Read part one of my interview with Joe Freemond, exec chef of the Cellar Wine Bar.
Best thing about cooking in Denver: Being a part of the culinary explosion that this city is finally experiencing. Having grown up here, I've seen Denver come a long, long way as far as the culinary scene is concerned, and it's really a pleasure to be a part of the newfound movement in my home town.
Favorite restaurant in America: I've eaten at some pretty heavy-hitting restaurants in this country, including the French Laundry, Gary Danko and Peter Luger, but for me, my favorite place has got to be Stroud's in Kansas City. Stroud's is the holy grail of pan-fried chicken, and only God himself could have possibly created fried chicken this good. And there's plenty more than just fried chicken at Stroud's. There are fried chicken livers and gizzards, slow-cooked green beans with smoked ham hocks, endless mashed potatoes and even bigger bowls of gravy made from the chicken pan drippings, and to top it all off, they have enormous, warm cinnamon-sugar biscuits. During college, my friends and I would go to Stroud's every year for my birthday, and every year my birthday party had more and more people. Did I mention how good the fried chicken is?
Favorite cheap eat in Denver: Taqueria Los Gallitos on Alameda. It's a big ugly yellow building with a rooster painted on the side, but the tacos are amazing. Definitely the best crispy tripe taco I've had anywhere in Denver, and their goat or tongue tacos are also incredible. And it's so cheap. I took my two cooks out to lunch a few weeks ago and we feasted: four tacos for each of us, horchatas for everyone, and a huge chicharron and the bill was about $23. Plus, I've eaten there when a random mariachi band walked in off the street and started playing. Not many places offer that kind of experience.
What you'd like to see more of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: More small neighborhood butchers and meat markets. After working as a meat cutter in Kansas and again for Il Mondo Vecchio here in Denver, it's become obvious that the general public has a real lack of knowledge and lack of available buying options that real neighborhood butchers used to provide. Denver is such a huge meat city that I think it would make sense to have more small meat shops around town.
What you'd like to see less of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: Gringo tacos.
Most memorable meal you've ever had: I was lucky enough to go on a trip to Rome and Venice a few years ago, and we stayed at an unbelievably lovely B&B right outside of the chaos of Rome called Casa Stefazio, which is owned by longtime family friends of ours, Orazio and Stefania Azzola. There are gardens all around the house where Orazio grows his herbs and many different veggies and lettuce greens, and there's a small creek that runs right behind the house that supplies the area with tons of fireflies at night. Orazio has degrees from the Cordon Bleu in Italian, French and Chinese cooking, and while we stayed with them, I soaked up every little thing that I could learn. Toward the end of our trip, Orazio and I cooked a massive feast that led to a truly unforgettable evening. We ate insalata caprese, ribollita soup, tortino di zucca, roasted veal belly with rosemary, risotto Milanese with saffron and hot Italian sausage, veal saltimbocca, and zabaione with macerated strawberries. And then we finished off the night with plenty of homemade limoncello. "Memorable" does not even begin to describe my time at Casa Stefazio.
Biggest compliment you're ever received: Seeing empty plates come back to the kitchen is always the best compliment a chef can receive, but my biggest compliment came while I was working at TAG. We would cook tasting dinners, or omakases, for diners who wanted the full experience of letting the cooks have creative freedom with their meal. Each cook was assigned to one course for a given table's omakase meal, and we'd have to improvise on the spot what the dish would be. As if that wasn't enough pressure, the diners would then rate which course was their favorite, so there was this intense internal competition among the cooks to win the omakase. One night, we had a woman come in and sit at the chef's counter by herself and order a six-course omakase. I had previously made some carrot, English pea, ricotta and chive ravioli with a carrot-and-coriander pasta dough for a special, which I decided to use for my course. I paired the ravioli with sautéed sweet corn and red chard and topped it off with a reduced lamb jus. The woman chose my course as her favorite and called me up to the counter to tell me that it was "heaven on a plate." It's pretty hard to beat that kind of compliment.
Are you affected by reviews at all? What's your opinion on food writers and social review sites like Yelp, OpenTable and Urbanspoon? I think that all chefs are affected by reviews on some level. If they weren't affected, then it would mean that they don't care about their craft anymore. Review sites can be very helpful if used correctly, but too often, people use these sites as an open anonymous forum to air their grievances and complaints to an unsuspecting world. Like other chefs in town have said, I think these sites should be used more for recognizing the accomplishments of chefs and restaurants rather than a place to complain. If you have something to complain about, tell me while you're at the restaurant and give me a chance to do something to fix it. By the time someone complains on the Internet, the moment for resolution and progression has passed.
What's your biggest pet peeve? Indecisiveness.
What's the best food- or kitchen-related gift you've been given? While I was making ravioli at TAG, my girlfriend bought me the Encyclopedia of Pasta, which has since become my bible. It's been instrumental in changing my knowledge of pasta and its history and how I approach making different types of pasta. Equally important is the the French Laundry cookbook that my dad gave to me several years ago. There's so much in there about the mental attitude and respect for one's duties, ingredients and profession that have really shaped the way I go about my job, not to mention the amazing recipes. I always refer back to that cookbook when I need a little creative recharge.
What are your favorite wines and/or beers? My current favorite wine is a 2009 Marchesi de Frecobaldi Super Tuscan that's on our wine menu right now. I could list favorite beers for days, but a few that I really love are Avery's the Reverend, Boulevard Brewing's Tank 7, Oskar Blues' Old Chub, Grand Teton Brewing's Bitch Creek, and a good Mickey's forty-ounce. Don't hate.
Favorite dish on your menu: Tagliatelle nero with clams, white wine, butter, shallots and gremolata. It's a squid-ink pasta with beautiful plump little pasta clams. And it's simple, elegant and delicious.
Favorite junk food: As much as I hate to admit it, I love Totino's pizza rolls with sriracha or Crystal hot sauce. I absolutely know how bad they are for me and the total shit they're made with, but I can't help but love them; I guess it's a childhood comfort thing.
Favorite childhood food memory: I have many fond childhood memories of food because I grew up with parents who would plan all of our vacations around food destinations or eating plans. I grew up cooking with my parents, particularly my mom, who played a huge role in my love of being in the kitchen. I remember making tiramisu with her when I was very young, and I remember always being amazed that you could take simple egg whites and table sugar and make beautiful, stiff foam-like peaks with nothing more than a whisk, like it was some kind of kitchen wizardry.
One book that every chef should read: Kitchen Confidential, which is a huge reason I started cooking professionally in the first place. It made cooking seem cool -- really hard work, but cool. And despite how much the industry has progressed since it was first published, it's still a wonderful look into the darker -- but true -- aspects of this industry. In fact, I reread Kitchen Confidential every time I start working in a new kitchen.
If you could cook in another chef's kitchen, whose would it be? I'd want to cook in some grandma's kitchen in Italy. Any grandma will work, as long as she's old and has lived in Italy her whole life. I want grandma secrets.
Favorite celebrity chef: I really respect Masaharu Morimoto. I look through his cookbook often because it always provides plenty of inspiration. I love how he totally changes people's perception of what's classic or traditional. His love and respect for his craft is something to aspire to, plus he always kills it on Iron Chef.
Celebrity chef who needs a muzzle: I know I'm not the first person to say this, but Guy Fieri needs to shut the hell up already. I saw him do a promo for gourmet Ritz cracker snack preparations during the Super Bowl, and that was the last straw for me. The fact that this guy is even referred to as a "chef" is an insult to real chefs everywhere. I hope he chokes on his next Ritz.
Culinary heroes: Thomas Keller has always been -- and probably always will be -- my culinary hero. His philosophies on food, cooking and hospitality and his mission toward perfection have always inspired and influenced the way I cook and approach this life. As amazing as the French Laundry is, I've always connected with his food at Bouchon and Ad Hoc on a more personal level, particularly with his approach to classic peasant food reimagined with perfect technique and finesse.
Most humbling moment as a chef: Being an executive chef and cooking my own food for my parents was an incredibly humbling moment. Seeing how proud they were to be here and to experience my culinary dream come true was priceless. I was also able to cook dishes from my new menu for Village Cork chef Samir Mohammad, which was a wonderful moment for me. When I was working with him, he taught me so much about how to make wonderful food in a non-conventional kitchen and how to make limited storage and lack of normal equipment work to your advantage. He calls it "combat cooking." I'd like to think that I'm carrying that legacy onward.
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Greatest accomplishment as a chef: Designing and perfecting my menu, buying equipment, hiring my crew and getting the kitchen set up and ready to rock at Cellar Wine Bar in under a month -- and then seeing totally clean plates come back to the kitchen -- has been my greatest accomplishment.
What's your dream restaurant? I'm pretty close to my dream restaurant right now, actually. I have a small, intimate setting where I can actually cook the food and then personally serve it to my customers. My restaurant is small enough that everything is still very personal and hands-on, and its small scale allows my cooks and me the creative freedom to change the menu as frequently as we'd like. I'm blessed in this situation because I have the type of creative freedom and hands-on interaction that many chefs would kill for. All I could really ask for would be a slightly larger kitchen and my own garden dedicated just for the restaurant. I guess the Highland farmers' market will have to do for now.
What's next for you? I am going to pour everything I have into making the Cellar Wine Bar one of the best places to eat and drink in Denver. I can see myself being happy here for a while.