This is part one of my interview with Nate Bychinski, exec chef of Mateo; part two of my interview with Bychinski will run tomorrow.
"I didn't play with knives, but I definitely did my fair share of cooking," says Nate Bychinski, remembering his younger years in Wausau, Wisconsin, where he grew up bow-hunting white-tailed deer on his cousin's farm and working in the kitchen with his mother and grandmother. "My grandmother came from a family that ate a lot of peasant food, and that's what we ate, too: lots of chipped beef on toast, macaroni and cheese and pfeffernüsse -- little nuggets of bread dough that my grandmother perfected," says Bychinski, who's now immersed in French cuisine at Mateo, in Boulder.
But while he enjoyed cooking, Bychinski never thought he'd make a career out of it. "I love animals, and I really wanted to be a zoologist, but I guess my path led me to culinary school -- and cooking -- instead of the zoo," he says. "Cooking was always prevalent in my childhood. I liked cooking for my friends, and I knew that I didn't want a desk job, so I decided to go to culinary school in Minneapolis. I knew there was a lot of camaraderie in a kitchen, and I loved the art of creating and building beautiful flavors, of trying new things and ideas, with the ultimate goal of creating something perfect on the plate."
Bychinski attended Art Institutes International, splitting his time between the classroom and professional kitchens, cooking for free at restaurants, he says, "just to get the experience and make sure that I wanted to stick with it." He began his career on the line, climbing higher up the ladder each time he got a gig at a new restaurant, which included a stint at the Chambers Kitchen in Minneapolis, a restaurant launched by star chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten.
A few years after graduating from culinary school and cooking at various high-volume, high-profile restaurants, he and his then-girlfriend (now fiancée) packed their suitcases and headed for Denver. Bychinski had spent a year during his childhood in the Mile High City as a result of his father's job, and he wanted to come back. "I love the whole state, especially the mountains, and I always wanted to move back here," he says.
After a brief layover at a local country club, Bychinski joined the crew at Mateo, kicking off his tenure as a grill chef, quickly moving up to sous chef and eventually taking over the kitchen. "The best things about my job are the freedoms I have with the menu, the local ingredients and high quality of products we use, and the tools we have in the restaurant to make those products," says Bychinski.
"I get to express myself, who I am and where I'm from as a chef -- and I utilize a lot of techniques in the modern-cuisine movement," he explains, "but I put them on a plate in a rustic manner so people understand what they have in front of them. I'm pushing the envelope a little bit more than in the past, and I like the way things are going."
In the following interview, Bychinski admits to a serious addiction to kitchen gadgetry, pleads for cooking shows to dispense with the drama, and explains why social media plays an essential role when it comes to dining out.
How do you describe your food? It's a blend of Mediterranean flavors prepared with classic French technique and a rustic approach. I also use subtle Asian flavors in my cooking to give it some more depth, and I like to experiment with modernist techniques; the final product must have clean, fresh flavors and great visual appeal.
Ten words to describe you: Adventurous, bold, organized, passionate, punctual, perfectionist, thoughtful, curious, risky and straightforward.
What do you enjoy most about your craft? I love that cooking is constantly evolving, which allows me to continually learn. There are always new techniques, equipment and processes that are being invented, and there's never a dull moment in the restaurant industry -- I'm always on my toes. I love walking in the door not knowing what the day will bring, and I love working with all the fresh ingredients we have at our disposal. Working with a quality product puts a smile on my face.
What are your ingredient obsessions? I love cooking seafood, and I'm especially fond of scallops and the texture they have when they're properly prepared. I'm also a fan of halibut because of its flaky white meat, especially when poached, and soft-shell crab is always a fond memory for me, ever since cooking it with my first chef. And since I work in a French restaurant, I can't leave out butter.
What are your kitchen-gadget obsessions? I have a serious obsession with cooking equipment, everything from a well-designed spoon to an immersion circulator. Gadgets don't make your food better, but they allow you to work with more ease. The Vitamix is a great tool for soups and purées, and another fun toy I like to use is an immersion circulator, a tool that allows you to cook food in a controlled environment and can really enhance the flavor, texture and overall quality of the finished product. I'm passionate about cutlery, too, especially Japanese knives; I enjoy the history that the knives bring with them, plus they stay sharp and have a great edge, which contributes to the essence of the overall dish.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: Colorado summer squash from Isabelle Farm is outstanding -- so is all of their produce. As a team, they grow exceptional produce. The hard work they put into what they grow is a testament to their craft, and their harvest really shows that. One of my favorite times of the year is cooking on the farm in the summer; it really can't get any better.
One ingredient you won't touch: I cooked cow tongue once in culinary school, and I don't think I'll be cooking it again anytime soon. Not that I'm against it or anything, but I was young and needed a pressure cooker.
One food you detest: The food-like substance known as fast food. Overly processed foods have, in my opinion, really gotten out of control, and I'd like to see people strive to eat more fresh and local foods. Step away from the McDouble.
What's the one food you can't live without? As a born-and-raised Wisconsinite, I can't live without cheese. Growing up with farmers in my family, I was always on a dairy farm during bow-hunting season, and when we were done for the night, we'd walk through the cornfields to the barn and say "hi" to my cousin still milking the cows after dark. My favorite cheeses are Toma, Mullin's cheese curds, Manchego and Valdeón -- and that's just the short list.
Food trend you'd like to see in 2013: The modernist food movement has really taken off over the last couple of years, and I would really like to see that continue. Pushing the limits of what food can be is exciting for me as a chef, and I'd like to continue to learn more modern techniques to share with our guests at the restaurant.
Food trend you'd like to see disappear in 2013: The number of television shows about cooking is great, and I'm glad that the general public is interested in what we do in the kitchen, but I'd like to see the focus of these programs shifted back to what matters: food. Food seems to be taking a back seat to the drama that unfolds on all these shows, and I think this gives the viewer the wrong impression of what the restaurant industry is really all about.
What recent innovation has influenced the restaurant industry in a significant way? The use of social media in the restaurant industry has made a big impact, specifically because people can review restaurants while they're actually at the restaurant or directly after their experience, which is both a good and bad thing, obviously, depending upon the review. Facebook and Twitter have changed the way guests view their dining options, and use of these mediums is necessary in today's technological age. You can figure out what you want to eat, what your options are and how much you're going to spend, all because of social media. It keeps restaurants competitive and helps us all to raise the bar.
What's your biggest pet peeve? People who are resistant to trying new things. And light beer.
What's your fantasy splurge? I would eventually love to eat at all of Thomas Keller's restaurants. Being spoiled with the exquisite food and service at his establishments would be a wonderful splurge.
What was the last cookbook you bought, and what recipes are you cooking from it? Eric Ripert's On the Line. I'm currently working on a variation of his crab-with-avocado dish.
Best recipe tip for a home cook: Don't be afraid to improvise when following a recipe. Trust your palate and follow your intuition, and the food will sing.
Favorite dish on your menu: Our new scallop dish is my favorite right now. It consists of pan-seared sea scallops with farro, black rice, fava beans, orange supremes and grilled ramps.
Biggest menu bomb: Earlier in my career, I served a poblano-pepper foam at a charity dinner, which didn't go as planned. In fact, it ended up looking more like baby food than foam. Luckily, I was able to redeem myself on the next course.
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What's the best compliment someone could give to you? The best compliments are when someone tells me that my food brings them back to a special moment in their life. Food memories are some of the strongest emotional bonds I think we possess, and when someone makes that connection, that's the biggest reward of my job.