This is part one of my interview with Robert Alfaro, chef of Atticus; part two of our interview will run tomorrow.
Most of us have childhood food memories: Lucky Charms, chocolate-chip cookies, flipping our first egg, cracking the shell of our first lobster. But for Robert Alfaro, the executive chef at Atticus, the memory of bloody deer carcasses in his kitchen is what stands out. "My mother was a bow-and-arrow hunter, and so was my grandmother, and they'd go out in the morning to hunt deer and then come home in the afternoon and break it down right in the middle of the kitchen," recalls Alfaro. And deer wasn't all he was eating for dinner. "My grandfather hunted frogs, turtles and squirrels, so it was commonplace to have turtle soup, squirrel soup, squirrel stew and roasted squirrel," he remembers.
His other grandmother, who was Latina, raised chickens and grew vegetables on the property that surrounded her cabin on the Mississippi River, not far from Galesburg, Illinois, where Alfaro was born. "My brother and I would wrangle the chickens, grab them by the neck and watch our grandmother cut their heads off, and then we'd start laughing while they ran around the yard with their heads cut off," recalls Alfaro, who admits that all that carnage didn't push him toward a cooking career. "I love the ocean, and I wanted to be a marine biologist," he says.
Nonetheless, after he and his family moved to Arizona, Alfaro joined the fast-paced production line at a Taco Bell to get extra cash -- and beer. "We used to trade a couple of tacos for a couple of beers from people going to the drive-thru, and I learned that two beers fit perfectly inside a Pringles can," quips Alfaro, who put in two years at the fast-food giant before stripping off his queso-splattered uniform and trading it for whites and a gig as a cook at an upscale bar and grill. "By the time I'd been there for a few months, I realized that I was getting a lot better at cooking, that I had a talent for cooking, and that I liked creating dishes and seeing the smiles on people's faces at the end of a meal," says Alfaro, who went on to spend several years cooking at various restaurants in Chicago. "Being in Chicago was the time in my life that I was wild and reckless and everything was spinning out of control," admits Alfaro, who ultimately decided that "dumping out of bars at four in the morning" wasn't his thing.
Instead, he returned to Arizona and enrolled in an apprenticeship program in conjunction with the American Culinary Federation, an opportunity that, unlike culinary school, pays chefs to work in restaurants -- and he cooked in plenty of kitchens, including the Phoenician Resort, the Arizona Biltmore and Tempe Mission Palms, where he spent eight years, working both front- and back-of-house jobs. "I wanted to learn as much as I could about running a restaurant -- and I liked being in clean clothes -- so while I started as a line cook, I eventually moved my way up to front-of-house management, learning a ton along the way," says Alfaro.
In the years that followed, he cooked in numerous restaurants in Lake Tahoe and eventually opened his own restaurant in Illinois, which he closed a year and a half later "because of the financial strains." Still, while most of the money he lost was his own, he acknowledges that there was an upside: "The whole experience taught me how to make a restaurant come to fruition, and I'm still thankful for that."
Not long after he shuttered his own place, Alfaro and his wife moved to Denver, and in 2006, he was hired as the executive chef at Toast, a breakfast-and-lunch joint in Littleton, where he cooked for just over three years. He left to focus on parenting his five kids, including his niece and nephew, whom he'd adopted while cooking at Toast.
But after several years as a stay-at-home dad, Alfaro was introduced to veteran chef Sean Kelly, who'd opened LoHi SteakBar and was looking for a chef to quarterback the line. Alfaro, who was itching to get back into the kitchen, took the job and spearheaded LoHi's kitchen for three years, exiting once again to focus on his family. "I was working a ton, and my wife was strained and wanted to go back to school, so my family called me back home, and I took about six months off to help her out with the kids," he says.
Late last year, though, things at home had calmed down, and Atticus, a new restaurant from the owners of Boone's, HandleBar Tavern and Table 6, was looking for a chef. Alfaro snagged an interview, staged and was hired before he went home for the night. "I think it was the French onion soup and hand-stretched spaetzle that won them over," muses Alfaro, who admits that he later delved into To Kill a Mockingbird -- after whose protagonist Atticus is named -- for recipe inspiration. "I love the creativity of this concept, I love the challenges of keeping the food intriguing, consistent and at a high level, and I love the rewards," says Alfaro, who in the following interview pleads for the demise of complex menu verbiage, admits that he has no patience for stupidity, and suggests that it's time for the return of the messy sandwich.
Lori Midson: What's your first food memory? Robert Alfaro: Breastfeeding. I'm just kidding! One of my first food memories is making tortillas with my Mexico-born Grandma Alfaro when I was about four or five years old. I'd always ask her what the measurements were, usually for the lard, and she'd always say, "Oh, I don't know -- it just works." She had a metal box hanging on the wall full of strikeable matches to light her gas stove, and I can still smell the sulfur even now. And on the other side of my family -- they were Irish and German -- I remember canning, making spritz cookies and watching my mom and my Grandma Hamilton butcher deer in our kitchen.
Ten words to describe you: Patient, hungry, spontaneous, a father, creative, curious, humble, stern, hardworking and loyal.
Five words to describe your food: Fresh, honest, homey, basic and lightly seasoned.
What are your ingredient obsessions? Herbs, and the flavors they bring, are so natural to a dish. If you isolate certain herbs for certain dishes, it really brings out the pronounced flavors of those specific herbs. I especially love basil and Mexican oregano. Our lamb at Atticus is crusted in coffee and coriander, our quail in oregano, rosemary and thyme. The flavor profiles are all different, but they work well together.
One ingredient you won't touch: I won't touch coconut. I ate a lot of it when I was a kid, and I can't stand it now; it's gritty, and I don't like gritty food. I camped a lot at Lake Mead in Nevada when I was young, and I distinctly remember my uncle serving us bacon cooked over a campfire that had been infested with gritty sand -- and that experience completely turned me off of the crunch. I also won't touch honey mustard, because honey and mustard just don't belong together, especially in a dressing. When my wife and I had our own restaurant, she'd hide the honey mustard from me. Twice I found it and threw it away.
Food trend you'd like to see emerge in 2014: I'd like to see good sandwiches make a comeback -- you know, the return of a messy sandwich. I want a Reuben with corned beef, and I want the juice from the corned beef dripping down my hands with Thousand Island dressing. Yummy. Or a great Chicago grinder drizzled with good olive oil and red-wine vinegar. I dearly miss the closed Carbone's Italian Sausage Market & Deli, but I do like the Old Fashioned Italian Deli in Littleton.
Food trend you'd like to see disappear in 2014: Complicated menu wording. So many chefs are trying to define culinary techniques, sauces or practices on their menus, which confuses more people than it impresses -- and just causes headaches for all involved. Plus, it takes time away from what really matters: good, honest food.
Favorite piece of kitchen equipment: My KitchenAid mixer, which I've had for 25 years. It's such a versatile and great piece of machinery, plus I have all of the attachments for it, so the possibilities are endless.
What's your fantasy splurge? Sushi, sashimi or anything else at Domo. I have five kids, so it's hard for us to all go out together, but when I can afford it, it's so special to eat in the peaceful tranquility of Domo's traditional garden. It's also a great place for an intimate night out.
What's the best food- or kitchen-related gift you've been given? My KitchenAid mixer, which my mom gave to me 25 years ago. It's an original, with the steel gears, and I've never had a single issue with it.
Favorite culinary-related item to give as a gift: Cookbooks are a great gift to give to someone who has a passion for cooking, especially if it's a cookbook related to something they really love to create. Just please don't give a cheap barbecue package; it'll likely break quickly and be promptly discarded.
Your favorite smell in the kitchen: The scent of charred peppers roasting over an open flame. There are just so many wonderful things that you can do with chiles, and driving down Federal Boulevard when it's chile-roasting season is amazing.
Most memorable meal you've ever had: The cioppino at a restaurant on Pier 39 in San Francisco. It was so fresh, and easily some of the best seafood I've ever had.
Your three favorite Denver restaurants other than your own: Masterpiece Deli. Some of the meats are made in-house, which brings a whole different flavor to the sandwich. There's also this amazing French-Vietnamese bakery -- Vinh Xuong Bakery -- in the Far East Center that has a $3 banh mi made by a lady named "Mom." I also love Torres Mexican Restaurant on Federal. They have the best seafood and ceviche that I've had anywhere here in Denver, plus there's an awesome menu and a great atmosphere. I celebrated my 35th birthday there.
Most underrated restaurant in Denver: Buffalo Wild Wings. I know it sounds silly, but I go there with my family, and it's always consistent, which I appreciate. I always get the wings with the spiciest sauces: the blazing and the wild.
Who is Denver's next rising-star chef? Diego Coconati, my sous-chef here at Atticus. He's got a really diverse background, and he's a talented and capable chef who helped me develop the menu at Atticus, and he's ready to grow within the Table to Tavern group. He's from Argentina and has a great palate and a knack for execution. I'm very proud to have him on our team.
Which living chef do you most admire? Martha Stewart. Sure, she's been to prison, but I learned how to iron my shirts correctly from watching her show -- and I always looked good when I worked front-of-house jobs. And then there's Julia Child, who started her career in her forties and is still one of the most treasured culinary forces we've ever had.
If you could train under any chef in the world, who would it be? I'd like to work with Gordon Ramsay. My wife thinks we're similar in terms of our attitude, motivation style and strict training style.
If you hadn't become a chef, what would you be doing right now? My family has always had a passion for food, but I also had a huge passion for the ocean, aquariums and aquaponics, as well as year-round gardening, so I could see myself gravitating to the farmer side of life.
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What's in the pipeline? Hand-grown produce and herbs incorporating aquaponics and hydroponics.