This is part two of my interview with Pete List, exec chef of Beatrice & Woodsley. Part one of that chat ran yesterday.
How do you go about conceptualizing and developing new menus? When I write a menu, I focus on the seasons. I usually start thinking seriously about new items a few months in advance, and then I play around with ideas for specials, get feedback and make adjustments. I'll start the process with probably twice the number of items I need: Some make the cut, some get shelved for future reconsideration and some just suck. Once I have a general rough draft of the menu, there's more testing and tasting to refine each new dish until it gets it to the point where we're happy with them. It's a long process, what with writing recipes, costing out the dishes and formatting the menu, but I enjoy it a great deal -- at least most of the time.
Favorite dish on your menu: I really like the four-day guinea fowl. The dish is really simple and straightforward, yet it has all of the complexities that I like to play with. We brine the bird for four days to infuse a little extra flavor and moistness. The birds are then split and roasted and served on the bone alongside a warm salad of French lentils and farm vegetables that I get locally from Dew Farms in Longmont.
If you could put any dish on your menu, even though it might not sell, what would it be? I really enjoy working with offal, but unfortunately there doesn't seem to be a big demand for it in Denver -- or much interest at all for that matter. Grilled fresh lamb liver with a ragout of kidney, sour cherries, shallots and chanterelle mushrooms is a good example of a dish I'd love to put on the menu, but there are so many other possibilities and parts of the animal that are overlooked and underappreciated.
Favorite dish to cook at home? I don't often cook a full meal at home, and when I do, I tend to go with a simple roasted chicken or leg of lamb. I'm only cooking for one, so I keep it simple and make sandwiches with the leftovers.
You're making a pizza. What's on it? Spicy sausage, olives, oven-dried tomatoes and Pecorino.
Guiltiest food pleasure: There are so many things that I could call a "guilty pleasure," almost all of which contain fat in various forms. I love sausage, from the rendered fat that squirts out of a fresh sausage that's just came off the heat, to the delicious little nuggets of fat in a dry-cured/aged sausage. I love foie gras -- need I say more? -- and duck confit, cooked and stored in its own fat. I love duck rillettes; confit of duck cooked in even more fat until the meat can't possibly absorb any more; butter, which I use liberally; and my biggest weakness these days is ice cream. We make it in-house at the restaurant in many interesting flavors and, well, I have to taste them all. While it may sound like I survive on fat alone, I don't, and that's why I can call it a guilty pleasure. Ice cream, on the other hand, is an every day indulgence, even though my weight is still less than 200 pounds.
Weirdest customer request: We've made it a point to be sensitive to food allergies and dietary restrictions, and because of that, we've had our fair share of weird requests. Probably the weirdest -- and most frustrating request -- was a customer who asked us to deconstruct a dish, where each component had to be on a separate plate; no touching or shared spaces were allowed. I think we ended up with six or seven separate plates, and if I recall correctly, there wasn't any room left on the table for everyone else's food.
Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: Nothing too crazy. Whenever I get in veal heads for my headcheese, I'll pick out some of the more obscure pieces after they're cooked. The eyes are pretty good, and there's a little bit of meat behind the ear that's good, too. In mid-September, I'm going to Tanzania for three weeks, and there's no doubt in my mind that I'll be eating some weird stuff. I can't wait.
If you could cook in another chef's kitchen, whose would it be? There are many kitchens I'd like to work in, but I think that working at Restaurant Paul Bocuse in Lyon, France would be a great learning experience. Bocuse is a culinary icon and someone whose food, back in the day, was a major inspiration to me.
One book that every chef should read: On Food and Cooking is a must-read. It gives a very concise explanation of food science and how things work, and while I'll admit that it's a tough read at times, the information that you take away from it is well worth the effort.
Favorite restaurant in America: Over the last fifteen years or so, I've had few opportunities to travel -- I'm always working! -- so I really don't have an answer for that. Right now, Alinea and The French Laundry are at the top of my list of places that I need to eat. The French Laundry is a modern icon, and Alinea is destined to be the same type of long-standing restaurant, albeit for different reasons: It's a hyper-creative restaurant that thinks outside the box in a way that makes sense and doesn't sacrifice service.
Favorite Denver/Boulder restaurant other than your own: The Kitchen in Boulder has the right idea: a good menu and food that's done well and technically solid, plus they use local ingredients effectively, as we all should.
Which Denver chef really generates your respect? Alex Seidel is doing some really great things. Fruition Farm and the restaurant are both well conceived, and he's gone about doing them both the right way. I respect that a great deal and hope to do something similar at some point in my life -- but likely on a smaller scale.
What you'd like to see more of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: I'd like to see more neighborhood butcher shops and markets -- places where you get to know the owner and the guy cutting your meat and making the sausage. This is something that both Denver and Boulder are sorely lacking.
What you'd like to see less of from a culinary standpoint: Trend following. In Denver, it seems like we jump on the bandwagon with every latest trend or fad that comes along. In order for Denver and Boulder to grow as food cities, we need to take the lead. There is so much talent here and great product; I see no reason why other cities couldn't look to Denver or Boulder to set the bar.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef: I'm a cook who likes to be in the kitchen and loves to cook -- and my greatest accomplishment as a chef is just that: to follow my passion every day, and hopefully make a part of someone else's day better by cooking for them. That's all I need.
Favorite celebrity chef: Probably Thomas Keller. He uses a solid technical foundation and goes crazy with it, yet he can still be perfectly happy roasting a chicken. As for the celebrity part, I may be wrong, but I don't really think he sought that out. With his kind of talent and passion, the fame was destined to happen, and I think he's done well with it.
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Celebrity chef who should shut up: I could give you many names, BF, for example, but what's the point? I can, however, give you my opinion on when it's time to shut up. I don't think there are too many "celebrity chefs" who were focused on being famous when they started their careers. Most of us who are lifelong cooks do it out of love for the food. If things work out the right way -- if the stars align and you get some attention, and you make good money while still keeping the focus on the food, then great. But when the food takes a backseat, and it becomes more about stroking your ego and seeking press and attention, that's when you become irrelevant and should shut up -- for a while anyway.
Hardest lesson you've learned: Like a lot of cooks I know, I fell into the kitchen culture of partying -- drinking too much, doing drugs and so on. Somewhere along that path, I lost my way -- and nearly a whole lot more. I learned, just in time, I think, that something had to give, so I quit drinking and rediscovered how much I truly love what I do; I got my mojo back. I think that I'm a stronger person now, and I've grown as a cook, as well.
What's next for you? I have no idea. I'm enjoying myself where I'm at right now, and I'll continue to explore food and stay creative. At some point in the future, I'd like to be that guy who cuts the neighborhood meat, makes the sausage and sends home the bacon.