This is part two of my interview with Rob Lawler, former chef and the sovereign of cheese at the Truffle. Part one of my chat with Lawler ran yesterday.
Favorite restaurant in America: I really don't travel much anymore, and certainly not enough to say with any real authority what my favorite restaurant in the country is.
Last restaurant you visited: My parents were in town for Thanksgiving and we went to El Diablo. It was great.
Favorite Denver/Boulder restaurant(s) other than your own: All the good restaurants are our customers, so it's like asking me who my favorite child is. They're all special in their own way, but when it comes to Vietnamese food, I really love New Saigon. It's always good, I can go there with the kids and no one cares, and it reminds me of the Vietnamese food in San Francisco. Karin is a creature of habit, so we always have to get the Dungeness crab, but they also have phenomenal hot pots. We pig out there.
What you'd like to see more of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: I think we're doing really well, and it always annoys me when people rant on not having a good Micronesian restaurant or whatever. These people aren't happy with anything, and most likely couldn't cook their way out of a paper bag, even if someone gave them a hot pan and a sharp knife. There are so many innovative and exciting restaurants here, and it's great to see Denver chefs doing their own thing, showing their style and accentuating Colorado produce. It really is a very exciting time in Denver. Still, I'd like to see more independently owned markets, butcher shops, produce markets, cheese shops, bakeries and patisseries -- places that do only one thing and do it really, really well.
What you'd like to see less of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: Steakhouses. I love a good steak, but why do crowds insist on spending $45 on a ridiculously huge colon-clogging, suffered-in-a-feedlot, corn-fed steak but balk at $30 for a perfectly composed plate of fish or a well-thought-out series of tapas?
Which chef in Denver/Boulder do you most respect? They're all customers of mine, and I love them all, but I will say that neither John Platt, from Q's and Riff's in Boulder, nor Teri Rippeto at Potager get as much recognition as they deserve. The two of them use more local produce than half of the other chefs giving it lip service combined.
If you could cook in another chef's kitchen, whose would it be? I'd like to cook in the White House, at the Nobel Peace Prize dinner, or for the Pope or some other prestigious occasion, if for no other reason than to have the the bragging rights.
Favorite celebrity chef: Rokusaburo Michiba, the bad-ass Japanese chef from Iron Chef Japan. That man is a bad motherfucker.
Celebrity chef who should shut up: Gordon Ramsay. He's a pretentious bastard, and I'd love to fight him. He can wear his futball cleats and bring his Michelin stars.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef: I chose when and how to take off my chef coat.
Biggest kitchen disaster: There have been so many over the years that it's difficult to say. Overcooked and undercooked steaks, burnt soups, broken sauces and ruined meals -- I've done them all. One time I knocked a crumb-filled toaster into a twenty-gallon stockpot of demi-glace; another time I put a Pyrex baking dish on a burner to hurry a gratin along; I gave myself campylobacter by eating some undercooked chicken once; I've burned and cut myself countless times -- hell, even other people, too; and I've been fired an embarrassing number of times. Really, every stupid, horrible mistake imaginable, I've done at least once. That said, I really feel like I learned to cook well by making every kitchen mistake possible and then living in fear of ever doing the same stupid thing again.
Biggest compliment you've ever received: One of our employees, Virginia Clarkson, told us that our boys made her want to have kids of her own.
What's the best food- or kitchen-related gift you've been given? When I was a kid, my parents used to take my sister and me out for dinner, and while it wasn't a regular thing, they'd bring us along to nice restaurants. I remember eating at El Tovar in the Grand Canyon when I was about eight, and one time, we ate at a super-fancy, old-school French restaurant in Arizona, where I ordered the beef Wellington, and it was a complete revelation: a perfectly cooked tenderloin with mushroom duxelle and a perfect ring of puff pastry around it, and half the plate was sauced with a dark-brown demi sauce, the other half with a pale veloute. There was a laurel wreath painted into each half, with the opposite sauce ringing the roast. Then they had a bizarre vacuum-fed coffee service and petit fours on a vertical platter. It was the first time I realized how astonishing good food could be.
What are your favorite wines and/or beers? We have palates for old-world wine and beer. Karin is the expert; she has a much better sense of smell than I do. I've learned to let her shop for wine and taste it in restaurants. I love Belgian beers, and French wines are my favorites: red and rosé in the winter, white in the summer. Grenache is the most underrated grape in the grove.
What's your favorite knife? Everybody talks about their Japanese extension of their hand. I use a nine-inch Masamoto carbon-steel gyutou that's as sharp as sin.
One book that every chef should read: Silver Spoon, because it's been the best-selling cookbook in Italy for the last fifty years.
Best culinary tip for a home cook: Get rid of your non-stick Teflon pans. Use steel and get it ripping hot.
You're making a pizza. What's on it? Crushed San Marzano tomatoes, mozzarella di Bufala, Salumeria Biellese's sopressata piccante, oil-cured black olives, dry Sicilian oregano and olive oil. When it comes out of the oven, it's all charred and chewy.
Are you affected by reviews at all? What's your opinion on food writers and social review sites like Yelp, OpenTable and Urbanspoon? They're both part of the changing world of information media. Professional food critics are finding it harder to stay afloat in newspapers and magazines, while the opinions of those who shout the loudest have a platform for their voice. It's good and bad: Traditionally, food writers would rarely go on a tear even if they had a really bad experience, out of respect for the restaurant and fear of reprisal. Now people can say whatever they want and hide under a cloak of anonymity. One of the things that I do find deceptive about the online reviews is if a restaurant advertises with or otherwise pays a site, they can choose which reviews are visible to other customers. It's hard to swallow bad reviews, and I don't think that your average web-review person realizes how viscerally it affects the people they're writing about. When I was cooking in restaurants, I learned pretty early on that you had to take the compliments and insults with a similar screen -- that you're only as good or bad as your last meal.
If you weren't a chef, what would you be? I'd love to be a woodworker or an artist of some sort. Maybe for my third career.
Hardest lesson you've learned, and how you've changed because of it: I learned early on that even though you put your best into something, think it's great and feel good about it, not everyone is going to like it -- and you just have to deal. You have to choose your path for your own satisfaction.
What's next for you? We have several exciting things in the works, but for the last four years, it's been about raising our sons. Now that they're a little older and we feel more and more confident in the store, we have the time and energy to work on other projects. We have a tour to France booked with five other couples next October, and we have several other projects in the pipeline that are all being worked out.
Last meal before you die: A nice Sunday dinner with my family, Karin, our boys, their wives and children. I'd open a magnum of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, make a big steamy pot of coq au vin, serve some hot crusty bread, roasted vegetables from my garden, chocolate mousse with raspberries, and pour a glass of Armagnac afterward. Then we'd go to bed, and I'd never wake up. As long as I get to see our boys grow up and I go before any of them, I don't care what I have as a last meal. I've had my share of good ones to last a lifetime.