What you'd like to see more of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: I come from a bartending background, so I'd love to see more food and hand-crafted cocktail pairings. I lived in San Diego for the past six years, and a few of my buddies who started a company there called Snake Oil Cocktail Co. are doing some really cool shit when it comes to pairing craft cocktails with the full menu. Their drinks, created with everything from homemade pickled carrots to a tobacco-infused spirit, which is misted over one of their signature cocktails, are meals in and of themselves. These guys are becoming chefs in their own right in the libation world.
What you'd like to see less of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: Gastropubs. Although I thoroughly enjoy this type of food, too many places are starting to call themselves gastropubs, and they're all becoming the same food-taste-and-duck-fat-frying restaurant.
What's the best food- or kitchen-related gift you've been given? Lemon/lime squeezer. I love that thing. We make lime ice cubes for margaritas.
One book that every chef should read: Culinary Artistry. It helps you pair different ingredients together so you can create your own twist on meals rather than following recipes.
Weirdest customer request: A sausage sandwich -- hold the sausage.
Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: A goldfish. It was hard to de-bone and filet, but I found a small enough knife. Ha, I'm kidding. We were at a bar where they have goldfish races, and my buddy put our goldfish in my beer. Swallowing a goldfish was always on my bucket list after seeing Steve-O from Jackass swallow and throw up a goldfish...so I tilted my beer back and chugged it, goldfish and all -- and, yes, I felt it moving around in my stomach.
Best culinary tip for a home cook: Cook what you used to like as a kid, or what your parents used to cook for you, and make the recipes your own by adding other ingredients that you might think would go well with whatever you're making. Most important, cook what tastes good to you -- and not what you think tastes good to others.
What's your favorite knife? My Swiss army knife. What can't you do with a Swiss army knife?
Favorite restaurant in America: Casa Bonita, but clearly not because of the food. I hadn't been there in twenty years, but I just recently went back, and it was just as visually amazing as I remembered it as a kid. I mean, what other restaurant in America has a full-on waterfall with divers? The details of the place were still amazing to me; the food, however, was amazingly awful.
Favorite Denver/Boulder restaurant(s) other than your own: Mataam Fez. I might be a little biased, because my father started the restaurant, but I think it's what every restaurant should aspire to be like -- a restaurant where you're taken out of your daily comfort zone and thrown into a world that moves all of your senses. Everyone from Mick Jagger to the bandmembers of the B-52's to Arnold Schwarzenegger to Cat Stevens to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar were regulars. You'd walk into a fantasy land, take your shoes off, sit on the floor, eat with your hands, get sprayed with rose water, watch belly dancers dancing with huge pythons, and be mesmerized by the servers pouring hot-ass tea into glasses balanced on their forehead -- and you were waited on hand and foot. That's the one thing that I'll always remember: The servers were required to kneel below the customer out of respect. It's not like that any longer. Instead, a lot of places now make you feel as if they're doing you a favor by letting you eat their food and offering service. My dad no longer owns it, but I recently heard that a couple of the servers have bought it and revamped it.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef: Opening the Uber Sausage. It was a lot of hard work, plus we did it on our own without the help of loans or investors, but it's what I've always wanted to do. I saved a lot of bartending money to open this restaurant.
Favorite celebrity chef: Ming Tsai. I had the chance to eat at his restaurant, Blue Ginger, and when he came out, he was just a cool-ass dude, seriously nicer then you could imagine.
Celebrity chef who should shut up: Andrew Zimmern. He just eats. I don't even know if he can cook.
If you could cook in another chef's kitchen, whose would it be? Brian Malarkey. He was the executive chef of Oceanaire, and I used to work right below his restaurant in San Diego before he was on Top Chef. He had the balls to get out of his safe corporate job, and now he's got two very successful restaurants in San Diego. He's got an open kitchen, which is necessary for a complete dining experience; he means business when he works, but he's very approachable; he works the room like a male model; and he understands that when you go to a restaurant, it's not just about the food, it's about the whole environment, experience, meeting your customers and making everyone feel important. Plus, he used to tip me fairly well.
Which chef in Denver do you most respect? Justin Cucci, the chef/owner of Root Down and Linger. I think he's definitely stepped up Denver's game in the restaurant industry.
What are your thoughts on social review sites like Yelp, Opentable and Urbanspoon? I know a lot of people will disagree with me, but I actually enjoy them. Yes, the reviews are subjective, but at least you get people's insights into what they actually thought of your place. A lot of people will say that they like your restaurant and your food when you ask them face-to-face, but they tend to put their honest opinions on social review sites. I take them as they come, and I try not to get offended by any of them. Ultimately, it's just someone's opinion -- and everyone's entitled to have one.
How you do you handle customer complaints -- and what should customers do when they're peeved about a dish? I hate to say it, but I'm totally about the customer always being right. If my kitchen is prepared to make a PB and J, I'll make a PB and J for the customer -- even if it's not on the menu. There are times when you need to stick to your guns, but we're the ones who are lucky to have customers coming into our restaurant and spending their hard-earned money. If a customer is peeved about a dish, I'll ask them exactly what they want, throw out the old one and prepare something new to their liking. It's not worth arguing about if there's the potential of losing a customer. I cook food to make people happy, and if they're not happy, then I'm not doing my job.
You're making a pizza. What's on it? Grilled chicken, Granny Smith apples, caramelized onions, blue cheese, spicy mustard and watercress. My sister, Amanda, made it one time, and we actually turned the combination into one of our sausage sandwiches.
Guiltiest food pleasure: Fun Dip Lik-M-Aid sticks. I hate the flavored sugar, but I love the white chalk-tasting dipping sticks.
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Last meal before you die: A burger from El Carro de Mario, a hamburger joint in Córdoba, Argentina, that uses all the cuts from the lomo, which is cured pork loin. They take all the fatty cuts from the lomo, make a hamburger with the scraps, top it with a fried egg and put it on a fresh hamburger bun that they make every day. But the secret is the homemade mayonnaise with lemon and lime that they spread on the bun. I know it sounds gross, but it's hands-down the best burger I've ever eaten; I crave them daily. I was an exchange student in Argentina thirteen years ago, and I recently went back for my host brother's wedding, and when I walked in, the owner of El Carro de Mario, who looks like Mario from the Mario Brothers, was there, and he not only remembered me, he said I was his best customer. No kidding. I used to eat there every day.
Hardest lesson you've learned: A few years ago, I paid a so-called "restaurant consultant" to help me further develop a restaurant concept that I'd come up with. He talked a big game about how he could find investors, and I ended up paying him a large sum of money to "consult" for me. And then I got stiffed and never heard from him again. I learned that you just need to do stuff on your own, and that you shouldn't put too much trust in someone else. A lot of people give you the big song-and-dance routine and promise this, that and the other, but if you want something bad enough, find a way to do it on your own.
What's next for you? I want to open more little Uber Sausage restaurants around Colorado. We want to hit up college campuses like DU or CU, which could always use some more sausage-fests, right?