This is part two of my interview with Randy Balch, chef of Wazee Supper Club. Read part one of my chef and tell interview with Balch.
Favorite dish on your menu: The meat-over pizza, with Canadian bacon, pepperoni, Italian sausage and ham, is one of my top favorites, although for someone who wants to try something a little different, we've added a Thai chicken pizza to our menu that people can't seem to get enough of. It starts with a spicy peanut sauce, then we sprinkle it with mozzarella cheese and chicken and cook it until it's nice and crispy. It's then topped with snow peas, shredded carrots and chives and tossed in sesame oil. Delicious. We use super-fresh ingredients, I love our crust, which is rolled in corn meal, and our sauce, which has just a little bit of heat to it and a lot of flavor, is really popular, so much so that people come in often and ask if they can buy it. We have the best pizza downtown -- maybe not the world -- but definitely downtown.
Biggest menu bomb: We tried to put a crabcake appetizer on the menu, but it never really caught on or sold very well.
Most memorable meal you've ever had: In my younger days, I used to get in a bit of trouble. I spent a little time behind bars, and when I got out, I went to the store and picked up some Alaskan king crab legs and a ten-ounce ribeye steak. When I got home, I fired up the grill, seasoned the steak with garlic, rosemary and onion and cooked it to perfection. After being locked up for a while and eating that horrible slop that they call food, eating a juicy steak and crab legs was like having a kingly feast
Favorite childhood food memory: The big family get-togethers on the holidays like the Fourth of July, when we all gathered at the park and grilled hamburgers and hot dogs, played games, watched fireworks, ate a lot of watermelon, and just enjoyed food, family and fun.
Favorite restaurant in America: I started cooking at the age of thirteen at the International House of Pancakes, and I remember washing dishes one night when all the cooks walked out in the middle of a graveyard shift. The manager asked if I'd like to be a cook, I graciously accepted, and that's when my illustrious cooking career began. But now, at the age of 47, having worked in more than twenty different restaurants, I've found that my home is my favorite restaurant in America.
Favorite junk food: Rocky Road ice cream has always been one of my favorite junk foods. I just can't seem to get enough of it.
What are your favorite wines and/or beers? Coors Light and Jameson.
What's the best food- or kitchen-related gift you've been given? When I was sixteen, my mother realized that I was good at cooking, so she bought me a set of knives for my birthday. I love those knives; they lasted for several years and, as a matter of fact, I believe I still have the paring knife from the set.
One book that every chef should read: The Joy of Cooking. It's one of the best cookbooks of all time. It covers all the basics, and it's a great introduction to cooking, whether you're cooking at home or in a professional kitchen.
Best recipe tip for a home cook: Never fry bacon naked. If you don't believe me, try it sometime. You'll understand why rather quickly.
Weirdest customer request: One time we had a guy ask if we could put sauerkraut on his pizza. I've also had people ask for other weird toppings like cherries or pickles.
Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: Rocky Mountain oysters; I was tricked into eating them. I won't ever do that again.
What are your biggest pet peeves? Tardiness, whining and not getting the job done.
Biggest compliment you've ever received: I was working for Cafe Potpourri, and my boss at the time liked my work so much that he put me in charge of all three of his restaurant's kitchens. When he gave me that responsibility and told me that I deserved it, it was a big deal.
If you could cook in another chef's kitchen, whose would it be? Anthony Bourdain. He seems like a very down-to-earth kind of guy, and his story is pretty interesting. Sounds like he had a lot of fun growing up and learning to cook, too. That's the kind of chef that I'd like to learn from.
Favorite celebrity chef: Anthony Bourdain. I really enjoy his show and would love the opportunity to travel the world and try so many different cuisines.
Celebrity chef who needs a muzzle: Guy Fieri. Have you ever seen his TV commercials? What a douchebag! That's a guy who can -- and does -- really get on your nerves.
Culinary heroes: Mario Batali, Ming Tsai and Rick Bayless. I like the way they cook, their attitudes and the way they present themselves: with class. You don't cringe when you watch them, like you do Guy Fieri.
What's one thing that people would be surprised to know about you? I imagine most people would be surprised to learn that I received a lot of my cooking experience in county jails. Yep, I was a troubled teen and spent a few tours behind bars. When I was given my trustee status, they put me in the kitchen to cook for the inmates, but the supervisors liked my work so much that I was soon cooking real food for the police officers, which I really didn't mind, because I was able to eat their food -- and I was expanding my knowledge by learning all about institutional cooking, which is a whole different animal.
What's your best piece of advice to culinary school grads? Keep your head up and be sure to get some practical, real-world experience in a fast-paced kitchen. There's a lot to be learned that can't be taught in a culinary school.
Most humbling moment as a chef: I was closing a restaurant one night and rushing to get everything done so I could leave. I remember cleaning the grill with a grill brick with a lot of hot oil on it, and I pulled back too fast and sprayed the grease all over my forearms. I ended up with third-degree burns on both arms, and the pain was beyond excruciating. I guess the moral of the story is to slow down and take the time to do the job at hand correctly.
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Greatest accomplishment as a chef: I've been at the Wazee Supper Club for almost eight years, and for nearly all of that time, we've been talking about doing a remodel. Finally, it's coming to fruition, and I was given the leeway to remodel and design a new kitchen. It's been a great experience.
What's your dream restaurant? A nice local neighborhood restaurant and bar, the kind of place where everyone knows everyone. I'm not out to make a million dollars; I just want to make a good living and have a happy life.
Last meal before you die: Steak and Alaskan king crab legs.