This is part one of my interview with Patrik Landberg, exec chef of Charcoal. Part two of our conversation will run in this space tomorrow.
Patrik Landberg had no choice: It was either learn how to cook or succumb to a life of leftovers. "I was thirteen and driving a forklift in Stockholm, but there wasn't one restaurant anywhere near where I was working, so I asked my mom to make me lunch, which was last night's dinner -- and the last thing I wanted was leftovers, so I started making my own lunches," remembers the Swedish-born Landberg, now the executive chef of Charcoal.
"Sometimes they were good, sometimes not so good," he says of those lunches. "Actually, they really weren't good at all." Nonetheless, Landberg enjoyed being the master of his own meals -- enough that he enrolled in culinary school at fifteen. "I discovered that cooking was really fun, and I started thinking about all of the ingredients I was using -- the spices in the cabinet, the bread, the meats -- and I became interested in learning more, so I went to culinary school in Stockholm," he explains. That paved the way for several internships, including line time in a one-star Michelin restaurant and a kitchen whose chef cooked for Nobel Prize heavyweights.
Landberg spent eight years cooking in Stockholm, working every station before taking a sabbatical to Greece, where he gigged at a farm-to-table restaurant. It was a life-changing experience. "We had basil bushes that were four feet tall, beautiful bay-leaf trees and access to the most amazing ingredients and markets. It was just incredible, and it changed the way I thought about cooking," recalls Landberg. "My plan was to cook myself around the world, starting in London, but I didn't have any friends there, and I'd met a guy from New York at sailing camp in Sweden, so I jumped on an airplane and went to New York instead."
He stayed in the Big Apple for nearly ten years, cooking in several restaurants, meeting -- and marrying -- his wife, and undergoing open-heart surgery, which was performed by none other than Dr. Oz. "The now-famous doctor did a good job. He saved my life," says Landberg, whose aortic root was pilfered from a pig. "I still eat pigs, but I feel like a cannibal sometimes," he jokes, noting that he also has a cadaver valve in his body.
The surgery forced Landberg to take a step back from the kitchen and, eventually, New York. "After I recovered, my wife and I had a child and I was working at a great restaurant called Melt in Brooklyn, but I wanted balance. New York was starting to get the best of me, and my brother-in-law lived in Colorado, so we decided to move to Denver," explains Landberg, who originally regretted his decision. "I sent out hundreds of resumés, and no one wanted to hire me. It was so weird, like I had the plague or something."
But one restaurateur did reach out. "The only person who contacted me was Andrew Casalini, who asked me to run the kitchen at the original Satchel's," says Landberg, who turned down the job. "I wanted a bigger restaurant, and when I went down to meet with him, there were a bunch of bums outside the next-door liquor store, so I graciously declined."
Instead, he landed at the Kitchen in Boulder as a line cook, but he soon found himself conversing again with Casalini. "I loved working at the Kitchen -- they were incredibly good to me," says Landberg, "but I was living near the Tech Center, and after driving to Boulder in a blizzard and crashing my car, I resigned, called Andrew back, and asked if he was still looking for someone to cook."
Landberg helmed the kitchen at Satchel's for just under a year, and during his tenure there, the tiny Park Hill restaurant generated accolades. "We had really great press, we were incredibly busy and we were doing really well," he says. But there was tension between him and Casalini, who, Landberg claims, hired him without revealing a rather significant detail: The restaurant's lease was expiring and wouldn't be renewed. "Andrew and I didn't work well together, and the fact that he didn't tell me up front that the lease wouldn't be renewed irked me," he says.
Satchel's closed in 2010, reemerging last year on Sixth Avenue as Satchel's on Sixth. But Landberg chose to let sleeping dogs lie and instead joined forces with Gary Sumihiro, who was working on a new restaurant in the Golden Triangle called Charcoal. "I work for a great owner who cares about his whole staff; I have complete freedom to make whatever I want; I got to design my own kitchen; and so far, it's been going really, really well," Landberg says. "I'm happy here."
In the following interview, Landberg weighs in on opening additional restaurants, food trends and the "snapshot" comments on social review sites.
Six words to describe your food: Fresh, flavorful, balanced, clean, unpretentious and rustic.
Ten words to describe you: Passionate, professional, enthusiastic, dependable, personable, creative, intense, workaholic, confident and energetic. What are your ingredient obsessions? I love salt. The way a chef uses salt in cooking is incredibly important. As you cook a dish, you use salt to bring out the flavors that are already there, but the line is thin when you destroy the dish with too much. As a chef, you need to learn how to balance seasonings. I also love my demi-glace and fresh herbs, especially dill and tarragon, the two herbs that most people hate. What are your kitchen-tool obsessions? My meat grinder is my new best friend. I can make countless different sausages, and the flavor difference between packaged sausages and fresh-ground-and-stuffed sausages is remarkable. We've made duck sausages, pork sausages and breakfast sausages, and we're experimenting with others. The benefit of housemade sausages is that we can adjust the texture, spices and density to fit our flavor profile. Many people have asked if we sell sausages to go; our answer is not yet. I also couldn't cook without my Japanese Misono 440 Nenox knives. I've had them for so many years, and no other knives feel right in my hand. I particularly love Japanese knives that have an edge on only one side.
Best recent food find: Il Mondo Vecchio cured meats, especially the porcini mushroom salumi and the pepperoni.
Most underrated ingredient: Acidity -- lemon, wine, vinegar and the like. When added properly, acidity can elevate and balance the taste of any dish. The key is knowing how much to apply -- and when to apply it.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: Colorado sweet corn and peaches from the Western Slope. There's something about the hot days and cold nights that produce the perfect amount of sugar in the produce.
Food trend you wish would go away: In my opinion, food trends aren't important -- it's all marketing. My philosophy is to eat whatever tastes good and makes you feel happy. Great food is timeless. That said, I find it interesting that Scandinavian food is the trend of the moment. I'm glad that chefs and diners are taking an interest in some of the great food I grew up with, like herring and gravlax.
Favorite spice: Dill. What's not to like? I'm from Sweden, and we use a lot of dill in Sweden. Dill pairs beautifully with American wines, too, because of the wood we use in our wine barrels. True, dill is a strong herb, but just the right amount can give a dish that little extra something that makes you wonder, what is that?
One food you detest: Fermented herring, or "surströmming," which is a popular dish in northern Sweden. The smell is unbearable -- so unbearable that most rental apartments won't even let you eat it inside. People either love it or hate it, but the majority of people hate it.
One food you can't live without: Seafood. I love everything from the ocean, especially oysters and caviar.
Favorite childhood food memory: Fishing with my father in the Swedish Archipelago. We had the smoker next to us on a rock, and we'd gut, smoke and eat the fish as we caught them. And we'd always eat what we'd caught with a cold, crisp lager that had been chilled in the ocean.
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Favorite dish on your menu: Chicken-liver mousse. I eat it almost every day. That and the feta mousse are the drugs of choice for many of our guests.
Biggest menu bomb: Salmon tournedos with squid-ink risotto. Interestingly, as soon as I changed the squid-ink risotto to a Meyer lemon risotto, it became our best seller.
Are you affected by reviews at all? What's your opinion on food writers and social review sites like Yelp, OpenTable and Urbanspoon? I review the social review comments infrequently, mostly because they're generally written in extremes -- both the positive and negative reviews. Moreover, the comments are only a snapshot of one meal eaten by one guest, but if we think there's something valid in a review, we'll discuss the comments. The opinions of restaurant critics who have a deep experience of food and wine -- those reviews we take seriously.