Part one of my interview with Drew Hardin, exec chef of Lola, ran on Wednesday; this is part two of our chat.
Favorite Denver/Boulder restaurant(s) other than your own: I'm probably biased when it comes to answering this, but I love Vesta, because I worked there for nearly six years, and Matt Selby is a mentor of mine. Chefs Brandon Foster and Kenny Turk still hold down the fort like champs -- and continue to improve the food. Brandon Biederman has done his research and made me some amazing meals at Ace. Sheila Lucero and Amos Watts at Jax never fail, and I eat at their place often because they know their seafood. I'm also amazed at what Daniel Asher is doing with his raw-food movement at Root Down. I don't really enjoy a lot of raw food, but he somehow makes it taste great.
Favorite food city in America: Aside from Denver? There isn't one. That said, a few years back, my brother got married in Oakland, and I had the pleasure of taking the ferry across the bay to San Francisco and had two full days to explore that city. I ate at every restaurant I could walk to, and I was just amazed by the quality of produce and seafood. Chinatown was really fun, as well. There were ducks hanging everywhere, and it was a sensory overload. I also have to admit that the food scene in Philadelphia is amazing. I spent some time there with a bunch of Denver chefs this year doing a Meals on Wheels benefit. We went to Reading Market -- that was crazy. It had meat, cheese, fish, pickles, bread and everything else that you can think of. It just makes me wonder why we don't have anything like that here.
Favorite cheap eat in Denver: Bud's Bar, no question. All they have are hamburgers, cheeseburgers, double hamburgers and double cheeseburgers -- and they're the best burgers you've ever had. They don't have fries (don't even ask), and it's cash only, but that doesn't stop me from going. My wife and I will walk out of there for under $20, beers included. I've been going there since I was a kid, and nothing -- thankfully -- has changed.
If you could change one thing about the Denver dining scene, what would it be? It would be awesome to have a giant market so we could select our own produce and seafood. Aside from that, I feel like we're moving in a pretty positive direction.
Favorite dish on your menu: At the moment, I love the Chimayo-seared mahi with poblano shrimp and grits, bacon, okra, tomato estufada and aji amarillo. It's a little bit of the South, mixed in with some Mexican ingredients.
Biggest menu bomb: Huaraches, the national lunch of Mexico City. They weren't so much of a bomb as that I just don't think people understood them. We've tried to sell them in all different styles, and people just don't get it.
What was the last cookbook you bought, and what recipes are you cooking from it? It's not a cookbook, per se, but Jamey Fader, our culinary director, made us read Taco USA, by Gustavo Arellano [of ¡Ask a Mexican! fame]. At first I was thinking that I didn't have time to read it, but once I started flipping through the pages, I couldn't stop. It was so amazing to learn about how Mexican food took over America; the history of it is unbelievable. It made me think about the way we cook food every day in a very inspirational way. After we read it, we all had to cook two dishes that pertained to the book. It was a great activity, and I encourage everyone to read it if you have any dishes on your menu that are at all inspired by Mexican cuisine.
What's the best food- or kitchen-related gift you've been given? The Big Red F staff gave me a Mac knife last year for Christmas. I haven't sharpened it once aside from running it across a steel, and it's still sharp as hell.
Weirdest customer request: We live by the "no problem" philosophy. If somebody wants something, weird as it may be, we try our hardest to make it happen. We had a customer come in who didn't care for Mexican food and wanted pasta instead. We went to our loving, accommodating next-door neighbors, Vita, and borrowed some from them. We made her what she wanted, and everyone was happy. Disclaimer: Please do not come in and ask for pasta. Cilantro, onion, garlic and lime allergies are challenging, but we can make anything happen.
Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: I had armadillo as a kid but don't really remember it; chapulines in Mexico, which were pretty good; and turtle soup in the Cayman Islands. I felt bad about eating that, so I guess I need to get more adventurous. Best recipe tip for a home cook: Don't get frustrated. Cooking is all about trial and error; if you mess up once, try it again. What's the worst that's going to happen? You mess it up again? If so, then I guarantee that you messed it up in a different way -- and hopefully, you figure out why. There really there are no mess-ups, unless it's that Christmas goose in National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation. But that's impossible to do. Cooking is easy, really; just learn where you went wrong.
What's your biggest pet peeve? When people put crap on my damn cutting board. I have a three-by-three workspace, and that area is mine. That's all I need, nothing more, nothing less, so I can't stand it when people put stuff in that little space. It bugs me, too, when people take knives or kitchen tools out of my toolbox and don't clean them or put them back where they found them. Have some respect for other people's property. If you want to use something of mine, just ask, but remember the rule: Return it in better condition than when it was given to you.
Craziest night in the kitchen: Actually, a crazy couple of days. I was working at a Denver restaurant that's closed on Sunday and Monday, but on my way in on a Monday to do the orders, I got a call from the owner telling me the place was on fire. I had 170 cookbooks in my office that my mom had given to me, and I lost them all. My cookbooks, my computer, some clothes, and a desk -- all burned. I did get some insurance money back, but not nearly enough to buy a new computer or replace the sentimental value of those books. There were some that my mom collected that dated back to the late '70s. All gone.
Which chef has most inspired you? There are so many: Jamey Fader, Matt Selby, Brandon Biederman, Brandon Foster, Kenny Turk, Daniel Asher, Tyler Wiard and Wade Kirwan, here in Denver. I've worked a lot with these guys, learning something different from each of them. But the one who takes the cake is Duane Walker, who's been my chef here at Lola for the past three years. He's a hardass who gets shit done, he's an amazing chef who comes up with stuff you could only dream of, and he's more fun to work with than anyone I know. I've now been given the opportunity to step into his shoes after his ten-year run at Lola. He rules, and I will still look for his guidance in the future.
If you could cook in another chef's kitchen, whose would it be? I'd like to cook in any of Rick Bayless's kitchens. His food is similar to ours, and I think I could learn a lot from him. Mexican is the cuisine that I enjoy the most, and Bayless is one of the best Mexican cuisine chefs out there.
Favorite celebrity chef: Julia Child, only because she was one of the originals. My mom would always watch her when I was growing up. I wanted to watch cartoons, and she told me to either watch Julia or go outside and play. I'd go outside quite a bit, but on rainy days I'd sit there with her and watch Julia.
Celebrity chef who needs a muzzle: I don't watch enough cooking shows to really have a strong opinion, but maybe Adam Richman, that dude who does Man v. Food. It just seems like he's trying to kill himself by clogging his arteries. He couldn't do the seven-pound burrito at Jack-n-Grill, though. But we had a cook that ate it all after brunch one day.
Describe the biggest challenges facing today's chefs: Honestly, I think it's the younger generation of kids who want to be chefs. When I was growing up in a kitchen and I messed something up, I would get my ass reamed. If I cut something wrong, my chef would sweep it onto the floor and say, "Clean it up and start over" -- and that's what I did. You can't do that nowadays, and I would never do that because it shows a lack of respect for the ingredient, as well as the cook, who's not going to learn anything by that kind of behavior. There's a disconnect with the younger generation, in that they feel like they're entitled to something without doing their job to full capacity. It's the balance between challenging the younger cooks to be great and them feeling like they deserve to be great. It takes a lot of work to thrive in this career, and many young cooks don't see that. We put a lot of time into interns and young cooks; sometimes they get it, sometimes they don't. And I hate it when they don't, because I feel like if I didn't help someone learn or improve, then I failed.
What do you enjoy most about your craft? That my work is never complete; there's always more to learn.
Most humbling moment as a chef: When I started working at Lola, Jamey and Duane hired me knowing that I'd just come through some hard times. Their confidence gave me a newfound sense of self-worth, and it was great to be back in a family-oriented restaurant.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef: Having Jamey Fader give me a shot in his restaurant, and handing over the reins to me with confidence and trust. What's next for you? I'm going to hang out here for a bit, learn some new stuff, cook some food, and then who knows? I love Lola and would just like to focus on what I'm doing right here, right now.
What question should I ask the next chef I interview? If you get a day off, how do you spend your time?
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If you hadn't become a chef, what would you be doing right now? Fishing -- just fishing. I don't think I'm good enough to make a living out of that, but I wish I were.