Proudest moment as a chef: When I graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in New York. I'd been cooking for six or seven years before I went to culinary school, and for me, it was an all-or-nothing proposition: If I didn't get accepted into CIA, then I wasn't going to culinary school at all. I only wanted to go CIA, and when I got in, I was only nineteen. My career path was chosen, and I'd achieved something that at one point seemed impossible.
Favorite music to cook by: I like to cook to heavier music or anything that's upbeat, because it keeps me in tempo while cooking. I really like listening to Metallica. But mainly, I'll just throw on the radio and listen to 93.3 KTCL or 106.7 KBPI. I do shut off the radio during service, just so we can all hear each other. My staff needs to hear me, and I need to hear them.
Favorite restaurant in America: Although I've have only eaten there once, I loved Alinea. I was so impressed by the way the entire service staff flowed; they all knew exactly what to do and where to be at the proper time. Having dinner there was more like a show than a meal, just because everything was so choreographed. It was really incredible how the servers explained our food and what the purpose of it all was. And the way the kitchen is set up is amazing: All of the equipment is movable, which pretty much gives you the freedom to do anything.
Best food city in America: New York. It's such a great melting pot of ethnic diversity. Having all those cuisines and cultures together in one place creates a wonderfully diverse food scene.
Most embarrassing moment in the kitchen: Being completely weeded on a busy Thanksgiving and almost not making it to the bathroom in time. The employee bathroom was on the fifth floor and the kitchen was on the first floor. I ran like hell.
Culinarily speaking, Denver has the best: Beer scene, beer selection and beer styles. Love the beer here.
Culinarily speaking, Denver has the worst: Chinese food. I've been in Denver for two and a half years, and I still haven't found a good Chinese restaurant.
Favorite cookbooks: Joy of Cooking. It lays down the basics of food and has all your classic preparations, but the recipes allow for your own creativity, too. I also really like to read about other chefs' philosophies and views on food and cooking -- why chefs cook the different foods that they do. Anthony Bourdain's Les Halles cookbook is a great example of that. I also really like Harold McGee's On Food & Cooking.
What show would you pitch to the Food Network? I'd pitch a show about getting kids involved in food and cooking -- almost like a mini Iron Chef. Kids would be paired up with professional chefs in a competitive setting, where they'd be given a task that, with some direction from their chef, they'd have to complete in a certain time frame while trying to outdo the other competitors.
Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: Tarantula. It has the texture of a soft-shell crab with an earthy protein flavor.
Weirdest customer request: Someone came in recently and ordered prime rib just so they could cut it up and take it home to their dog.
You're making a pizza. What's on it? Bacon, of course, with goat cheese, arugula, lemon juice and olive oil.
You're making an omelet. What's in it? Andouille sausage, smoked cheddar and green onions.
You're at the market. What do you buy two of? Port wine cheddar cheese.
Best culinary tip for a home cook: Take your time with the recipe and just have fun with it. Start out with simple culinary tasks and work your way up from there.
Culinary inspirations: My uncle, who got me interested in cooking at a young age. He'd take me fishing and camping, so I learned how to catch and cook fish long before most kids, and then whenever we hung out, we always went to restaurants, which made me even more interested in food and cooking. I've got to give props to Michael Mina, a great chef who is very ingredient-focused rather than whole-menu-focused; he and his staff taught me to take one ingredient and figure out how to do all sorts of amazing things with it -- to look at all the different possibilities, and, most important, to ask what the ingredient can do for you rather than what you can do for the ingredient. I also have a huge amount of respect for Thomas Keller -- his was one of the first cookbooks I ever read -- because he showed me that you don't need a bunch of ingredients to make a dish successful, that less is more. And then there's my mom: She was always busy, but she came home every night of the week and made damn sure that we all had dinner together. To her, food was much more than a meal; it was an event or a memory, a reason for people to be together. I craved her cooking. She used to make a dish called "Speedballs" that was meatballs and French onion soup served over rice. I loved it.
After-work hangout: Interstate Kitchen & Bar. I know all the guys down there; I can cruise in wearing my work clothes, grab a beer and walk into the kitchen and bullshit with the chefs.
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SHOW ME HOW
If you could cook for one person, dead or alive, who would it be? My uncle Packy. He passed away before I really started my cooking career, and my grandmother always said that he's the reason I started cooking in the first place. I'd love to be able to show him the culmination of everything he taught me.
Favorite Denver restaurant other than your own: Interstate Kitchen & Bar. The food is simple, approachable and good -- kind of American-style Southern comfort food.
Favorite celebrity chef: Anthony Bourdain. I love that he'll eat absolutely anything. And it's cool how he focuses not just on the food part, but also on the cultural components of wherever he travels.
Celebrity chef who should shut up: Bobby Flay. I lost all respect for him when he stood on his cutting board after an Iron Chef competition.