This is part one of my interview with Paul Nagan, exec chef of Zink Kitchen + Bar; part two of our interview will run tomorrow.
I was always interested in cooking," says Paul Nagan. "My grandparents were really great cooks, and every time we ate at their house, it was like a mini-banquet, and my grandfather taught me how to grill when I was super-young." Cooking, he declares, "has always been in my blood."
See also: - George Eder, exec chef of Pizza Republica, on grubs, Groupons and the guest who was aghast - David Payne, exec chef of Jelly, on losing your authority, Rick Bayless and gross sticky goo - Daniel Ramirez, exec chef of Gaetano's, on chicken, checks and culinary schools
But Nagan, the 42-year-old executive chef of Zink Kitchen + Bar, didn't start cooking professionally until he'd graduated from Cornell College in Iowa with a business and economics degree -- a degree that led him straight into a kitchen. "The economy wasn't great when I graduated and I couldn't find a job, but I knew that I loved to cook, so I decided that's what I'd do -- that was my passion," he says.
He moved to Steamboat Springs -- an ex-girlfriend lured him there -- and got a gig at the Sheraton Hotel as a prep cook for the summer. After that, he returned to Iowa and another hotel cooking job for two years before coming back to Colorado to attend Johnson & Wales and work at the Vail Marriott Resort, where he stayed for nearly five years as the sous chef. He eventually departed, he explains, "because Vail was a frat party that I needed to get away from."
He packed up and headed for Portland, undeterred by a series of interviews that always led to one question: "How do you feel about the rain?" Turns out he hated both the weather and the job, as an exec banquet chef at another Marriott. "I loved the food scene in Portland, and it's an awesome city," he says. "But I didn't like my job, and after nearly ten months of straight drizzle, I couldn't take it anymore."
He came back to sunny Colorado and landed on the line at the Denver Renaissance Hotel, a Marriott franchise, where he wielded his knives for nearly six years as the executive chef. And then he moved again, this time to San Francisco, then San Diego, doing time in both cities in hotel kitchens. Finally, he returned to Denver in 2007 -- for good, he says; "I like it here, and I plan to stay" -- and secured the exec-chef gig at Zink, which is attached to the Doubletree Hotel in Greenwood Village. And it's a job, Nagan insists, that fuels his obsession. "I've always been fortunate in that I've never had to work in a cookie-cutter crappy hotel restaurant, and this one is no different," he says, noting that it's similar to working on the line of an independent restaurant.
"I love the conceptualization and total menu control that I have -- I've got a ton of creative freedom -- and it really is like working in an independent restaurant, because I get to create without a lot of constrictions," he says. "A lot of hotel restaurants get a bad rap for good reason, but there's no reason why hotel restaurants shouldn't be as good as an independent. We have the same equipment and the resources, and here we treat it like a 'street' restaurant -- meaning that it's our own entity. I think we're a hidden gem just waiting to be discovered. No one expects this good of a restaurant in a Doubletree, but everything here is made from scratch. We put out really good food, and we come up with a lot of really creative dishes."
In the following interview, Nagan reveals his top-ten list of pet peeves, exposes the culinary attributes of one of Colorado's prisons, and divulges the biggest mistake a chef can make on the line.
How do you describe your food? Eclectic, familiar, unique, classic, playful, fresh, global, local, seasonal and deliberate.
Ten words to describe you: Humble, sarcastic, honest, driven, funny, serious, creative, stubborn, passionate and temperamental. It all really depends on the day and how well you know me.
What are your ingredient obsessions? They change quite a bit. I try to experiment with a few new ingredients -- or something I haven't used in a while -- every time I do a new menu. I've recently been incorporating a lot of superfoods -- kale, quinoa, beets, Brussels sprouts, citrus, heirloom carrots -- into my cooking. I wasn't sure how well kale salad and Brussels sprouts would go over, but they've been some of our biggest sellers. As Heather Holt, our restaurant manager, says: "We're changing lives one Brussels sprout at a time."
What are your kitchen-gadget obsessions? His name is Marcos, although I call him the "Dice-o-Matic/Peeler 2000." To be honest, I used to hate peeling and dicing my own vegetables until I got ahold of this Marcos 2000 -- and now it's a breeze. Just kidding...sort of. I'm actually more into equipment than gadgets. We recently purchased a Vollrath meat grinder and an LEM sausage stuffer. Making sausage is fun, and there's always an endless supply of jokes that go along with it.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: I really like the Buena Vista CCI trout. Colorado Correctional Industries funds and operates a 6,000-acre organic farm just outside Cañon City; they have a fishery, goat dairy, greenhouses, vineyards, orchards and a honey operation. It's become a model for prison systems around the world to create job training and self-improvement opportunities for the inmates, which I think is a great idea and a great story. I just wish more of their products were easily available. The trout are fed all-natural diets and raised in low-density ponds, and they really have the taste and texture of wild-caught trout. They're definitely the best freshwater fish I've had in Colorado.
Food trend you'd like to see in 2013: I think the food magazines and the TV shows decide the trends. I haven't heard what it's going to be this year, but I do know that the Denver food scene has been exploding, and it's difficult to keep up with everything that's going on. With all the new restaurants, cocktail lounges, pubs, breweries, wineries, retail shops and local producers, I really do sense an energy and passion about food in this city that continues to surge. I can't wait to see what happens this year.
Food trend you'd like to see disappear in 2013: Trends are what fuel the industry. They keep people interested and excited about what's going on, although they've gotten a little wacky lately. A few years ago, who would have thought that people would be doing Twitter-based treasure hunts all over the city in search of a slice of pie or a taco or a hot dog? That said, I think trends keep things fun and fresh. The problem is when you get too many copycats, which results in a lot of watered-down versions. Once Amanda Freitag and Alex Guarnaschelli declare their latest foodgasm on The Best Thing I Ever Ate, then everyone jumps on the bandwagon. I call it cupcake Darwinism.
What do you enjoy most about your craft? Creating new dishes, learning new techniques, writing new menus and pretty much cooking in general.
What's your biggest pet peeve? Let's do a top-ten list: No. 10: Plastic wrap that jams and tears every time you need a piece. No. 9: Banquet servers blocking the aisle with an empty cart. No. 8: Servers not picking up their food. No. 7: Box lunches. No. 6: Tall white toques. No. 5: Wedding parties that want to push their food back after you've already started plating. No. 4: The freezer -- nobody wants to clean the freezer. No. 3: Meetings. No. 2: The Cookie. No. 1: People who say, "Oh, you're a restaurant in a hotel?"
Describe the biggest challenges facing today's chefs: All in all, it's a great time to be a chef. The availability and selection of products, the popularity and respect of the profession, the expectations of the consumer are all at an all-time high. Unfortunately, so is the cost of food. The prices of a lot of meats and seafood have doubled in the last few years, and it's very challenging to keep menu prices at current levels. I think between the rising prices and the growing popularity of vegetarian diets, many chefs will have to rethink their menus. Vegetarian dishes will play a much larger role than the previous one or two token dishes at a lot of restaurants.
Most humbling moment as a chef: I had just gotten my first executive-chef position, and the menu at the restaurant was old and tired. We didn't have many guests at night, and the ones we did have weren't leaving happy. The food was really bad, so I figured I'd show them what I had to offer and write a new menu. We did taste panels, and everyone seemed pretty excited about the new menu, and the customers that came in liked the food, too, but we still weren't seeing as many guests in the restaurant as we wanted. I came to work one day and was told I needed to attend a meeting -- that's all I knew. It turned out that my meeting was with a menu consultant from New York City, and I was immediately defensive. He explained his background and told me he was a founding partner in the Myriad Restaurant Group. That didn't mean much, because I'd never heard of them, but when he listed the restaurants they created and operate -- Montrachet, Tribeca Grill and Nobu -- that got my attention. He laid out all the issues with my menu: prices too high, verbiage too complicated, not cooking for your audience, too many ingredients. It was humbling to have someone come in and tear apart your menu, but at the same time, the amount of knowledge and experience he imparted in just a few hours was invaluable.
Biggest moment of euphoria in the kitchen: Two years ago, I woke up to go to work, and I knew it was going to be a busy day, including preparing for a competition we were doing that night. As I was getting ready, something just didn't feel right. It was kind of a queasy feeling with a dull ache in my stomach. It wasn't that bad, and I figured I could make it through, but as I drove to work it just kept getting worse...and worse -- and when I got to work, all I could do was lean on a table and hold my stomach. When my boss walked in and saw me, he told me I needed to go home. I refused; there was just way too much stuff to get done. I went to lie down, but I finally had to succumb; I couldn't take it. I had to go to the ER. The pain had become excruciating. I had no idea what this was, but when I got to the ER, I was in tears, screaming and pounding my fists against the wall. It was the most intense pain I've ever experienced. I was rushed in for an emergency appendectomy. If euphoria can be attributed to seeing God, it was definitely euphoric. Then again, maybe it was the morphine...I don't know.
What's never in your kitchen? Attitude. I have a great staff, and many of them have been here since we opened in 2007. A few of us worked together previously, so we're a tight-knit group. Everyone takes a lot of pride in what they do, and while they're confident, they're not cocky. We try to hire people with similar traits, but once in a while someone comes in thinking they already know everything there is to know and are better than the rest of us. They get ostracized pretty quickly and don't last long.
What's always in your kitchen? Teamwork. Working in a hotel is a different animal every day. One day we might be getting crushed in the restaurant, and the next day, we're doing banquets for 600 -- and on some days, it's both. We're not compartmentalized: Everyone has a role and a position, but that can change several times a day. Everyone is expected to jump in and help where and when they're needed. It's nice to know that someone's always got your back, and since every day is different, it keeps things interesting.
Craziest night in the kitchen: I was working at the San Mateo Marriott outside of San Francisco, and we had a three-day "Con" convention at the hotel -- the type of gathering were everyone dresses up and acts out their favorite fictional character. There were the medieval types that made their own armor, swords and such; the Star Trek-alien types; and the Japanese anime types -- and there were probably about 600 to 700 of them total. They were there for three days and they had no catered food, so they pretty much just killed us in the restaurant all day, every day. There were guys stabbing their steaks with swords and eating them like shish kabobs while yelling "Fetch me another beer, wench!" There were people pecking at their food with no hands making weird bird squawks, and we had people trying to order in languages that didn't exist -- or maybe it was Klingon. It was ridiculous.
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If you hadn't become a chef, what would you be doing right now? I graduated college with a degree in economics and business. It was 1992 and the job market was bleak, and I didn't have any luck finding a real job, so I spent some time contemplating what I was going to do with my life. I woke up one morning and realized how much I love to cook, so why not be a chef? That's literally how it happened. I went and got a job as a cook and never looked back. There are times when I think some other guy has a lot more free time, or that person makes a lot more money than me, but in the end, I love what I do. I can't imagine doing anything different. I'll always be cooking and creating in some fashion.