This is part two of Lori Midson's interview with Mary Nguyen, exec chef of Parallel 17. You can read part one of Midson's interview with Nguyen here.
Most embarrassing moment in the kitchen: Before I started cooking, I worked in finance. When I was just starting out in this industry, I saw an ad in Westword for a sous chef at the Beehive. I had no idea what the hierarchy was in a professional kitchen at the time, so I showed up on their doorstep in a three-piece suit with my cardstock-printed resumé, ready to take on the world. Needless to say, Janice, the chef, laughed at me, but later offered me a position in her pantry. I didn't dare ask her why she needed someone to put away her groceries.
Favorite music to cook by: I don't like to listen to music when I'm cooking because it's too distracting. But I like to go in early in the morning to prep before anyone else gets there -- and that's when I listen to music. Sometimes I need a little pick-me-up, in which case I listen to very loud rap, which is funny for this little Asian girl, but there's nothing like getting your morning started with some NWA.
Favorite ingredient: That changes depending upon my mood and what I've been experimenting with. Right now, I'm really into rabbit.
Most overrated ingredient: Butter. I'm sure that's blasphemy for some chefs, but I find that butter can be easily overused to the point that it weighs down food, making it greasy and heavy.
Most undervalued ingredient: Annatto seeds. They're very popular in South America and the Caribbean, but I don't see them in many Western kitchens. Some people refer to the seeds as "poor man's saffron," which is probably why it's not commonly used. I love it. I use it in oils, rice, butter, stocks, sauces and to poach fish. The seeds impart a beautiful color to foods, and they also lend a subtle peppery-sweet flavor.
Favorite local ingredient: I get all kinds of different wrappers for dumplings and noodles from Kwan San Noodle in southwest Denver.
Rules of conduct in your kitchen: Respect yourself, each other, the process and your profession.
What's never in your kitchen? Premade or processed foods.
Best food city in America: New York. It's the one city that has a concentration of nearly every type of cuisine in varying atmospheres -- five-star, holes-in-the-wall, neighborhood joints, food carts. The advantage of New York over other cities like Denver is that there's critical mass. There are so many people who have different backgrounds, tastes and wants all packed into a small space. I think it's an amazing environment for a chef, because no matter what you focus on, you're sure to have an audience. Creativity flourishes because risk is more readily acceptable, and that creates an arena for chefs to be more adventurous, creative and cutting-edge, which in turn creates a public that's passionate about great food and trying new, different and unfamiliar dishes.
Favorite New York restaurant: There are so many amazing restaurants in New York -- the obvious fine-dining restaurants that everyone knows by name, the neighborhood haunts, the family-owned holes-in-the-wall and ethnic places. So that's a very difficult question to answer. But if I had to choose my favorite, I'd have to say Blue Ribbon Brasserie in the West Village -- purely for sentimental reasons.
One food you detest: There's really nothing that I detest. I'll try anything once and will normally find an appreciation for it. The only thing I wouldn't choose to eat is chicken breast (although I love every other part of the chicken: Give me the gizzards, liver and cartilage, and I'm in heaven). I'm not sure why I don't like them -- maybe because they're normally overcooked, dry and flavorless.
One food you can't live without: That changes for me constantly. My eating patterns go in phases where I'm really into something and eat it every day until I get sick of it and then move on to something different. It's a continuous cycle. But I have three constant items in my fridge that are staples -- my go-to-items for easy entertaining and for when I don't have the energy after work to cook something on my own: dry or cured meats like Serrano, prosciutto or sausage; cheese that's normally a cave-aged Gruyère and a triple cream like Époisses, Explorateur or St. Andre; and a pâté. Right now, we have parfait, which is a duck-liver mousse that comes out of a toothpaste container that you can only get in Europe. My husband's European, so luckily we have ways of getting it smuggled into the States for us.
You're making a pizza. What's on it? I love the simplicity of a margherita pizza. I wouldn't change or add a thing.
You're making an omelet. What's in it? I don't particularly like scrambled eggs, so I don't make them for myself. But if I was making you an omelet, I would infuse the eggs with some Thai basil and whisk it with cream, sautéed trumpet mushrooms, shallots, roasted garlic, watercress, roasted tomatoes and cave-aged Gruyère.
Best culinary tip for a home cook: Read and mise en place your recipes before you turn on that burner.
After-work hangout: I really enjoy relaxing with a glass of wine after work, but by the time I'm done closing the kitchen, there aren't many places still open serving wine, so, I normally just end up going home.
Favorite Denver restaurant other than your own: I love Shish Kabob Grill, a family-run place that's great. The food is always good and consistent, and the service is friendly. I love the fact that the whole family takes part in running the business: The sons are servers, hosts and bussers; the matriarch is cooking; and the husband is managing and doing the books on the desk in the back. It's what this country was built on: immigrant dreams and hard work.
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