This is part one of my interview with Robert McCarthy, exec chef of Rialto Cafe. Part two of our interview will run in this space tomorrow.
Robert McCarthy shakes his head in aggravation and rolls his eyes. "The hoods went down for an hour today during lunch -- a belt broke -- and it totally smoked the place out," he yells over the shrill of some drills. "Between nothing working in the kitchen, guys with drills pulling up the carpeting and another night of Restaurant Week, it's shaping up to be quite a day."
Luckily, this isn't a typical day for McCarthy, the executive chef of Rialto Cafe. "Most of the time, this is a really fun job where things work in the kitchen and the only noise comes from the crowds," says the 41-year-old McCarthy, who's been exec chef at the Rialto for the past eight months.
Born in Queens and reared in Maryland, McCarthy grew up in a family of foodniks. "My uncle was always making his own things, like sausages, and he hunted and fished on a regular basis, and I pretty much thought that that's how everyone lived," says McCarthy, who soon learned otherwise. "I was sixteen when I got my first cooking job at a pizza place, and I quickly realized that I knew a lot more than I thought I did about cooking -- that my uncle's influence had taught me a lot and that not everyone else was brought up with the same kind of skills that I had."
He stuck around the pizzeria for a year, then worked at several more restaurants around Maryland -- "all elementary kind of cooking jobs," he admits -- before taking the university plunge, studying literature and philosophy while working on the line to pay for his education. But as it turned out, his real education didn't come in the college classroom. "I was working as a line cook for a four-star bed-and-breakfast, and it was there where I started to really learn about what I wanted to do with my life," he recalls. "I was a sponge, and it sucked me right in."
McCarthy ditched Kierkegaard and Emerson in order to fully immerse himself in the kitchen, butchering meat and fish, making stock and sauces, and eventually moving up to the sous position, a spot he held for two years. And then he made the decision to graduate to a bigger city. "I decided that if I was really going to do this -- if I was really going to be a chef -- that I needed to go to a bigger city," because Berlin, Maryland, the town in which he was working, "is not a big city," says McCarthy.
He chose San Francisco, where his first job was cooking at a restaurant called Icon, one of the first Internet cafes in the country. "It was 1994, and I'd never even heard of the Internet," confesses McCarthy, who was hired as a pastry/sous chef, and then, at 25, became the commander-in-chief. He eventually moved on to do stints in small San Francisco neighborhood restaurants, ones that "were constantly focusing on new things and always changing their menus."
McCarthy spent ten years in San Francisco before he moved to Denver. "I had gotten married, wanted to have kids and buy a house, and since my wife has family in Denver, we decided to move here," says McCarthy, who had barely touched down when he got a call from a former chef of Mel's Bar and Grill, a now-defunct Cherry Creek gathering place that's produced some of Denver's best chefs. He interviewed that same afternoon, secured a pastry chef position two days later and then read about his blueberry tart the next week, when Mel's was reviewed in the Rocky Mountain News. "People who didn't even know I had moved to Denver were suddenly seeing my name in the paper, which was weird," recalls McCarthy. His stint at Mel's was eventually eliminated -- "Mel had a hard time justifying my position as a pastry chef," he says -- so he left and hooked up with Goose Sorensen, owner and exec chef of Solera, who, at the time, was also running a restaurant called the Ivy. McCarthy used that kitchen to bake pastries,while scouting for spots where he could open his own bakery.
He finally did so, naming it the Red Elk Bakery, after his family crest. But McCarthy insists he wasn't a good salesman, pointing to the time when he asked a Cherry Creek restaurateur if he was "fucking retarded" because the guy told him that even though the pastry chef's desserts were better -- and less expensive -- than Sysco's, his customers happened to like the generic stuff better. McCarthy ultimately dumped the bakery in order to become a partner in a local, long-gone sandwich shop, and then, last summer, he took center stage at Rialto, where he's having a blast. "I'm taking classic food that people are familiar with and putting my own spin on things by doing dishes that are unexpected, which is really fun for me," says McCarthy, who's slowly introducing house-cured ingredients like salmon, trout, pancetta and sausages to his board.
In between curing and cooking, in the following interview McCarthy manages to rap on killed marriages, Szechuan buttons and his six-inch F. Dick.
Six words to describe your food: Balanced, evolving, clean, rustic, approachable and tasty.
Ten words to describe you: Honest, experienced, creative, exuberant, approachable, confident, consistent, self-medicated, curious and loyal.
Culinary inspirations: I'm usually very ingredient-driven. Whether I see something at a market or read it on a product list, one item will catch my attention, and then for the rest of the day -- or days -- become a mild obsession about the best things to accompany them and techniques to prepare them.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef: I've won some awards, cooked at the James Beard House, and cooked for some pretty cool people -- but there are two things that I'm especially proud of. One is having contributed to the growth of some really good chefs. I had a lot of people working for me in San Francisco who've gone on to be very good at what they do, and I'd like to think that I had a part in that, but more important than that is managing to stay married. This job can really kill marriages, and I don't think I could be successful in this career if it weren't for the support my family has given me.
Rules of conduct in your kitchen: Work hard, have fun and be respectful. But those are the things you shouldn't even have to say. I try to teach my staff to care about what they're doing -- that every last step is as important as the next -- and I always try to lead by example. And, for God's sake, Eric, stop singing. He's one of our line cooks, and he sings all the time, which makes me have a song stuck in my head all day long.
Favorite ingredient: Fat. Duck fat, pork fat or butter -- those are the ingredients I don't want to cook without.
Most overrated ingredient: Liquid nitrogen. I'm just not into the whole molecular-gastronomy thing. I can't help but feel that eventually people will be cooking in hazmat suits telling me how cool it is that there's no fire anywhere.
Most underrated ingredient: Potatoes. There was a time when I wasn't into the whole meat-and-potatoes thing, but recently,I'm enjoying all the different ways potatoes can be prepared. We've been making gnocchi at the restaurant, and I've been fooling around a lot with pierogi and playing with tri-colored fingerlings.
Best recent food find: Szechuan buttons. They're a flower blossom that's apparently used as an anesthetic. You put the tiniest bit in your mouth and it goes numb and feels like you put a nine-volt battery on your tongue. That's all weird enough for me to like it, but the craziest thing about them is that even though your tongue is numb, you can actually taste subtle flavors even better. I'm currently making a beer with the buttons, which, if nothing else, should be interesting.
Favorite local ingredient: Palisade peaches. I get them at any of the farmers' markets around town.
Favorite spice: Salt. I usually have about ten different kinds on hand. Aside from all of the great flavoring aspects, it's amazing how it works to cure and preserve things.
One food you detest: Mayonnaise -- just the manufactured kind. There's got to be some additive in it that I can't take...just thinking about it now is making me sick.
One food you can't live without: Really good bread. No matter how many different foods I make and eat, I don't know if I'll ever enjoy anything more than a really good sandwich. It's just a perfect little creation, and you can't make a really good sandwich without really good bread.
What's never in your kitchen? Whiners, toques or any kind of meat substitute.
What's always in your kitchen? A meat grinder, smoker, duck fat and a bunch of people having fun.
Biggest kitchen disaster: During my first chef job, I got a phone call the morning of my day off from my sous chef saying that I needed to come down to the restaurant -- but he wouldn't say why. After some persuasion and a few choice words, he finally said the words that I still can't erase from my mind: "I set the Ansul system off." That's the fire system, and it shoots these little pellets everywhere to suppress the flames, making a huge mess in the process. That shit gets everywhere, and it looked like it had snowed in the kitchen. It sucked, and it literally took all day to clean up.
Favorite dish to cook at home: Barbecue. I'm really looking forward to warmer weather. Between two smokers and a grill, I can really make a lot of stuff, but there will always be pork shoulder, ribs, chicken wings and definitely a few friends and neighbors to eat it all.
Favorite dish on your menu: My favorite dish is always the next one I'm working on, but aside from that, I really like the smoked duck breast salad with cranberry vinaigrette we're currently doing. That -- and the buffalo corn dogs we serve during happy hour.
If you could put any dish on your menu, even though it might not sell, what would it be? Cassoulet. It's probably my favorite thing to make and eat, but there's just no way we could sell it, considering the cost to make it well and the public's lack of familiarity with it. Still, I'm sure if I made it, none of it would go to waste; my sous chefs and I would see to that.
Favorite music to cook by: I usually let the radio be controlled by the people who are near it all day, but when I have the kitchen all to myself, I usually listen to Frank Zappa, Social Distortion and the Supersuckers.
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What's your favorite knife? I have a lot of knives but really only use two -- a twelve-inch Henckels chef knife and a six-inch F. Dick. I like the chef knife, mostly because I can do anything with it. It's very well balanced and holds an edge. The six-inch was a gift from my first chef in San Francisco, Mark Walker, who became a good friend and taught me a lot about food and what it means to be a chef. I don't use it a lot, but I'm always glad when I do. I guess the most accurate answer, though, is whichever knife is closest to me.
Last meal before you die: I guess it would depend on how I was going to die, but probably something light, like a salad. Either that or a bushel of crabs.