Cafe Society

Rialto Cafe's Robert McCarthy on cooking better than a second-grader

Robert McCarthy Rialto Cafe 934 16th Street 303-893-2233

This is part two of my interview with Robert McCarthy, executive chef of Rialto Cafe. Part one of that interview ran in this space yesterday.

Favorite restaurant in America: Lupa, Mario Batali's restaurant in New York. It's really simple, straightforward food done incredibly well. Making dishes that taste that good using so few ingredients is the signature of a great chef.

Best food city in America: I don't know if it's the best food city in America, but my favorite city for food is San Francisco. I know that cities like New York, Chicago and New Orleans all have the same diversity of restaurants that San Francisco has, but having lived there for ten years, I know and appreciate the food of San Francisco much better than any other city.

Favorite Denver/Boulder restaurant(s) other than your own: I've always been a big fan of Solera. I worked for Goose for a little while when I was waiting to open my bakery and really enjoyed his style of food.

What you'd like to see more of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: Spanish/Basque food and, really, any ethnic foods outside of the standards.

What you'd like to see less of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: Frozen, dyed, Cryovacked shitty tuna.

Current Denver culinary genius: Genius might be a little much, and I don't know that I can single anyone out, especially since there are a lot of people doing some very good things here, and I'm always looking forward to seeing who's going to bring the next idea to the table. That said, I really think Goose Sorensen is doing a great job at Solera. I really love his style of food -- it intrigues me -- and I really like him as a person. He's got a great thing going on over there.

What's the best food- or kitchen-related gift you've been given? I got a smoker for my first Father's Day from my wife that I use all the time. I think, though, that if she knew how much time I'd end up spending with it, she would have gotten me a tie.

One book that every chef should read: The Fountainhead, by Ayn Rand. Most chefs have a ton of cookbooks, some business/motivation stuff and some brain candy. I think we could all benefit from a little more philosophy. And there aren't any books that I know of that better speak to the mindset of chefs and other creativity-based careers than this one.

You're making a pizza. What's on it? We actually make pizzas at home quite a bit. I like to keep it pretty simple: Let the dough rise real slow, make a nice tomato sauce and top it with whole-milk mozzarella, sea salt and black pepper. I put the pizza stone on the grill so that it can get really hot, and when it's done, I butter the crust and hit it with hot sauce and I'm good to go.

Guiltiest food pleasure? I don't know that I feel guilty about it, but I really love hot sauces. I have about fifteen different kinds in my house at any given time.

You're at the market. What do you buy two of? I have a wife and two kids, so I get at least two of everything.

Weirdest customer request: We usually get one good one just about every day, but the one that still gets me even now is the guy who asked for his steak medium rare, but insisted that there was no pink in the meat. I still don't really know what that means.

Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: I once had a chef pull a sea urchin out of the dining-room fish tanks, cut it in half and hand it to me with a spoon. I've always been pretty adventurous, but I definitely surprised myself a little when I didn't even hesitate to spoon it out and eat it.

Best culinary tip for a home cook: Try to work without recipes; they're like a crutch. Decide what you want to make, think about what you already know about making it, come up with a plan and a time frame -- and just go for it. If it sucks, just order a pizza, and while you're chowing on that, try to figure out what you did wrong in the recipe and try again. When you really nail a dish, you'll get hooked on the feeling.

If you could cook for one famous chef, dead or alive, who would it be? Patrick Clark or Jonathan Waxman. Both of them make really soulful food from the heart, which is what I've always tried to do. They're the kind of chefs whose opinion of my food would really matter to me.

Favorite celebrity chef: Mario Batali. I really liked his show, Molto Mario, which was one of the first cooking shows I'd watch with regularity. He really puts the focus on the food and tries to make sure that you understand how important the little things are. And having eaten in his restaurants, I know firsthand that he deserves all the success he has.

Celebrity chef who should shut up: If you phrase it that way, I guess I'd have to say Gordon Ramsay. I actually really like his food, and his shows on the BBC are very good, but the one here, where he's screaming all the time, is just more than I can handle. I think it misrepresents the profession and himself.

What show would you pitch to the Food Network, and what would it be about? I'd like to get my seven-year-old daughter, Eleanor, involved in it. It could be a head-to-head competition called Can You Cook Better Than a Second Grader? I think she'd win a lot; she has some pretty solid knife skills.

Are chefs artists, craftsmen or both? I don't know about both. I think you can be either. Most cooks want to be both, but by the time you become a chef, you should really know which one you are -- and embrace it.

Hardest lesson you've learned: How difficult it is to own a business and make it successful. I made two attempts at it, and, for different reasons, they both ended up going sideways on me. Whether it's a restaurant or any business, I definitely have a lot of respect and appreciation for the people who are making it happen.

What's next for you? I'm working on some spring menus right now. One of the best parts of this job is that there's always something else coming up, and you have to think of that as a new opportunity to make something really good. I'd also like to find an opportunity to teach cooking classes to adult home cooks. That's something I used to do a lot, and I think I was pretty good at it. I'd love to do it again.

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Lori Midson
Contact: Lori Midson