Andrew Lubatty The Avenue Grill 630 East 17th Avenue 303-861-2820 www.avenuegrill.com
This is part two of Andrew Lubatty's Chef and Tell interview. To read part one of that interview, click here.
Culinary inspirations: When I was fourteen, I worked at this place called J.G. Melons in Bridgehampton, Long Island, that was the springboard for a life in the kitchen. Little did I know that the small, passionate crew that helped train me would be such a huge influence in my career -- even to this day. I worked with people who were fired up to cook every single day, and with some incredible ingredients from the farm and sea. In Arizona, I also worked with a chef named Todd Hall who taught me about strong fundamentals in classical cuisine -- a lot like Escoffier -- and did it in a way that was new and interesting, never old and dated. I got my love for making desserts from him, and he taught me about standards and would always push me to make a plate more awesome. His artistic touch with food garnishing made me feel like a kid staring, enthralled, for the first time at the person making an intricate balloon animal.
Proudest moment as a chef: Doing a wine dinner for winemaker Joseph Heitz in Scottsdale, Arizona. The bottles of wine -- some of them came from Joe's personal cellar -- were incredible,just insane. Big-name Arizona chef Christopher Gross was at the dinner, and about a month earlier, I turned down an entry-level job at his place, arguably the best restaurant in town, to work at another restaurant. Christopher popped his head in the kitchen and gave me a positive smile and nod that made me feel proud and not so bad for bailing on him.
Best food city in America: I'm kind of biased, because I grew up in New York and spent a lot of years soaking up the diverse melting-pot culture of the food there. It doesn't matter if you're grabbing a sandwich at a deli, a slice at the pizza joint or indulging in a ten-course tasting meal at a fine-dining restaurant: The bar is set so high in New York that the public humiliation you get if you're subpar helps keep things in line. I still go back every year and look forward to eating at my favorite places and checking out the new ones. I usually like to go to Momofuku, because there's always something new to learn there, Union Square Cafe is awesome, and I also love Motorino, a great pizza place.
Favorite music to cook by: There's usually a radio going in the kitchen, and when I'm not kicking back listening to a mean accordion solo, or a guy talking like a clown on the Mexican station, I listen to alternative rock. I get bored with the same thing, though, so I'll switch it up to pop or something with energy. If the kitchen crew in the basement hears hip-hop or rap going down, it sometimes means I'm annoyed at them and about to deliver an earful.
Rules of conduct in your kitchen: Respect the profession or get out. Bring energy to my kitchen: I love what I do, and you need to, too. Focus on your own job and don't worry about everyone else; work clean, fast and be organized, because you need to prep lots of different things for your station -- not just build plates from pre-made food made by someone else. "No" is not an acceptable answer to give to a customer; we'll do anything for them without complaints.
Favorite restaurant in America: Mustards Grill in Napa Valley. It's comfortable, but as formal as you want it to be, and the food is top-notch, with lots of global influences: Asian, Italian, Mexican and American barbecue, just to name a few. The staff makes incredible food -- the Mongolian pork chop was the inspiration for my Chinatown pork chop at the Avenue -- and the service is great.
Favorite dish to cook at home: Any type of pasta. My kids love it, and I enjoy the rhythm of making good pasta: cooking the main ingredients, deglazing with sauce, simmering al dente pasta in the sauce and adding some pasta cooking water to lighten the texture. There's something that employs my senses and allows me to relax when I make a pasta dish.
What show would you pitch to the Food Network? Cooking by Feel. I'd like to see people cooking good food using simple ratios, sound techniques and a few awesome ingredients -- and learning about those ingredients and how each ingredient is different. It's important to teach people how to employ all of their senses in cooking rather than just burying their nose in a cookbook. If chefs could teach people how to put down the complicated "foodie" recipes and just enjoy the ride, more people might cook.
Current Denver culinary genius: I hate this question, because so many of the chefs here are geniuses. But if I have to pick one, I'd say Keegan Gerhard at D Bar Desserts, because I love sweets, and his desserts have so many flavors and textures. Watching him plate at the dessert bar is a blast.
Best culinary tip for a home cook: Don't buy too many kitchen doohickeys; they just clutter your cabinets. Some people have so many gadgets. Do you really need that egg separator? Why not just crack the shell open and go from shell to shell?
If you could cook for one famous person, dead or alive, who would it be? Auguste Escoffier. It would be fun for him to see what's going on today in the food world -- like raw fish. How did you like that sushi, sir?
Favorite Denver restaurant(s) other than your own: It's tough to just name one, but Vesta Dipping Grill, from top to bottom, embraces quality, innovation and hospitality. Chef Matty [Selby] is super creative, a great cook and has incredible energy. He's also emerged as one of the culinary leaders in Denver and the community. When I first came to town, I remember doing a culinary competition with Matt and David Zahradnik, and they were sporting cowboy hats in the kitchen. I thought to myself: Wow, these guys must be the real deal here -- and twelve years later, they still are.
Favorite celebrity chef: I like Anthony Bourdain; he makes me feel like I'm back in high school in New York. His sense of humor and kitchen pirate shtick is fun, and I like that he has a great classical handle on French cuisine and has done a lot to educate people about international food.
Celebrity chef who should shut up: I have a hard time bashing people, but does anyone really listen to the words coming out of Giada de Laurentiis's mouth?
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What's your favorite knife? My Global Asian vegetable knife. I love the feel and balance.
You're making a pizza. What's on it? My favorite is a classic Neapolitan marinara pizza with crushed San Marzano tomatoes, good olive oil, garlic sliced paper thin, coarse sea salt and good oregano. It's so good that it doesn't need cheese.
You're eating a burrito. What's in it? Chorizo, potatoes, cilantro, scrambled eggs, jalapeño Jack cheese and pinto beans.
Favorite cookbooks: New World Kitchen, by Norman Van Aken. It's lots of stuff rolled up into one book, and it helps me navigate between all the different styles and ingredients used in authentic South American and Caribbean cooking. Asian Flavors of Jean-Georges, by Jean-Georges Vongerichten, for its light and flavorful recipes with finesse and style; Balthazar Cookbook, by Keith McNally, for its classic and simple French brasserie food recipes; The Sweet Spot, by Pichet Ong, for its Asian desserts that are much more than the usual token offerings; and One Spice, Two Spice, by Floyd Cardoz, who uses Indian spices with American foods -- no tandoori chicken in here. This is food you can't get at an Indian restaurant; the ingredients require a trip to Savory Spice Shop.