This is part two of my interview with Mark Monette, executive chef of the Flagstaff House. Part one of that interview, in which Monette talks about cooking with Thomas Keller and his disdain for duck tongues, ran yesterday.
Culinary inspirations: My favorite thing in the world is finding fantastic local produce, getting to know the farmers, ranchers and fishermen, building relationships with them, figuring out how to take whatever beautiful thing they've harvested and prepare it in just the right way to make it shine for our guests. Having both the restaurant in Boulder and our artisan steak and fish restaurant on the Big Island of Hawaii allows us to do this in two incredible food-producing states; we're able to serve local foods in Hawaii and local foods in Colorado -- and also to share them with each other.
Favorite restaurant in America: The French Laundry. Thomas Keller nailed it on the head with that one. It's in the middle of wine country, and it's very relaxed, even though it's a three-star Michelin restaurant -- and it's run by a chef who I respect immensely. I first met Thomas in 1983, when I was cooking with Bernard Herrmann at La Reserve, in New York's Rockefeller Plaza. Thomas came in to replace Bernard, and within minutes we could all tell that this guy was really something else. When the time came for me to move on, it was hard to do so, because I enjoyed cooking with Thomas so much. We've cooked together a number of times over the years, including with Paul Bocuse at a benefit dinner for the James Beard Foundation. Thomas even cooked for my wedding rehearsal dinner.
Best food city in America: That would have to be New York. It's so exciting because it's always changing; chefs are always pushing the envelope, and there's so much to learn and experience in New York.
Favorite Denver/Boulder restaurant(s) other than your own: In Boulder, I love Zolo Grill for their chicken enchiladas and silver coin margaritas. And I also love Sushi Tora; owner Peter Soutiere gets great sushi directly from the Tokyo fish market.
What you'd like to see more of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: Five years ago, I would have had a lot more to criticize, but I think we're on the right track. I will say, however, that we could be working harder to better train our staffs and strive for a higher level of professionalism.
What you'd like to see less of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: Less fast food and more high-quality prepared foods.
Current Denver culinary genius: I'm sorry to say that I'm in the kitchen too much to really be able to make a fair statement about that.
Favorite dish to cook at home: There are two fun family dishes we love to cook together: Spanish paella and a Swiss/French raclette. The paella is nice because it's a lot of prep, but it's got all of the major food groups in one giant pan: meat, seafood, veggies and rice. We also love to make the Swiss/French raclette, which is a little like making fondue in that we cook the food individually at the table on a little griddle with raw meat, potatoes, raclette cheese and cornichons. It's very interactive.
Favorite dish on your menu: Right now, we're serving a loup de mer -- sea bass or branzini -- with baby leeks, shiitake mushrooms, heart of palm and basmati rice. These fish are about one pound each, and we open them from the back, take all the bones out, and leave the head and tail on for a really cool-looking presentation. I love the way all the components shine.
If you could put any dish on your menu, even though it might not sell, what would it be? There's a classic French dish called rognon, which is veal kidneys. I learned about it from Bernard Herrmann, while I was cooking at La Reserve in New York. It's delicious, but it just doesn't sell here.
Best culinary tip for a home cook: Keep it simple, have fun, and don't overdo it.
What show would you pitch to the Food Network, and what would it be about? It would be worth watching the Food Network if they had a show about Hawaiian farms, producers, ranchers and fishermen.There's just so much going on there, and everyone grows their own everything.
If you could cook for one famous chef, dead or alive, who would it be? I've been extremely lucky in that I've cooked for a number of famous chefs who are also friends -- Paul Bocuse, Thomas Keller, Alfred Portale and David Bouley among them. We also cooked for the emperor of Japan and his wife when they were touring the United States. They went to New York, Washington, D.C., and, on their way to Rocky Mountain National Park, stopped in Boulder. Ours was the only restaurant where they weren't hosted. In other words, they actually chose to pay for their meal. We were honored, and it was exciting, but it was also a little odd cooking with secret-service staff everywhere.
Favorite celebrity chef: I'm in the kitchen cooking all the time, so I don't have time to watch television.
Celebrity chef who should shut up: I have absolutely no idea, and I have to admit that it's kind of nice having no idea.
Are chefs artists, craftsmen or both? Both. You can be an artist, but you still have to get the product out.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef: Having two well-respected, award-winning restaurants, both with incredible wine lists, in Hawaii and Boulder, easily two of the most beautiful locations in the world.
Hardest lesson you've learned: I wasted a lot of time being a perfectionist and trying too hard. I'm a little more forgiving of myself now.
What's next for you? It's my fiftieth birthday this fall, and I'm hoping to spend it trail-running in New Zealand. This year also marks the fortieth anniversary of the Flagstaff House. We want to see another forty years here and to eventually reach forty years and beyond at Monette's, so I'll just continue to support my staff, keep the quality and professionalism high at both restaurants, and continue to build strong relationships with our producers and suppliers.