This is part two of my interview with Arnold Rubio, exec chef of Tamayo; part one of our chat ran yesterday.
What's your idea of a great dining experience? I love great food, but a great dining experience really depends on superior service. My position as executive chef at Tamayo is extremely important, but if Miranda McFarlan, our general manager, weren't so exceptional at her job, all of my efforts would be wasted. We are incredibly fortunate to have such a talented general manager who keeps us all on track. Miranda and I, along with most of our staff, have worked with Tamayo and Richard since we opened more than ten years ago.
Most memorable meal you've had in Denver: My wife is an amazing cook and recently made me an incredible meal with gorditas -- and lest you think these are like those awful Taco Bell gorditas, they're not. Hers are authentic and delicious, and she makes them with fresh masa that's hold-molded, filled with her own spicy mix of chiles and beef and topped with fresh lettuce, tomatoes and crema fresca. With two sons, a wife, and a restaurant job that takes up a lot of my time, I'm happiest enjoying meals at home with my family.
Your five favorite Denver/Boulder restaurants other than your own: Sushi Sasa, Rioja, Taqueria el Trompito, the Palm and Zengo are my top five. Sushi Sasa is my absolute favorite restaurant in Denver, and luckily, my wife and sons love it as much as I do. Rioja is just across the street from Tamayo, and they do an incredible job. I love my neighbors on Larimer Square; they're great company to keep. Taqueria el Trompito is cheap and delicious, so you can't beat that, but I also love a good steak, and the Palm, while expensive, does the best steaks in Denver. Marco, the chef, is a great guy and very talented. In fact, I'm planning a special date night there with my wife very soon. I know that including Zengo is kind of cheating because it's a Richard Sandoval restaurant, but I really love Zengo for its diverse and playful cooking style.
If you could change one thing about the Denver dining scene, what would it be? I'm so proud of the food industry that Denver has cultivated in the last thirteen years since I've been in Denver. We have a very tight-knit restaurant community here, and we've come a long way in developing a lot of top-notch chefs. Our dining scene is still young, but we're maturing quickly, and I wouldn't change a thing.
If you had the opportunity to open your own restaurant with no budget constraints, what kind of restaurant would you open? I know Mexican cuisine the best and I love it, so I can't imagine ever moving away from this style of cooking, but I would consider adding in some El Salvadorean food like papusas or maricada. Someday, I'd like to do a Latin fusion restaurant.
Favorite dish on your menu: We updated our menu when we renovated Tamayo back in February, and I'm most excited about our squash-blossom quesadilla. It's a traditional Mexican quesadilla -- not what you would get at a casual Mexican restaurant. Just imagine fresh masa that's hand-pressed and filled with fresh squash blossoms, poblano chiles and Oaxaca cheese and then deep-fried until golden brown. They're scrumptious. We also serve some pretty great margaritas and have more than 150 different kinds of tequila at our bar.
Biggest menu bomb: We don't add a dish to the Tamayo menu if our staff doesn't love it. It's not a secret that if we can't sell our servers on a dish, they can't sell it to customers -- and they shouldn't have to. If we hear a hint of a whisper that a dish isn't up to our standards, I change it before the menus are printed.
Best recipe tip for a home cook: Use recipes loosely and be sure to add your own creativity. Find alternative ingredients that you love to personalize your dishes. What's your biggest pet peeve? Lack of cleanliness. It's a front-of-the-house and back-of-the-house problem, and it drives me insane.
What piece of advice would you give to a young chef? Always taste your food, and don't ever depend on recipes. In authentic Mexican cuisine, there's no consistency with fresh ingredients, so you need to taste and taste again. The chiles that I purchase in the summer are very different from the ones I get in the winter; they have very drastic flavor differences, so you can't depend on getting the same flavors every time.
What skills and attributes do you look for when hiring kitchen staff? Passion and speed. Tamayo's kitchen is crazy-busy, and we need staff that loves our food and culture but can also produce food quickly that's still of the highest quality.
Describe the challenges facing today's chefs: Being a chef equates to a constant battle between providing the freshest, highest quality of food while keeping prices reasonable for diners. The price variation with fresh produce fluctuates often; I've never seen anything like it.
What do you enjoy most about your craft? I love the creativity and instant gratification that I get from guests. There isn't anything more satisfying to me than creating a really fun special and getting positive feedback from the guest at the end of the meal. When people stop by the kitchen window and tell me how much they loved their meal -- just the people who say thank you -- those are the people who inspire me to keep creating.
Which chef has most inspired you? Chef Richard Sandoval. There's a reason I've followed him for so many years: He offers direction and guidance while still allowing me to develop my own individuality and identity.
You're stranded on a desert island. Which chefs would you want to have with you? Chef Cat Cora. She's the first and only female to win Iron Chef, plus she's beautiful. But that's not the only reason why I'd want her on a deserted island. I also think she'd be a great conversationalist.
If you could cook in another chef's kitchen, whose would it be? Bobby Flay has always impressed me, plus he uses many of the same ingredients and flavors that I'm already attracted to, including chiles, avocados and beans. I feel like I could learn a lot from him. I'd also love to cook in Cat Cora's kitchen. Meow.
Craziest night in the kitchen: Every night during the Democratic National Convention was completely nuts. We had huge parties of lots of important political figures and celebrities, and we had night after night of crazy-busy business, bomb-sniffing security dogs checking out the restaurant, snipers on the rooftop patio, and fire marshals inspecting every inch of the restaurant every couple of hours while we served three meals a day to very large crowds. In the end, we hosted 22 parties during that week; we didn't sleep for days.
Biggest mistake a chef can make on the line: Messiness. A clean station is a great indicator of a great chef. You must clean up as you go along and put everything back in its place to keep order in the kitchen. Don't be messy.
Biggest moment of euphoria in the kitchen: It might sound cheesy, but I love when I get high marks and compliments from Richard during his visits to Denver. He has taught me so much, and I get a lot of satisfaction from making him proud.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef: Achieving executive-chef status at Tamayo has been a dream come true. I started as a line cook and always looked up to the chef and hoped that I'd one day earn that position. It's a huge accomplishment for me, and I'm honored to be where I am today. I don't know what's going to happen in the future, but I'd love to stay with Richard -- and I hope that I can make that happen. He's a great boss -- the kind of boss who always comes and says hello and shakes everyone's hand in the kitchen. It doesn't matter if you're the dishwasher or the chef. He doesn't have an ego at all, and he's never above saying thank you. I love that.
What's the best compliment someone could give to you? I really love to wow new diners who've never tasted authentic Mexican food like we serve at Tamayo. There's something about introducing a first-timer to dishes served in new ways and watching their reactions when you know they're really enjoying it.
What's always lurking in your refrigerator? Since I eat most of my meals at Tamayo, I'm only home for breakfast. You'll typically find yogurt, granola and coffee there.
If you hadn't become a chef, what would you be doing right now? Had playing professional fútbol been an option, I might have gone that route, but I'm incredibly happy being a professional chef at such a great restaurant.
What's one thing that people would be surprised to know about you? I'm Latino, so I love fútbol. If I'm not in the restaurant, I'm almost always in a jersey. Go, Barcelona!
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Last meal before you die: Fried chicken and waffles. It's my all-time favorite American food.