This is the second installment of my chat with Hugo Matheson, exec chef of The Kitchen. Read part one of Matheson's interview.
Favorite restaurant in America: After all these years, it's still Chez Panisse. Passion leads the way in everything they do — it's like being in someone's living room — and you eat the same food that the staff eats, which is just brilliant. It goes back to why we should treat others the way we want to be treated. It's a restaurant that's as much for the customers as it is for the people who work there.
Favorite cheap eat in Denver/Boulder: In Boulder, it's Taqueria El Rey. Get there early for their carnitas tacos, which are quite good with lime, cilantro and onion. And in Denver, it's Masterpiece Delicatessen, which has the best sandwich around. Justin Brunson obviously really cares about what he's doing, and he spends a lot of time choosing the right ingredients.
If you only had 24 hours in Denver/Boulder, where would you eat? I'd have breakfast — a fried egg, cheese and ham sandwich on brioche — at Masterpiece Deli. For lunch, I'd either go to the Kitchen for our seafood platter, or to Fuel, which I haven't been to yet. But I'm going to try and have lunch there this week. And for dinner, I'd go to Z Cuisine, a small French bistro that's run by very passionate people, plus the atmosphere and food completely transports you. If you eat here, you can disappear into another world. And I really love Sushi Den, too; it's a real treat for me.
What you'd like to see more of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: A better understanding of the true value of food and the energy and effort that people put into food — food that, too often, shouldn't be nearly as cheap as it is. It's not about greed; it's about providing a fair standard of living for people — farmers, for ex-ample — in the industry. At some point, you have to stop cheapening food and realize its value in our lives. I want farms and ranchers and their workers to earn a fair wage. They can only do that if we value food for more than just price. If farmers and producers stay in business, then we all benefit. I'd also like to see increased accessibility to local and artisanal food through more farmers' markets, along with greater support of local producers by restaurants, supermarkets and even fast-food chains. As chefs and cooks, we can't be blind. We must create a more socially just and economically viable commerce for those working in the first link of the food chain.
What you'd like to see less of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: Fewer people thinking that this career is an instant path to stardom or fame. I think chefs need to continue to work their way up and do their time so they have a full understanding of the business.
Rules of conduct in your kitchen: Respect the ingredients, respect each other and respect yourself. If you organize your trash, the rest should follow.
What's never in your kitchen? Fools, trans fats and anything else that's unnecessary. I like to keep things to a minimum.
What's always in your kitchen? Good eggs from Monroe, Wisdom or Cure Organic farms, olive oil, cumin, smoked mackerel, a sharp knife and an eccentric and diverse group of characters, all of whom have passion, which is incredibly important.
What are your biggest pet peeves? Wasting food or, for that matter, wasting anything. I was brought up with the saying "Waste not, want not." It's great advice when you think about it. I also can't stand it when people are habitually late. Someone once explained to me that it was an illness and that there's nothing that you can do about it, but even if I believed that, it would still drive me insane. Cell phones in a customer-service space, seeing a bar-tender check their cell phone, a cashier in a shop texting — that all drives me insane. Your job is to focus and be present for customers, which is apparently becoming more and more of a challenge.
Biggest compliment you've ever received: Every time a customer comes through the door for the second time and beyond. It really is amazing when somebody enjoys what you do.
What's your best piece of advice to culinary-school grads? What I'd like to say to students is to get real-world experience first. They need to really believe in and understand food before they spend all that tuition.
Best recipe tip for a home cook: Trust your taste, and remember you're cooking for yourself
What's the best food- or kitchen-related gift you've been given? The one thing that really stands out was a food processor, although I very rarely use one these days. I got it when I was a child, and I remember making profiteroles from the recipe book. I'm not a knife fanatic, but I do like a sharp knife, and Kimbal Musk brought me a knife back from Japan, which I love; it doesn't go anywhere near the dishwasher, or in the drawer. It was a simple present, but a very expensive one. Apparently, it was Christmas for the next ten years.
One book that every chef should read: The Devil in the Kitchen, by Marco Pierre White, is all about the in-sight into the workings and mentality of the restaurant world, which really is madness. I also love any book by Elizabeth David, a cook, traveler and woman who just beautifully conveys the passion and beauty of European cooking and a simple way of life...if you don't include war.
Culinary heroes: My mother and grandmother; the food they cooked was amazing. I also have great admiration for Ruth Rodgers, Rose Grey and Theo Randall, all of the River Cafe in London.
If you could cook in another chef's kitchen, whose would it be? Chris Bianco, who's the chef at Pizzeria Bi-anco, in Phoenix. I've never been there, but I met him briefly at our restaurant, and he seems to be somebody who's really devoted to his craft. Day in and day out, he does simple food that's well executed, and I'd love to be in the kitchen with someone who cooks just one thing every day — the same thing that he's done his entire life.
Favorite celebrity chef: Jamie Oliver. I know it sounds un-cool, rather like wanting an ice cube in my rosé, but I have to do what feels right. He can't replace Julia Child or Elizabeth David, but he's really gotten a lot of people into cooking and food, and he's done a great job of making it all a little more approachable. He's done great things with his "Fifteen" project, and he's used his celebrity status to make a difference. I used to work with him at the River Cafe in London, and I can assure you that he was driven purely by his passion for food. He was a line cook at the River Cafe and then built and scaled a very good High Street restaurant with Jamie's Italian, and at the same time, he scaled quite an important social vision. I also really like Mario Batali; the PBS show he used to do was just about cooking without any of the celebrity fanfare. And I'm also a big fan of Gabrielle Hamilton, the chef of Prune, in New York City.
Celebrity chef who needs a muzzle: Emeril used to do a show that pained me. It was rather like the Wheel of Fortune of food — just way too much show. That said, I know he's very talented and can really cook.
Most humbling moment as a chef: Back in London, fresh out of cooking school, I landed a job as a catering chef. I used lemon peel in a sauce with chicken, which ruined it and turned it into pure marmalade. I had to completely start over.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef: Supporting my family and creating a sense of family at the restaurants.
What's your dream restaurant? That's best kept in my mind, as it really wouldn't be a viable business. I have a problem with wanting to give stuff away. I'd like to give out free meals without regard to business, religion, char-ity, government or recognition.
What's one thing that people would be surprised to know about you? I have a B.A. in interior design, and I worked on a cargo ship from London to New Zealand when I was seventeen.
What do you have in the pipeline? We're looking to grow, but we're not sure how that will look just yet. We do know that we're not moving far from what we do at the moment.