This is part two of my interview with David Bumgardner, exec chef of Williams & Graham. Part one of my chat with Bumgardner ran yesterday.
Favorite restaurant in America: I don't get around much, but when I lived in Cleveland, I always had great experiences at Lola Bistro. Every time I hear chef Michael Symon cackling on TV, I think of those days.
Favorite Denver/Boulder restaurant(s) other than your own: I love Solera. Goose Sorensen always seems to be having so much fun with his dishes, and it's always been a warm and friendly place to hang out. Lao Wang Noodle House and Star Kitchen are right up there, too; I absolutely gorge myself on dumplings and dim sum. I'm always afraid those places will disappear into the ether.
Last restaurant you visited: Z Cuisine. I got thrown into an invite to a little pork and wine party with the Z crew, Grant Family farms and some friends. It was a fantastic family feast, and at the end of the night, I found myself cleaning the kitchen. It was perfect. I felt right at home.
What you'd like to see more of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: I'd love to see some real delis, a year-round market and an awesome bakery -- not a confectionary, but a real bakery that makes wonderful, spot-on, perfect bread.
What you'd like to see less of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: This is another one of those tricky questions. You know the ones I mean. But what bothers me most is trying to be everything to everyone. Having a specialty makes a restaurant unique, and therefore more attractive in my eyes. Diluting your work to try to please every single person's proclivity makes no sense to me. Nor does it ever work.
Which chef in Denver/Boulder do you most respect? I don't know that I could choose just one. So many of the guys in town, and their staffs, have been really gracious to me with their spaces, their time, their knowledge and letting me into their worlds. There are dozens of guys I respect, all of whom have made it feel like a brotherhood more than a competition.
If you could cook in another chef's kitchen, whose would it be? I'd love to cook with Ferran Adrià, just to see how incredibly outclassed I'd be by his staff. Maybe I could do dishes; I'm good at dishing.
Favorite celebrity chef: Michael Symon seems ridiculously happy...I hope to be like that someday. And I love Marco Pierre White, not because of his talent or all the horror stories, but because of a story I heard about the president assuming he needed a French interpreter for a visiting Michelin-starred chef who had never been to America, or France, or anywhere outside the U.K. since his childhood summer trips to Italy. I may have my facts a mess, but the point is that sometimes your drive gets you there, despite a lack of passport stamps.
Celebrity chef who should shut up: All those folks probably deserve some credit, even the ones manufactured by television executives. Guy Fieri kind of rubs me the wrong way, though. Having to put on -- and take off -- all those rings must eat up a lot of his day.
One book that every chef should read: Lessons in Excellence, by Charlie Trotter. It got my head past the kitchen walls and into the whole restaurant. Sometimes, I'm not sure that's a good thing, because now I look at every single detail of our place -- and every other place, too. But I'm also working on keeping my critical mind in check. I was a terrible dinner partner there for a while.
Biggest compliment you've ever received: Having Sean Kenyon and Todd Colehour ask me if I'd like to be their chef was a pretty huge compliment. They know a lot of people, and I imagine they could've asked a hundred other cooks in town to cook here, so that's kind of a big deal to me. Oh -- and someone keeps calling me a rock star, though I think that's pretty ridiculous.
Are you affected by reviews at all? What's your opinion on food writers and social review sites like Yelp, OpenTable and Urbanspoon? Of course. Reviews can make or break you, even if the information is incorrect or the opinions are unfounded. But press is press, as they say. I try not to think too much about the social review sites. It's kind of like making life decisions based on random Facebook postings. Anyone can put anything that comes into his or her head on the Internet. I do it myself, usually to my detriment. People like to be validated -- to feel their opinions matter -- but I think it can get a bit out of hand.
Best culinary tip for a home cook: Invest in a good probe thermometer. You can save a lot of holiday meals with it.
What's the best food- or kitchen-related gift you've been given? People keep giving me old tools and cookbooks and such for my collection. It's really cool when someone sees something and thinks of you, so all that stuff is pretty special to me. Intangibly, the greatest gift was having my family teaching and encouraging me to cook as a child. I couldn't have done much of anything without that foundation.
What are your favorite wines and/or beers? I've had so many great wines, but I'm really bad with labels, so the names and vintages escape me more often than not. I love Vinho Verde in the summertime; I like lighter-bodied French reds; farmhouse saison beers; and the Left Hand Milk Stout nitro is awesome. I drink Utica Club all the time at the speakeasy, along with Great Divide's Hoss rye lager and anything Ska. And I'm always expanding my whiskey repertoire.
What do you cook at home that you never cook at the restaurant? I haven't found myself at home much lately, and I very rarely just sit down and eat, but I like making myself a nice, easy plate of spaghetti with just regular old red sauce and pasta. It just feels homey.
Favorite food from your childhood: My grandmother used to make me tapioca pudding. She had one specific bowl for it, and I knew if that bowl was on the counter, I was in for a treat. I've tried to make it on my own, but it's never tasted quite the same as when she made it. And I loved the pies and pizzelles from Mrs. Jones, our next-door neighbor. We each got our own flavor of pie for our birthdays -- mine was usually lemon meringue -- and during Christmastime, she always made the absolute best pizzelles I've ever tasted.
Favorite dish on your menu: Right now, I have baked goods on the brain, and I think our chocolate beet cake is pretty delicious. The beets make it super-moist, and just a tiny bit of their flavor comes through; I like that touch of earthiness. The chocolate and spices lend richness without making it overly sweet, and the chèvre and spiced walnuts bring it all together with a creamy mouthfeel, a bit of acid, crunch and just the slightest whisper of heat. I'm proud of our fish dish, too, though I wish we could've caught more of the halibut season.
You're making a pizza. What's on it? Spanish olive oil, a smear of marcona almond and watercress pesto, jamón ibérico, figs and shaved Manchego.
Guiltiest food pleasure: This implies that I should -- or do -- feel bad about eating it, right? I really don't carry a lot of guilt when it comes to food. Doughnuts, maybe? I know I always feel bad after I eat them, but that's mostly because they're rarely as good as I want them to be.
Weirdest customer request: A certain someone asks us once a week -- at least -- to plate his fish as if it were boar bacon. He wants a fish portion on top of pommes purée and wild-mushroom fricassee. The fish makes it healthy, don't you know?
Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: I've eaten eyeballs and pickled intestine salads, which aren't so shocking now with all the people eating crazy things on TV. I did get to sample pork "wings" when we were getting ready to open Williams & Graham. In and of itself, they weren't so very weird, and I'll eat pork however you give it to me. I was told they were from the shanks, but for the life of me, I still can't figure out just how they made it happen. It disturbs me.
If you weren't a chef, what would you be? I wanted to be a musician, and I was a graphic designer, but I never really had the talent I thought I needed to be successful at either. That's what I like about cooking: Not being good enough just makes me want to do more, not quit.
Hardest lesson you've learned: It's been quite a year for me, both good and bad. It's a roller coaster sometimes, but I'm learning to not take things for granted. My perception has changed, but I still have some track to cover before the end of the ride. I'm working on being grateful for what I have, and on not making the same mistakes again.
What's next for you? We have what I think is a great opportunity and future on Tejon Street, and I'm looking forward to it. Other than that, it's day by day. That's all I can do. Oh, and I'd like to take tomorrow off.
Last meal before you die: Omakase at some sushi bar in Japan -- that way I could see Japan -- or a No Reservations-style onslaught at Au Pied de Cochon in Montreal.
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.