Osteria Marco, went over to Russell's Smokehouse for a while, and then Frank called me one day and asked me if I wanted to be the exec chef at Bones," recounts Lewis, who took the job in June and says it's the "most fun I've had cooking in a really long time." And Bonanno, he insists, is one helluva chief. "Frank is beyond awesome. His staff is his family, and working for him -- and at Bones -- is one of the best opportunities I've had since moving to Denver."
In the following interview, Lewis has a few other things to say about cooking in the Mile High City, including a plea for more pop-up restaurants, fewer burger joints and service that forgoes pretense.
Six words to describe your food: Clean, tasteful, approachable, quick, innovative and enticing.
Ten words to describe you: Laid-back, hardworking, opinionated, resourceful, fun-loving, demanding, stubborn, dedicated, passionate and a teacher.
What are your kitchen-tool obsessions? Japanese knives with a traditional handle. They're so shiny, ridiculously sharp and thin, and since they're usually light, there's less fatigue involved when you're using them. I also like my "LBTs" -- aka my "little bitch tongs," which allow me to be very precise with my plating. It's important to have tools that allow you to handle ingredients -- fish, for example -- really delicately.
What are your ingredient obsessions? It changes all the time, but I really like ingredients that give food umami -- that fifth taste -- like hoisin sauce and soy, both of which give just an instant savory tone to a dish. I also love acid, so I really like cooking with ponzu, and I'll always be obsessed with sriracha, because it's spicy and delicious.
Most underrated ingredient: Citric acid gives a dish acid without bogging it down. Take, for example, fried Brussels sprouts. If I just squeezed lemon juice on them, they'd be soggy before getting to the table, but with citric acid powder, the Brussels sprouts keep their crispy texture and they're not a soggy mess.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: Rocky Ford melons from Fresh Guys. They're out of season now, but we were compressing them for a salad on our summer menu. Western Slope fruit like Colorado peaches and melons have a natural sweetness because of the state's hot days and cool nights. They're delicious.
Favorite spice: Coriander adds awesome floral notes to a dish, and when you think about it, coriander is used in other things besides cooking, like perfume and cologne. When you pair it with something like pork, it brings out sweetness and adds depth. We cure our pork belly and suckling pig for 24 hours with salt, sugar and ground coriander.
One food you detest: I hate salmon, and you'll never see me order it. Blame it on years of cleaning salmon. Some restaurants get fillets shipped in, but at every restaurant I've worked at, we always got the whole fish, and even if they're as fresh as can be, they still taste fishy to me.
One food you can't live without: Pho has everything you could want: acidity, spiciness, savory elements and sweet components. It's also the best hangover cure on the planet. I typically go to Pho 79, but I also love Pho 95.
Food trend you wish would disappear: The whole burger craze has gotten a bit out of control: Everyone claims they have the best burger. It's tit for tat. Who gives a shit? It's just a burger.
What you'd like to see more of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: Pop-up restaurants. We need more chefs just having fun with food. In my mind, people have such strict guidelines when it comes to what chefs do. I'd love to see more chefs just kicking back and serving sweet food in other environments, outside of their own kitchens.
What you'd like to see less of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: Pretentious service. Restaurant professionals shouldn't act superior to their guests.
Rules of conduct in your kitchen: Act like a professional, be on time and don't come in with a bad attitude, because a bad attitude rubs off on everyone else, including the guests. We're in a business that's about making people happy.
What's never in your kitchen? Over-processed food. There are places, as a chef, where you can cut corners when it comes to product, which is not something I choose to do. We always try to buy the best product out there, and we make as much as we can in-house. We don't compromise.
What's always in your kitchen? Women, because they're strong and make the kitchen more dynamic, and it always seems like they're way more organized than me.
Favorite dish on the menu: Our new-style hamachi. I slice the hamachi very thin and lightly flash-sear it with hot grapeseed oil. It's topped with a thin slice of Fresno chile and fresh cilantro.
Biggest menu bomb: It wasn't at Bones, but once upon a time I made a lobster Champagne terrine that was absolutely awful. Flat Champagne and cold rubbery lobster isn't a good mix, and the dish didn't even make it to the menu. Now, with more experience, I could definitely make it work.
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Craziest kitchen story: Two lady guests flashed us on the line and showed us their tits; that's the printable part.