This is part one of my interview with Pippa Taylor, the executive chef of Strings. Part two of our chat will run tomorrow.
Pippa Taylor is the first to admit her good fortune -- and the last to take it for granted. At 25, she's worked in exactly three professional kitchens, including Strings, where she's now the executive chef, cooking alongside her sous -- and husband -- Ryan, the son of Kevin Taylor, whose restaurant empire in this city is legendary. "I got my first job in the business working at Prima, and I brushed up on my skills quickly, while staging at Restaurant Kevin Taylor, where I eventually worked my way up, and it was literally the most amazing place for me to start my cooking career," says Pippa. "The people who work there are just incredible, and it if weren't for them -- for Kevin, Ryan and Austin Cueto, the executive chef -- I wouldn't be here."
A cooking career, however, wasn't Pippa's passion -- at least not in the beginning. "I was born in London and raised globally in countries that were immersed in food culture, but it wasn't until high school that I began to really develop an interest in cooking," she admits, adding that she began creating three-course dinners for her parents while watching All My Children marathons on SOAPnet. "I'm officially a dork," she jokes.
But cooking those multi-course dinners -- and immersing herself in cookbooks -- made her rethink her future, which was headed toward a maze of numbers. "I graduated from DU with a degree in finance and accounting, and it just didn't click for me," she remembers. "I told my dad that, yeah, no, all that tuition he paid for college wasn't going to work out."
She applied to culinary school at Cook Street but ended up forgoing the formal curriculum when she snatched up jobs at Prima and Restaurant Kevin Taylor, where her tenure lasted just over a year. "I wanted to see what else was out there," she recalls. "I still wanted to work in fine dining, but I wanted a different atmosphere -- and I wanted to keep learning."
Pippa had met Noel Cunningham, the founder/original chef of Strings who tragically passed away last year, when she was just eight years old, and he impressed her even then. "I remember Noel giving me a tour of Ciao Baby! and letting me make Italian sodas with him," she says. "I even had my graduation party there."
And when she was looking on Craigslist for a new job after leaving Restaurant Kevin Taylor, she spotted one at Strings. "I wanted to propel my career forward, I loved Noel, and Strings was similar to Restaurant Kevin Taylor in a lot of ways, so it seemed like a natural transition," says Pippa, who started there in 2010 as a pantry cook and "worked every single station" until she was given the exec-chef position in March this year. And Ryan, her husband of one year, has been with her every step of the way. "Working with Ryan is my best dream come true," she attests. "On his days off, I get depressed if he's not with me in the kitchen."
Strings recently marked its 26th year in Uptown, and while there was no hoopla, Pippa has slowly made changes in the kitchen. "With the kind of longevity we've had here, we have a very loyal clientele, but in order to remain relevant, we have to continue to update the menu. I like to take ordinary ingredients and manipulate them in a way that's extraordinary," she says, adding that "there's a natural way to make food weird and interesting without the use of chemicals" -- in other words, without molecular gastronomy.
"On our duck-confit gnocchi, we have a cured and smoked egg yolk, which is a complete 180-turn on a traditional egg yolk, and we're making a popcorn purée, plus caviar with gelatin, and dropping them in olive oil," she reveals. "It's not molecular -- there are no powders, foams or bubbles -- but my menu will continue to push the envelope, and while we don't want to intimidate people, we also want to encourage those who come in every day for the calf's liver to get out of that liver box and try new things."
In short, says Pippa, "we want to set the world on fire with our food." And in the following interview, she admits to an obsession with offal, waxes rhapsodic about haggis, and explains why Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York, made her swoon.
Six words to describe your food: Pleasing, unfussy, seasonal, enticing, personal and crafted.
Ten words to describe you: Fiery, blunt, spontaneous, passionate, witty, sarcastic, brainy, generous, ambitious and a perfectionist.
What are your ingredient obsessions? I love all vinegars; they add great flavors to a dish if used correctly, and they brighten up a meal while balancing out richness or sweetness. When you taste a dish and it feels like it needs something else, it's usually vinegar. I also love butter on -- or in -- everything. Butter adds an amazing texture that you can't get with any other ingredient. I'm kinda crazy about fava beans, too, which you'll find in our red-pepper fusilli with braised short-rib ragu and in the roasted halibut with arugula gnocchi and lemongrass dill cream. Apparently I'm alone in my obsession, because my supplier always seems to have an abundant supply of fresh favas he's ready to unload.
What are your kitchen-tool obsessions? I have a lot of them: I use tweezers to plate small ingredients precisely, because fingers can get in the way; tongs are great for flipping meat and tossing ingredients together; small offset spatulas help me plate and flatten sauces with the offset so I can drag it across the plate; and I use a putty scraper picked up from the local hardware store to drag sauces. I also use lots of random-sized spoons to drizzle sauces and transfer ingredients from pan to plate. In fact, my spoon collection spans multiple generations of my family's kitchens. Different-sized and -shaped spoons can be used for all sorts of things; they all serve a very unique purpose, and I'm very particular about which spoon I use for different things. I think I'd use a spoon to eat steak if it was socially acceptable.
Most underrated ingredient: Offal. They're the cheapest and most undesirable cuts, but they're often the most flavorful, plus they're really good for you. The tripe, tendon, marrow and liver are chock-full of vitamins and minerals.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: Hazel Dell mushrooms are like tiny pieces of art. They're pure and woodsy and add so much depth to the right dish. I'm a bit of a budding mycophagist but unfortunately don't have a lot of extra time for foraging, so I find myself meticulously sorting through the mushrooms when they arrive to satisfy my itch.
Favorite spice: Salt. I love spices, but focus my culinary efforts on showcasing the inherent flavors of the proteins and vegetables in my dishes. Salt enhances everything -- every cuisine -- and brings out the natural flavor of an ingredient. You can use every spice in the book, but without salt, the dish will be lacking. Salt is essential.
One food you can't live without: Cheese -- or maybe I should say all dairy products. With so many varieties and styles, textures, smells and flavors to try, it's exciting to discover new cheeses and milks that I've never experienced before. We make a few cheeses at Strings -- a ricotta, cheddar and Brie -- which are served on our cheese plate. I enjoy tasting them at different times while they're being made and trying out the different textures, so sometimes they don't ever make it out to the guests.
One food you detest: Watermelon. I can't seem to get away from it in the summer, when it's served at every party and on every menu in some form, but I can't stand the texture or the flavor of watermelon. Blech.
What are your biggest pet peeves? Picky eaters and bad table manners.
Food trend you wish would disappear: Molecular gastronomy. I agree that there are some cool and ingenious techniques associated with molecular gastronomy, and I do think there's room for some molecular components on a menu, but at the end of the day, I want to eat a plate of food...not a plate of chemicals, bubbles, foams and powders. Restraint is something I often find missing on molecular menus.
Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: Haggis, a Scottish sausage made inside a sheep's stomach. Ryan and I also ate haggis on our wedding night, and it was divine. It has a distinct, yummy, fatty, irony, peppery flavor that you can't find outside of the U.K. I've never attempted to make it, because the ingredients would be impossible to track down, and I'm sure the original I had in Scotland would be better. We have a black pudding on our English breakfast plate during Sunday brunch that's as close as it gets in Colorado.
Biggest compliment you've ever received: I once made tea sandwiches for Sarah Ferguson, the Duchess of York. She told me they were "lovely" in her perfect English accent. I swooned.
Most humbling moment as a chef: Being a chef is, at its core, a humbling experience. I got into this career almost by accident. I had no training, no knowledge, no skills, but I worked hard and listened to everything I could to make my way in and up. I'm humbled every day by how rare and exceedingly lucky I am to be where I'm at today.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef: I haven't had a greatest accomplishment yet. I mean, I'm only 25. Ask me again in twenty years.
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What do you have in the pipeline? Our summer menu was just released, but the fall menu is already forming in my head. Fall ingredients are so amazing. We'll also be doing more wine-pairing dinners in the near future, which is fun and helps me study for my upcoming test. Cooking classes are also in the works.