This is part two of my interview with Serena Romeo, exec chef of Comida Cantina. Read part one of my interview with Romeo.
What's your best piece of advice to culinary-school grads? Be open to learning things beyond what you learned in school and always clean up after yourself, because it really is important. And don't say "I know" when you're being corrected -- you don't know, or you wouldn't have done it to start with. Respect everyone you work with, especially the dishwasher, and be prepared to work the hardest you ever have.
Best recipe tip for a home cook: Don't be afraid, and cook what you love. It doesn't matter what you prepare -- just do it from the heart, and I promise the meal will be magic-filled.
What's the best food- or kitchen-related gift you've been given? My best friend, Angie, gave me a $10 paring/picnic knife from Crate and Barrel. I love it. The blade is capped so I can take it wherever I go...and I do.
What are your favorite wines and/or beers? I like to hop on my pink bike, ride down to Cured or the Boulder Wine Merchant and pick either Will or Jeff's brain. I tell them what I'm cooking, how much I have to spend, and then let them make suggestions. We are so lucky in Boulder to have great knowledge like theirs at our fingertips -- and these guys know their stuff. I love trying new wines, and they have so much exposure to what's new and delicious. As for me, I'm actually horrible when it comes to remembering the names of wines beyond the ones that have really "rocked" my dining experience.
Favorite junk food: I'm a food snob, I'll admit it. I don't eat junk -- never have, never will. However, on a day when I've been in the hot kitchen for more hours than I care to admit, I've been known to grab either a Mexi Coke -- made with real sugar -- and a lime or a pineapple Jarritos.
Favorite childhood food memory: I have so many. I think that's what has fed my passion for wonderful food -- and I owe that to my father. He was from Italy and showed me the importance of family meals, good, fresh ingredients and knowing where your food comes from. When I was growing up, my parents never asked what I wanted for my birthday, because it was always what do you want to eat? My answer for years was the same: homemade fettuccine Alfredo, my dad's eggplant Parmesan, and then the Sacripantina cake from Stella's Bakery -- that was the best.When my father picked me up from school in North Beach, we would go to the bakery for bread, and he'd always break off the heel for me and a piece for himself, then we would either go to Little City Meats or the fish market in Chinatown, and then the last stop would be Molinar, which to this day is one of my favorite places in San Francisco for cheese, olives, wine, salami, a wink from the old Italian guy behind the counter and fresh pasta. It makes me tear up just thinking about it. That was how I learned to grocery-shop, and I still love spending a morning pedaling around town and filling my bike basket with delicious fresh treats and then riding back up the hill and creating a meal for people I love. It makes my heart feel a little like a six-year-old in the body of someone who's obviously not.
If you could cook in another chef's kitchen, whose would it be? Alice Waters. Could you arrange that?
Most memorable meal you've ever had: Being from San Francisco and living here, I've had so many lovely meals, but when I think of my most memorable meal, I immediately go back to when I was sixteen and spent the summer in Sicily with my family. We were in a small fishing town outside of Palermo, and it was our last night there, and the family we stayed with wanted to have a final dinner. Their house was too small for us all to sit comfortably, so we set up a long table on their narrow street, where we strung lights from house to house. Food was prepared, people were invited and the sun went down. At one point, I looked up at my brother and we both just smiled at each other. This was magic. There was delicious food, passionate conversations, a honking horn of the red Fiat trying to maneuver its way down the alley, laughter, and then I looked up and saw the moon and the lights. It doesn't get much better than that, and that night has been embedded in my memory ever since. At that moment, all that my father had showed me about meals and food finally came to fruition for me. That's what it's all about. I've been craving that experience ever since tasting it in 1979.
Weirdest customer request: In college, I worked on boats out of Pier 39 in San Francisco, and I was working the grill one night when a woman came up and asked for a raw steak. She didn't want it to touch the grill. I was curious, because that was all she ate. She consumed every bit of it, except for the fat that surrounded the meat. Odd...but who am I to judge?
Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: Not many kids these days, especially in the States, will eat tripe or pigs' feet, or suck on the head of a cooked fish because they were told by a sweet Italian man with a thick accent -- my father -- that it was "good for your brains." It was weird for the age, but not for my tastebuds.
Biggest compliment you've ever received: My parents didn't throw around compliments like parents do today, so when I got one, it meant a lot. Before my dad passed, he told me he was proud of me...just saying that gives me chills. It was so meaningful. The others have been from my daughters. Their words are the most sincere and delivered with such warmth. How lucky am I? On a professional level, I do love hearing that I "rocked it" from Rayme. I know she took a risk when she gave me this position, and I respect that trust and work hard to maintain it.
Favorite restaurant in America: To be fair to all the talent out there -- and there is some incredible talent -- please don't make me pick one. Okay, if I must choose, I'd have to say my experience at Chez Panisse was amazing and Bar Jules, in San Francisco, is wonderful, too. And the Kitchen and Pizzeria Locale, in Boulder, are amazing. Locale has delicious pizza and impeccable service, and I love the pizza combinations. I love the Kitchen for most of the same reasons, and love how they give back to the community.
Favorite cheap eat in Denver/Boulder: I love the tuna burger at Larkburger...with extra aioli. If you only had 24 hours in Denver/Boulder, where would you eat? I don't get out much, and my budget never really allows for indulgences like dining out, but if I could treat myself, I'd start my day at either Logan's Espresso Cafe for a perfectly made cappuccino or a Semifreddi's biscotti -- they're from the Bay Area -- at BoxCar Coffee Roasters. Then I would pick up a sandwich from either Cured or Frasca Caffe...perhaps one from each, and, yes, another treat, and head to the pool in Eldorado Springs with a great book and eat my delicious finds. Then I'd go to Denver for drinks and appetizers at Euclid Hall and to Potager for dinner. I love to support businesses that are passionate about what they do, treat their employees with respect and welcome their patrons as if they were guests in their own home.
What you'd like to see more of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: A better selection of ethnic food, specifically some great dim sum in Boulder. Someone should do a dim sum food truck.
What you'd like to see less of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: I can't stand crap food -- stuff that's made without thought, food that's only made to make money. That kind of food takes advantage of people who can't afford to eat better, and it does everyone a disservice.
Favorite celebrity chef: I really admire Alice Waters. I lived in Berkeley for ten years and have seen firsthand what she created with Chez Panisse, Fanny Cafe and Growing Gardens, her programs in the Berkeley public schools. She deserves the respect she's garnered in the food community.
Celebrity chef who needs a muzzle: I don't know enough about celebrity chefs. I don't watch any of those shows or really think about them, but if I had to muzzle any of them, it would be ones who are arrogant or rude.
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One book that every chef should read: I've read so many, but the one that fed my soul was Blood, Bones & Butter, Gabrielle Hamilton's eye-opening book. In fact, I'm heading to Frasca for a dinner where she'll be the guest chef -- I'm so excited. As my mother would say, "Make a wish." Eating at Frasca for the first time and having Gabrielle Hamilton be the guest chef is truly going to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for me. And her book proves that anything is possible if you follow your heart and feed your passion.
What are your biggest pet peeves? A lack of manners.
What's one thing that people would be surprised to know about you? I asked a good friend that same question this morning, and she said that people would be surprised by how much I eat. I do love to eat, but is that a surprise? I do collect wishbones from chickens -- yes, dead ones. I always saved the wishbone when my daughters were younger, and even though the tradition died as they got older, the memories have always stayed with me. The magic of wishbones is something that I got from my mother, who taught me the value in wishing. Now I just make a little art with them. I must say it's heartwarming to me that everyone in the kitchen now saves them for me.