This is part two of my interview with Matt Stein, chef of Bruxie; part one of our conversation ran yesterday.
Most memorable meal you've ever had: I had dinner in a seafood restaurant in Bari, Italy, with my partners, my wife and a couple of people who worked for us, and we wound up having about twenty courses, including fish species from both the Adriatic and Mediterranean: squirrel fish with the roe; a huge, wild, salt-roasted spigola; sea urchins; oysters; sea dates -- everything you can think of. Needless to say, we also drank too much, and the van we had rented almost got stolen, but aside from that, it was a dinner that was memorable to me on so many different levels.
Your three favorite Denver restaurants other than your own: At this moment in time, I have to say Acorn, the Populist, and Work & Class. Acorn is clearly a great restaurant run by people with the experience and chops to know what's right, and the food is all that and more -- it's just excellent. The Populist astounds me because some fairly young people run it, and I'm amazed by their great sensibilities and the quality of their execution; they're very consistent. Work & Class is probably my single favorite restaurant right now, and I guess I'm saying that in hopes that my love for the place will get me a seat one of these days. It's almost impossible to get in because chef Dana Rodriguez's food is so good and so much fun and just so freaking soulful. My wife and I have eaten there a couple of times, and there's always a great crew, great music, great drinks and great value. Given all of that, why would I even expect to be able to get a seat?
Most underrated restaurant in Denver: Anthony's Pizza on Colorado Boulevard. They have the best pizza I've had in a long time. In fact, it's as close to a New York-slice joint as I've seen, plus sweet, helpful kids work there, and they have a Coca-Cola Freestyle drink machine that allows you to mix Hi-C into 6,000 permutations. All that, and yet they're seldom busy. It's a mystery to me.
Who is Denver's next rising-star chef? Dana Rodriguez at Work & Class. I think she's amazingly talented, and she's hitting home run after home run.
Which living chef do you most admire? Michael Cimarusti, who owns Providence and Connie & Ted's in Los Angeles. Michael works almost exclusively with seafood, which is the toughest, most unforgiving, most highly perishable food there is. I worked with Michael for five years and never saw him put up a dish -- ever -- that didn't hit the bull's-eye. I'm talking about hundreds of dishes that he and his team created that were spot-on every time. Beyond that, he's a gentleman and treats everyone with respect, even though he knows he's the most talented guy in the room. The second one is Carrie, who's my wife and a chef. She's a great cook, and there's love in every bite, and even though the kids are pretty slow with the compliments, she always keeps the food coming.
If you could train under any chef in the world, who would it be? My dream collaboration would include David Pasternack, Mark Kurlansky and Jon Rowley. I've learned a lot from them already and would love to keep learning more.
What piece of advice would you give to an aspiring chef? Same as for any other occupation: Only work in places where they really know what they're doing. Bad habits and poor information are easier to pick up than they are to drop off.
What skills and attributes do you look for when hiring kitchen staff? They've got to be coachable and quick, and they must love food -- and with any luck, they haven't brought too many bad habits with them. A tendency toward cleanliness is another good place for them to start, plus they have to be able to keep up with their prep load and with the tickets. When we opened Bruxie, the gods smiled down on us, and everyone we hired fit the bill.
What's your fantasy splurge? A 1959 Chateau d'Yquem.
What's the best food- or kitchen-related gift you've been given? Escoffier's Le Guide Culinaire -- often called the "Black Book." There's so much in there to sink my teeth into.
Favorite culinary-related item to give as a gift: Understanding Cooking, a book from the Culinary Institute of America. It's dry reading, but full of very useful and essential cooking advice that many cooks don't have under their belts.
If you could dress any way you want, what would you wear in the kitchen? I'm more about function than fashion, so the usual stuff works for me: a chef's coat and hard wood clogs.
If you could have dinner, all expenses paid, at any restaurant in the world, where would you go? Research would likely lead me to a sushi bar on Hokkaido.
Would you ever send a dish back if you were dining in a friend's restaurant? No, it's just not the right thing to do. Actually, it would be, like, the shittiest thing you could do. I'm not going to be critical in public and embarrass anyone on the line.
Weirdest customer request: In our business, the guest is always right, so we don't regard any request as weird. That said, we do have a tendency to get requests for our applewood-smoked bacon, which is really good, added to lots of other sandwiches where it seems strange.
It's your night off and you're starving. What's your go-to quick fix? If I'm at home, it's cheese and fruit or a salad. If I'm out, I go to Bruxie. The menu is literally crawling with all my guilty pleasures: dark chocolate, lemon curd, burnt sugar, pastrami, fried chicken, fried eggs, bacon, avocado, frozen custard, old-fashioned sodas...it's all ridiculously good.
If you had the opportunity to open your own restaurant with no budget constraints, what kind of restaurant would you open? A seafood restaurant.
Favorite dish on your menu: The "Founder's Favorite," a dish that Bruxie founders Dean Simon and Kelly Mullarney created with prosciutto, melted Gruyère, whole-grain mustard, an over-easy egg and arugula salad on our Belgian waffle. It fires on all cylinders and satisfies completely.
What dish would you love to put on your menu, regardless of how well it would sell? Jeff, my partner, is currently obsessed with doing a foie-gras waffle, maybe with Vermont maple syrup and bacon, kinda like the Double Down at Joe Beef in Montreal.
Which talent do you most wish you had? From a culinary perspective, I'd like to be a better butcher. Otherwise, I wish I could fly and travel into the past. I'd really like to fly over the Front Range in the year 45,000,000 B.C. or thereabouts.
Best recipe tip for a home cook: Bring the steaks to room temperature before you grill them.
Biggest mistake a chef can make on the line: Getting in the way or slowing things down. It seems like the guys on the line can always do it faster than me, but if they're getting crushed, I try to help by supporting them: mise, fresh pans, wipe-downs, cold drinks, attaboys.
What's been your worst disaster in the kitchen? Oh, there have been quite a few, including overcooked game birds and big quantities of $20-per-pound smoked Columbia River sturgeon diced up into what the cook thought were lardons. The worst disaster -- and the one that always sticks out in my mind, and that I still feel the most horrible about -- happened at a 37-person benefit dinner at Justin Winery in Paso Robles, California. We had a Russian River steelhead as the fourth course and had to pre-crisp the skin, and then we basically hid them, six fish per pan, in a huge wine room next to the kitchen so they'd be out of the way of the courses that preceded them. We had seven pans of steelhead -- we always prepared extra pieces in case of emergency -- but lost one pan. I don't know where, and I don't know how, but one guest didn't get a main course. I was mortified. The guest was super-gracious about it, but I couldn't shake it off. It still haunts me today.
Craziest night in the kitchen: When I was living and cooking in Aspen, we'd lose power pretty frequently during big snowfalls, and on one New Year's Eve, we had to cook by flashlight through the midnight hour. It was nuts, because we didn't have ventilation, and the intense heat made the plastic containers of herbs on the higher shelves sag or melt. We were packed, and everyone was pretty patient, but it was like a sweaty marathon of measuring out caviar and shaving truffles. When we finally got the last plates out, we went in the alley and drank champagne in the snow.
Biggest moment of euphoria in the kitchen: I'm lucky in that there have been lots of moments of euphoria, like every time you get through a big wave of business and everything runs well. Then there are the times when a crew member who's struggled with consistency and confidence during busy times gets through a big run and everything's gone well for them. Those are pretty magical moments to be part of.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef: Staying married, which has taken a lot of effort on both of our parts. The hours and demands of this business can make marriage a challenge, despite being madly in love.
Kitchen rule you always adhere to: Knives carried blade down.
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Kitchen rule you're not afraid to break: NO YELLING!
What's one thing that people would be surprised to know about you? I can sing several songs (including one about a shrimp cocktail) in Spanish.
Last meal before you die: I hope it's a long time before I'm in a position to make that decision, but when the time comes, I'd have Dutch Dover sole with a hazelnut-garnished buerre meunière; a Prime Kansas City steak with a lot of good salt and butter on it; a gratin potato; and spinach with garlic and lemon. Now that I've said that, I'm thinking that I'd rather have my wife's pasta with meatballs and gravy and a bowl of perfectly ripe cherries.
What's in the pipeline? We're working on building another Bruxie in Boulder, and Jeff and I are looking at other spaces, too.