This is part one of my interview with Arik Markus, executive chef of Row 14. Part two of my chat with Markus will run in this space tomorrow.
Arik Markus is the chef equivalent of Iron Man on steroids. He races back to the kitchen to inhale a slice of sausage pizza that's gone in two seconds flat; he jogs toward the hostess stand to grab a phone call, then fields another one; he sprints behind the bar in search of Fernet; and through it all, he talks as fast as he moves. But then, he was raised for this work, a chef-in-training at the age of four. "As soon as I was old enough to see over the stove, I started cooking, and at four, I made my first dish -- scrambled eggs," recalls Markus, executive chef/partner of Row 14 Bistro & Wine Bar. His scrambled eggs sucked -- "They came out all flat, like an omelet," he confesses -- but instead of calling it a defeat, he called it a frittata.
The young Markus longed for sick days, when he could stay home from school and watch Days of Our Lives, the Frugal Gourmet, Julia Child, Martin Yan and Jacques Pépin -- all of whom knew their way around an egg pan, especially Pépin, whose scrambled eggs and omelets are jaw-dropping works of art. "The biggest single progression for me was watching Jacques make an omelet. I mean, there he was, doing omelet school on TV, and while watching him, I had this moment where everything clicked, and from then on, I was on a mission to make the perfect omelet," says Markus, admitting that he "fucked it up plenty" before eventually getting it right.
But while Markus aspired to be an omelet genius, he never thought about cooking professionally -- until, that is, he went to Vassar, "one of those fancy colleges," and started having dinner parties for friends. "Someone who was there said I should be a chef, and I was kind of blown away by the whole idea," he remembers, "but I went back home to Manhattan, told my parents that a friend had this crazy idea that I should become a chef, and then I hit the streets to find a summer restaurant job."
He crashed more than a dozen kitchens until one bit. "I'd never worked in a restaurant before, but the chef took me down to the basement, asked me to dice a red onion, and I guess I did a good job, because he asked me to start on the hot line that night," recollects Markus. Instead, though, "the chef threw me on the sauté station, and I had no idea what I was doing, but I got to make a lot of mistakes on someone else's dime, and it was a great gig. I loved being behind the fire."
Markus returned to Vassar and got a degree in art history -- but he'd already decided that he wanted to go to culinary school. He hit up his parents for money, but was told he should first go back on the line -- and landed at Restaurant Daniel, one of the best restaurants in the United States. "I went in, met with Daniel for 45 minutes, and he grilled me, but by the time we were done, I had a gig as a stage, working for free, sixty hours a week," says Markus.
He never went to culinary school. Instead, he stayed at Restaurant Daniel for a year and a half, eventually earning a minuscule paycheck as well as the nickname "Blondie." It was an "incredibly militaristic kitchen, and everyone got yelled at, but I saw the most amazing things," says Markus, who eventually exited Daniel's kitchen in search of a heftier pittance, a move he now calls his "single-most professional regret."
He did not, however, regret getting fired by Eric Ripert, the chef/owner of Le Bernardin, which some consider the best restaurant in the country. "I got a job there, working the entremetier station, and it was the most brutal job ever," says Markus. "Eric sunk me. He'd decided that he didn't like me, and he fired me." But in Ripert's world, getting fired meant you still had six more weeks to work your ass off, which Markus did; six weeks to the day after he was first subpoenaed to Ripert's office to hear his fate, he was gone.
Burned out, Markus switched careers completely, spending the next several years in TV and film production, both in New York and eventually Los Angeles, where he began to pick up some freelance catering gigs to earn extra money. One thing led to another, and Markus ended up becoming a personal chef to actor Don Johnson and his family. But after too many curbside pick-ups at the kids' school, he'd had enough: "It was a lot more responsibility than I had anticipated, that I was comfortable with, so I left." He left L.A., too, packing up for San Francisco, where he bopped around several restaurants and owned a catering company. But finally he moved to Boulder, where his wife had grown up.
Once he unpacked, he sauntered into Frasca Food & Wine, asked if he could hang out in the kitchen, spent a month doing just that before his wife had a baby and, three weeks later, got a call from Frasca's executive chef, Lachlan MacKinnon-Patterson, offering him a job. Markus stayed for nearly a year, but he wanted his own food temple. After meeting with a Denver restaurant designer, who introduced him to David Schneider, the owner of soon-to-open Row 14, he stepped away from Frasca to do his own thing.
In this interview, Markus dishes on buzz buttons, Space Cowboys podcasts, crashing china at Frasca Food & Wine, and his last meal on earth -- a spread that makes us nearly want to curl up and die.
Six words to describe your food: Honest, fun, clean, evolutionary, grounded and expressive.
Ten words to describe you: Loud, decisive, direct, passionate, possessed with integrity, spirited, energetic and provocateur.
Culinary inspirations: I started my career standing next to the great Daniel Boulud six nights a week, and I learned so much in his kitchen and in his presence. For all the plates that I witnessed crossing the pass leaving for the dining room, I also saw every plate that didn't make the cut. He taught me about the craft of cooking, but he also schooled me in the right and wrong way to do things -- everything. There were no shortcuts taken in his kitchen, and lazy or sloppy people didn't last very long. I had never seen so many new foods, and learning how to prepare each of them was an education unlike any I could have received in culinary school. His teaching remains with me to this day, and I can hear his voice in my ear with every culinary thought I have.
Best recent food find: I recently tried something called a "buzz button," which is like the flower from a Szechuan peppercorn plant. It has a really awesome pepper flavor and then numbs your tongue for a few minutes after you eat it. I'm still thinking of possible applications for it on our menu -- something for our more adventurous guests.
Favorite ingredient: Lemons. They're so versatile, and they've got so many applications, both sweet and savory. At Row 14, we finish many of our dishes with a little shot of lemon juice to balance the richness of the dish, or just to provide that element of umami to wake up the palate. The zest is awesome for infusions, or when passed on a microplane. And I'm a freak for lemon curd, so we have a lemon curd tartelette on the dessert menu. I can eat that stuff with a spoon and be very, very happy.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: Right now I'm sourcing the most incredible French breakfast radishes and tender arugula from Christian Toohey of Toohey & Son Farm in Hygiene, Colorado. They sell it at the Boulder Farmers' Market each week and operate with tremendous quality and integrity. Soon I'll be adding baby turnips from Red Wagon Farm and bull's blood from Longmont's Pastures of Plenty Farm, where Lyle Davis also runs an awesome farm-to-table catering company called Big Bang.
Favorite spice: Pepper. There's a reason that salt and pepper appear on every table, and I have fun working with many different varieties. Szechuan peppercorns have a great flavor and that fun tongue-numbing property. I have Indonesian long peppers in the restaurant, which are related to the more common Malabar and Tellicherry varieties, but with a great lingering heat. Pink peppercorns add great flavor and color to cream sauces, and they're perfect with some horseradish on a steak sandwich.
Most overrated ingredient: Balsamic vinegar. There's so much variation in the quality of balsamic vinegars, and while the oldest varieties, straight from Modena, are excellent and elegant, they're also very expensive. For the most part, what you find is mass-produced balsamic vinegars -- and they're not very good. For an ingredient that's so mainstream America -- and has been for decades -- many cooks still seem to be figuring out how to use it properly. Personally, I've seen enough of emulsified balsamic vinaigrettes and reductions cooked to the point of being burnt and sticky. I prefer sherry vinegar in almost every case, and for drizzling, I like to use Saba vinegar, the reduced juice from the same grapes used to make balsamico.
Most underrated ingredient: Rice bran oil. Most people, including chefs, don't even know about it. The oil is pressed from the heated husks of brown rice grains, and it has an amazing array of attributes, including a very neutral flavor profile, so it won't interfere with other flavors, making it perfect for adding to salad dressings and aiolis. It also has a very high smoke point, and breaks down very slowly when continually heated and cooled. We use it to deep-fry and to confit our chicken for our chicken potpie. It's also non-allergenic and non-GMO, so people with allergies to soy or peanuts can eat it safely.
One food you detest: There's something about the flavor and texture of bananas that I've never been able to get into. I love plantains, though. I know. Weird.
One food you can't live without: Eggs. I eat them every morning, because I really need their protein to get through my long and busy days. Talk about an ingredient that can do anything. We don't wear toques in my kitchen, but all of my cooks know that each fold in a toque represents a different method of cooking eggs that only the person wearing the toque knows how to do.
Favorite music to cook by: Space Cowboys podcasts. The Space Cowboys are a DJ crew from San Francisco who throw down sick, high-energy breaks and house. I first heard them out on the Playa at Burning Man years ago, and I've been to hundreds of nights out in San Francisco and beyond that they've soundtracked live. Their podcast, the RIPE cast, has almost a hundred different sets available for free, and they're constantly refreshing them and putting up new music. I think the podcasts might be driving some of my cooks crazy, but others have opened up to the chest-busting beats.
Rules of conduct in your kitchen: I insist on professionalism and mutual respect. There's always plenty of cursing in a kitchen, but people are not allowed to insult or demean each other. I have a lot of women on my team, and I think that helps keep the testosterone levels in check. I want to teach people the right way to do things -- how to cook, of course, but also how to carry themselves as professionals. I have a few mantras that come out fairly regularly: "Have fun working hard" and "Integrity is what you do when no one else is looking." I want my cooks and chefs to take these values with them throughout their careers, and to demand the best of themselves and those around them. Hopefully when they move on, it will mean something that they came from Row 14.
Biggest kitchen disaster: It was a very busy Friday night at Frasca, during what I think was CU's graduation weekend in 2010, which is a push at the restaurant every year, with many more covers than on an average night. I was working the entremetier station -- the hardest in the restaurant -- picking up all the vegetable garnishes for every entree, plus a pasta and two hot apps to boot. We were in the middle of a really big set, and I was about to plate a bunch of stuff, but when I reached to the shelf over the stove for a stack of plates, they slipped from my hands and crashed all over the flattop. There were shards of china everywhere, in the food, on the stovetop, in my pasta water -- nothing was spared. Everything had to be cleaned, all the food ditched, the pasta water started again. It backed up the kitchen by a good twenty minutes in one fell swoop. The two cooks on either side of me were glaring, obviously pissed, and I was mortified. Nothing like that had ever happened to me in my career, and nothing even close has happened since. And let me tell you: Having Bobby Stuckey standing at the pass staring at you with his arms folded, shaking his head, is very intimidating. But I did all I could do -- starting everything over and digging out of the deep hole. That's the greatest thing about the restaurant business, and I tell my cooks all the time that no matter how bad your night, no matter how crazy the service or how fucking nuts an accident you may have, at the end of the night the tickets are on the spike, so you clean up and go home. Tomorrow starts a new day.
What's never in your kitchen? Products of inferior quality. My sous, Matt Lewis, and I work very hard to source the best quality ingredients we can. You have to start with great product if you're going to have a great product to present to your guests, and we check in every delivery ourselves to make sure nothing gets past our watchful eyes.
What's always in your kitchen? Good extra-virgin olive oil to finish with. We use California Olive Ranch's cold-pressed Arbequina as a finishing oil and in our salad dressings. It has a great green and peppery flavor, it's a deep green-gold color, and it's absolutely delicious.
Favorite dish to cook at home: Pan-roasted chicken breast. It's nothing fancy -- just simply seasoned with salt and pepper, but I pair it with whatever's in season. It's my wife's favorite, so it's mine as well. A happy wife equals a happy life, after all.
Favorite dish on your menu: Five-spice duck confit crepes. It's a dish that epitomizes what my food is about. It's honest food inspired by French Colonialism, marrying East and West in a way that rejects the fusion label. Some people roll, cut and eat them, while others pick them up and eat them like tacos. It's fun to see how guests interpret them.
If you could put any dish on your menu, even though it might not sell, what would it be? Veal tournedos Rossini. There's something so decadent and so perfect about roasted veal medallions topped with seared foie gras and demiglace. Let's shave some fresh Perigord truffles on there, too, while we're at it. Alas, it's not in line with our concept at Row 14.
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Best culinary tip for a home cook: You should try to imagine the final flavor of the dish you're preparing before you even start shopping or open the fridge. This is a lesson I learned from Daniel Boulud -- and it makes sense. Cooks in the restaurant and at home should regularly taste their food as they cook and make adjustments to seasoning, adding spice as they go, and cooking temperatures. And it becomes easier to make those kinds of adjustments if you know where the final destination of a dish is. And set up your mise en place before you start cooking!
Last meal before you die: It starts with blini and Osetra caviar from Petrossian in New York, then an H&H everything bagel with Philly cream cheese and Nova lox from Barney Greengrass. Then it's seared foie gras with hazelnuts, pickled peaches and lamb's-quarter greens by Daniel; farm-egg tagliatelle with Reggiano and shaved white truffles at Oliveto; shaved pork with mustard sauce, fingerlings and cherries at Frasca; and the pizza of my dreams by Kelly Whitaker at Basta or Jordan Wallace at Pizzeria Locale. And, of course, Glacier's junior mint ice cream. Yep, I'm ready for the chair now.