This is part two of Lori Midson's interview with Aaron Youngblood, executive chef of Dixons Downtown Grill. Read part one of Midson's interview with Youngblood.
Rules of conduct in your kitchen: Be on time; work clean; respect your peers; maintain professionalism even when you're away from the restaurant; be accountable for your actions; and do everything exactly as I show you. I have an ahi tuna dish on the lunch and dinner menu that's got three sauces on it, and I'm old-fashioned in that I line them up side by side. It's easy for me, but some of the guys can't do it, and I've totally lost my cool because of it. If they don't hit the sauces with the toothpick just right, I'll make them redo it. I'm the same way about slicing the club sandwich on the diagonal and cutting it into four pieces. It has to be cut perfectly on the bias, otherwise I'll throw it away. All that said, I encourage goofing off and having fun -- as long as the work's getting done.
Favorite restaurant in America: My favorite restaurant in America is in Las Vegas, the greatest city in the world and one that's known for its dining. In the casino high-rise The Palms, there's the most amazing sushi place I've ever been -- Little Buddha -- and it's incredible. It left such an impression on me that I compare it to every other sushi restaurant I visit. The food, sake, service and design of the concept is planned and executed perfectly.
Best food city in America: One could argue that it's New York, San Francisco or Chicago, and I would probably agree. But the chefs here at home are rapidly approaching superstar status. We have the best local ingredients -- naturals and organics -- and so many homegrown chefs who know how to use them. There are new restaurants popping up all the time, and I'm seeing a lot of innovation within the competition we have here. I'm constantly surprised by how good everything is, especially some of the Colorado wines. It's really fun to see what's happening now -- and to think about what's coming in the future.
Favorite Denver restaurant(s) other than your own: Rioja, without a doubt. I love everything there and have never had a less than exceptional experience. Chef Jennifer just has it together, and her artichoke tortelloni is the best thing I've ever had. She has me as a customer for life.
Favorite music to cook by: When I'm doing prep, it's the Ramones, the Clash or the Hollies. When more speed and a higher gear are required, then it's Pantera or Anthrax.
What's the best food- or kitchen-related gift you've been given? My stick blender. I love it. It's a tool that's invaluable for homemade dressings, purées, foams and soups. I received it as a gift about six years ago, and it's still alive.
Favorite dish to cook at home: I like to grill more than just about anything else. My favorite meal when I cook for two, or ten, is a mixed grill -- jerk-molasses pork, smoked scallops, king crab, artichokes and corn. I'm not immune to standing outside in sub-freezing temperatures and nursing a charcoal grill back out of hibernation.
Favorite dish on your menu: The Bleu Burger -- a grilled half-pound patty with black pepper and bleu cheese on a soft brioche roll, with all of the accompaniments. I add jalapeños and bacon, and it's a thing of beauty.
If you could put any dish on your menu, even though it might not sell, what would it be? Most likely, pan-seared sweetbreads with mashed Yukon Golds, bourbon demi-glace, sautéed golden chanterelles and honey butter.
One book that every chef should read: The Nasty Bits, by Anthony Bourdain. His ability to make me laugh hysterically while describing his restaurant adventures reassures me that I'm not going through all of the same stuff all by myself.
What show would you pitch to the Food Network, and what would it be about? I'd pitch The Sure Thing, which would demonstrate to home cooks how to prepare for a date, a meeting with your girlfriend's parents, or entertaining for a dinner party. Food is the way to a person's heart, but most people overcomplicate things by trying too hard, and it ruins their ability to be a good host, which is the most important part of a gathering.
You're making a pizza. What's on it? It's got to be a Neapolitan crust with light sauce, arugula, prosciutto, mozzarella and shaved Romano cheeses. The crowning touch is a drizzle of olive oil.
You're at the market. What do you buy two of? I always buy two Honeycrisp apples. I have to eat one in the car on the way home from the store and the second one when I get home. I can't get just one, because I'll crave it in the car if I only have one, and then I'll get home and be mad that I already ate it. I know, it's absurd.
Guiltiest food pleasure? If not ice cream, then it's for sure posole, a spicy pork and hominy stew with radishes, lime, onions and flour tortillas. I drive miles out of my way to grab some, and I always get a little extra so that I can ravage it the next day -- hopefully on a day off, so I can watch a movie and sleep off the food coma.
What's your favorite knife? I love my Global vegetable knife. It's the best freakin' all-purpose knife in my kit. It doubles as a chef's knife and even extends to a utility knife. I want it buried with me.
Hardest lesson you've learned: Humility. You've got to get knocked on your butt and knocked off the pedestal you've put yourself on, and after you've been broken down, then you start to learn about who you really are and what you're truly capable of. When I was younger, I messed up a lot of perfectly good opportunities because of my arrogance, stubbornness and ego, and because of that, I've become stronger, more willing to adapt and more eager to learn, while at the same time focusing on what's really important.
What's next for you? I'll continue to challenge myself, learn all that I can, and apply that knowledge to my career. I'm a restaurant lifer, and I'm going to have my own place one day -- I don't know where or when -- but I love this business and truly want to be a part of it in any way I can. But I know enough to know that I still have a lot to learn here before I go off and do my own thing. I love cooking for people and entertaining. It doesn't hurt in the girlfriend department, either.
Last meal before you die: First course: escargot with roasted garlic, Brie and a fresh baguette. Second course: foie gras-stuffed quail with apricot butter and grilled butternut squash with balsamic vinegar, washed down with Sequoia Grove cabernet. Final course: vanilla-bean ice cream with sliced strawberries tossed with Grand Marnier.
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