Part one of my interview with Ignacio Leon, exec chef of Paxia and Los Carboncitos, ran yesterday; this is part two of our conversation.
Favorite food city in America: The nation's best chefs are in New York and Miami. Because both cities are such large population centers and tourist destinations, they tend to attract really great, creative talent.
Favorite Denver/Boulder restaurant(s) other than your own: Sushi Den. There's a reason why it always lands on those best-restaurants-in-Denver lists. It's the best place in Denver for truly fresh, high-quality sushi.
Favorite cheap eat in Denver: This may sound like cheating, but I'd have to say Los Carboncitos. It's cheap, but we strive to provide good quality. The kitchen is open so you can see how the cooks are handling your food, and it's open late, so it's a great alternative to other fast late-night options.
If you could change one thing about the Denver dining scene, what would it be? I would love to see the higher-quality restaurants stay open later. If you want to have a nice dinner after 11, the only alternatives tend to be diners, fast-food joints and bars. In Mexico City, if you go clubbing or to the bars, you can still get good-quality food at three or four in the morning.
Describe the biggest challenges facing today's chefs: Meeting the demand for organic food and gluten-free diets. Consumers are becoming more and more savvy about ingredients and wanting to know how -- and where -- their food is sourced. We once got a call from someone who wanted to know what the cows we served were fed. Luckily, we get our beef from a small, locally owned supplier who keeps us very well informed about the meat they provide. But that isn't always the case. The masa we get isn't made completely from corn, and it's sometimes hard to track down all the ingredients, but we know answering those questions is essential for gluten-free diners. I don't think this is a trend that is simply going to fade away.
What's your biggest pet peeve? Stupid people. I have no patience for people who don't think and need things explained over and over again. If you can't multi-task, I don't have much use for you.
What do you enjoy most about cooking? Meeting our guests and hearing their feedback about our food. I really try to listen to both the good and bad and take all of the comments to the kitchen so we can make the food better.
What's never in your kitchen? Lazy people. I just don't like people who aren't enthusiastic about being there in the kitchen. I have no tolerance for people who cook because it's nothing more than a job. If you're just punching a clock, then you don't belong in my restaurant.
What's always in your kitchen? Happy workers with a good sense of humor. I love seeing my staff having a good time in the back, laughing, smiling and enjoying what they're doing. I try to provide a good atmosphere, and I think people sense that. As a result, we attract professional people who genuinely like their jobs.
What's always lurking in your refrigerator? Milk, eggs, tortillas and jalapeños are my staples. Whenever I get home in the wee hours of the morning, I cook up some eggs, throw some ham in and eat it with tortillas. It's easy, it's good and it beats fast food.
When you have a day off away from the kitchen, how do you spend your time? I love playing soccer, and I've been involved in various leagues in the Denver area off and on for the last ten years. I also enjoy spending time with my ten-year-old daughter and dining out.
Craziest night in the kitchen: The day we opened Paxia was totally chaotic. We had a line out the door, a full restaurant, and we weren't prepared. At one point in the evening, we had nothing on the prep tables, and I was running out of onions, tomatoes, meat and salmon. All of it was in the walk-in, still needing to be prepped, and we just couldn't keep up. It was a nightmare. I'd like to think that wouldn't happen today. After a year in business, we've learned when to ramp up.
Weirdest customer request: This might only seem weird to me, but I haven't yet grown accustomed to hearing non-Mexicans asking for habanero sauce or a really spicy salsa. Being from Mexico, I guess I am just not used to seeing white people eat really spicy food.
Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: Escamoles -- or ant eggs. In Mexico, it's not unusual in some regions to eat insects, including ants and grasshoppers. Best recipe tip for a home cook: Be passionate about what you're doing; cook with love; and put your heart into whatever it is that you're making. It will shine through in the food.
Which chef has most inspired you? Rick Bayless. He loves and promotes authentic Mexican food, and you can tell he's so passionate about the cuisine. It's not a gimmick; he truly cares about the traditions behind Mexican cuisine.
If you could cook in another chef's kitchen, whose would it be? Sushi Den. When I arrived in Denver, I had hoped to land a job there, but there were no opportunities at that time. I have deep admiration for how the Kizaki brothers source their food and select their ingredients. They have high expectations, and it shows.
Favorite celebrity chef: Rick Bayless. I love that he goes to Mexico and explores the culture and the history of the cuisine, plus he's done so much to educate Americans about real Mexican food.
Celebrity chef who needs a muzzle: Chef Alfredo Oropeza. He has a cooking show in Mexico called Al Sabor del Chef, which is broadcast in America, as well. I consider him more of a TV personality than a chef. He's charming, attractive, and he knows how to engage an audience, but I don't think he can cook. I'd bet he wouldn't be able to create a dish off the cuff. That said, I'm sure housewives love to stare at him.
Most humbling moment as a chef: Giving out free meals to homeless people. At Los Carboncitos, people will stop by from time and time and ask for food, and we oblige. I spent part of my childhood in an urban area where I really became aware that some people in this world are living without basic necessities. It opened my eyes and made me aware of how important it is to give back whenever possible.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef: Opening our restaurants, being acknowledged by other chefs, and broadening Americans' horizons when it comes to how they perceive Mexican food.
What's next for you? I dream about going back to Mexico and opening my own restaurant there. I would love to have a small cafe where people can order simple, but really fresh, high-quality food for lunch and breakfast. I get tired of working long hours, so it would be great to stay open from 5 a.m. to 5 p.m. or 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., just so I could have a little more time to explore other restaurants.
Last meal before you die: Sushi.
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What question should I ask the next chef I interview? What's your motivation for becoming a chef? I'm always fascinated by what drives people to this career.