This is part two of my interview with Brett Smith, the executive chef at Zolo Grill. Part one of my chat with Smith ran in this space yesterday.
Favorite restaurant in America: My all-time favorite is a classic red-sauce Italian joint called Milanese in Poughkeepsie, New York, near where I grew up. It's where my parents would take us if we had a good report card; thank God my bro usually came through for us on that count. I usually started with clams casino and then moved on to the veal Parmesan. I have lots of good memories of that place, and Poughkeepsie usually doesn't get much love, so they deserve a shout-out.
Best food city in America: It's got to be New York City. If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere. That city definitely has the best food -- or at least close to it -- when it comes to every type of cuisine there is.
Favorite Denver/Boulder restaurant(s) other than your own: My wife and I have a three-year-old and a five-year-old, so we don't get out as much as we used to, but when we go to a show or a game in Denver, we really enjoy Osteria Marco. I love the cheeses and charcuterie, and it's a great place to go and graze and have a couple glasses of wine. In Boulder, I really enjoyed Cafe Aion the one and only time I had the chance to go -- and now I can't wait to go back.
What you'd like to see more of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: East Coast-style delis. Anyone from back there knows what I'm talking about. Even in the small town where I'm from, you could probably find ten delis with sandwiches as good as any we have here -- except for Masterpiece Deli. Those guys rule!
What you'd like to see less of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: I'm pretty happy with the way the dining scene is evolving here, but if I had to pick one thing, it would be the wealth of mediocre Mexican food places.
Current Denver culinary genius: I'm not trying to be a brown-noser here, but I gotta go with my boss, Dave Query. There are lots of great chefs all over the place, but it takes great business sense and a whole lot more to have the number of successful restaurants that he's got. He's been ahead of the curve on just about every move he's made, and at this stage in my career, it's business owners like him that I aspire to be like.
Weirdest customer request: Being in Boulder, we're used to a lot of customers with dietary restrictions, and we try and do our best to accommodate them. But recently we had a woman come in who said she was allergic to dairy, so could we leave the butter out of her dish, but the cheese in the cilantro pesto was perfectly okay for her to eat. I'm allergic to nuts, so I get it, but I wish people would understand that they don't have to say they're allergic to something when, in fact, they just don't want it. Just say you don't like it, and we'll still take just as good care of you.
Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: In Houston, on an eating extravaganza with chef Jamey Fader from Lola and chef Chris Blackwood from West End Tavern, we had the pleasure of eating some crispy lamb testicles. Chris was a little scared at first, but I think he liked them.
You're at the market. What do you buy two of? At least two ears of corn from Munson Farm. My three-year-old son loves them.
You're making a pizza. What's on it? Hot Italian sausage, broccoli rabe, ricotta, vine-ripened tomatoes and olive oil. I want to take a bite and immediately have to wipe the oil off my chin.
Best culinary tip for a home cook: Season your food as you go, keep it simple, and drink as much wine as prudent for your tolerance level.
What's the best food- or kitchen-related gift you've been given? I got a nice blender for a wedding present that I use to make smoothies almost every morning.
One book that every chef should read: The Soul of a Chef, by Michael Ruhlman, was really motivating and inspiring. It's a great book for anyone who wants to cook for a living, and it shows what it's like to be a chef from a few different perspectives. Ruhlman's charcuterie book is my latest favorite read.
Culinary inspirations: I'm really influenced by the seasons, and especially by whatever my good friends from Isabelle Farm in Lafayette have available. I build our menu and base most of our specials on my many conversations with Ben, the farm manager. I drive by the farm every day on my way to work, so it's easy for me to stop by and pick stuff up or just hang out with the farmers and talk about what's available or what's coming soon. On a personal level, my biggest inspiration is my brother, who's the wine director at the Bellagio in Las Vegas and a Master Sommelier. When he passed the test to become a Master Sommelier, he was the youngest in the world to have done so. His level of knowledge and talent inspires me to try and be better at my job every day.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef: When I left Zozo's, the restaurant on St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands, after four years, the owner, John, who I became very close with and who was a real mentor to me, told me that no matter what else I did in my career, to always be proud of what I'd accomplished there, and that I really helped make that spot a success. Coming from someone who I respect so much, that really meant a lot to me.
What show would you pitch to the Food Network, and what would it be about? This idea is stolen from my friend and mentor, John, from, coincidentally, St. John. I would take him and a group of several of his goombah buddies to a different restaurant each week, where they would sit around and eat more courses than most people would ever think possible and continually bust each other's balls. If you knew these guys, then you would understand that this is potential television gold.
Favorite celebrity chef: Marco Pierre White. His book, Devil in the Kitchen, was incredible. He's a complete workaholic and a culinary madman, his stories are full of debauchery, and he's amassed quite an empire of restaurants as well.
Celebrity chef who should shut up: I don't watch his shows, but it seems that Gordon Ramsay has gone a bit too far. In Marco Pierre White's book, Devil in the Kitchen, he talks about making Ramsay cry while he worked for him. Maybe that's why Ramsay is such a jerk to everyone else now.
If you could cook for one famous chef, dead or alive, who would it be? I love Anthony Bourdain's sense of humor, and I have lots of respect for all the places he's traveled and the amazing food he's eaten from some of the best chefs in the world. If he loved my food, that would be a great compliment, and if he didn't, hopefully we could have a good laugh at whatever put-down he came up with.
Are chefs artists, craftsmen or both? It takes an artist to come up with a vision for a dish and a craftsman to prepare it.
Hardest lesson you've learned, and how you've changed because of it: How to control my temper -- at least for the most part. I've learned that screaming and yelling doesn't make difficult situations better; it usually makes them worse. For the most part, anything that goes wrong in the kitchen can be fixed. All you can do is go in each day and do the best that you can, and as long as your crew is doing the same, that's all you can ask for.
Guiltiest food pleasure? Ben and Jerry's chocolate fudge brownie ice cream.
Last meal before you die: It's always changing for me, but right now I'd go with fried chicken and some pork-heavy collard greens. I'd definitely want my old sous chef and good buddy, Mike Fortino, to cook it for me. Where I'm going in the afterlife might not be the nicest place, and I know Mikey would cook me a good meal and send me off with a smile.
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