This is part two of my interview with Sam McCandless, chef de cuisine at the Squeaky Bean; part one of our conversation ran yesterday.
Most memorable meal you've ever had: Eating at L20 with my mom. I was jaded as a young cook who was trying to be the best, and my mom snapped me out of it. She made sure I knew just how fortunate I was to cook on that level.
Your three favorite Denver restaurants other than your own: Lower 48. I have tremendous respect for Alexander Figura, Greg Schesser and Mario Nocifera, and it was an honor to work with them at Frasca under Bobby Stuckey. And I love Acorn. In fact, if it weren't for chef Steve Redzikowski, my history would be a lot different. He's such a badass, and he's got humility, too. Williams & Graham is great late at night, and there's amazing food to go with the cocktails; the burger-and-a-shot deal is unbeatable.
Most underrated restaurant in Denver: I have no idea, but I might have to go with us right now. The food is solid at a very reasonable price, and there's plenty of talent behind it with Theo Adley, Sean Katebini-Stengel and Kathy Jeon back there, too. I'd say it's a very special time for us.
Which living chef do you most admire? Laurent Gras. I had wanted to work for him since I was a little man, and when I finally did, it was an honor. He eliminates the possibility of error, and he's as accurate as humanly possible. He's a gift to food.
Who is Denver's next rising-star chef? I don't know who the stars are, but Steve Redzikowski and Alex Figura are the guys I admire the most, for sure. I've been lucky enough to work shoulder-to-shoulder with the best around.
If you could make one request of Denver diners, what would it be? Buy the best and keep the demands for high quality coming. Great quality costs money, but it's worth it.
What do you expect from a restaurant critic? Honesty and integrity. The review of Daniel in the New York Times was the best ever. Everyone should get the same experience.
Would you ever send a dish back if you were dining in a friend's restaurant? Absolutely, and I would expect the same in return. Criticism from a friend is the best.
Best recipe tip for a home cook: Relax and have fun. If you're having fun and there's no stress, it's probably going to be good.
What's the best food- or kitchen-related gift you've been given? The guys at Frasca got me a recipe book with nice notes in it. I cherish it.
Favorite culinary-related item to give as a gift: A dough card, peeler or an older knife that no longer suits me but could be potentially good for a newbie. Dough cards are the best; everyone should have one. An offset spatula, too.
What piece of advice would you give to an aspiring chef? Be clean and attentive, because if you are neither, you aren't worth shit. If you just aspire to be clean and attentive, at best you'll be okay. From a true aesthetic point of view, many dirty cooks -- and there are a lot of them -- get away with not being clean, and it's not admirable. Be clean from the start and you'll have a pure cooking heart. Look at your hand sink. That is your reflection. Your station? Again, your reflection.
If you could train under any chef in the world, who would it be? Peter Goossens of Hof Van Cleve, a restaurant in Belgium. His food is so playful, refined and classic; there's no modern BS. And if there is anything modern about it, it's that it's so classic, it's ahead of anything coming up the pipeline. It's real old-school fine dining. He's definitely an idol of mine.
What skills and attributes do you look for when hiring kitchen staff? I look for cleanliness and attention to detail. If a cook has no experience and knows how to stay clean -- medicinally clean -- I'll take him over a cook with lots of experience and semi-decent hygiene any day. If I see roots in cleanliness, I see a good, honest future. A cook who has cleanliness in his roots has the ability to be trained properly. One who doesn't is usually a loose cannon.
If you had the opportunity to open your own restaurant with no budget constraints, what kind of restaurant would you open? A temple to Colorado cuisine that would be a facility where we'd have to meet specs on all pickling, preserving, brewing, curing and packaging of things we sell. Everything would have to be Colorado-proud, including the materials for the building. No GMOs allowed. No garbage in. No garbage out. All quality ingredients from start to finish. Think Colorado wood on the grill and Colorado meat on said grill.
Biggest mistake a chef can make on the line: Not knowing how to expo. It's so common, and such a huge role that's often overlooked.
What's been your worst disaster in the kitchen? Setting the Ansul [fire extinguisher] off in Montana as a young boy. In a nutshell, too much lighter fluid on a mesquite grill. It was a bad day that still haunts me.
Craziest night in the kitchen: When I was cooking in Arizona during a friends-and-family night before we opened Olive and Ivy, I was working the meat station, and everyone ordered meat, because all the food was on the house that night, and it was very busy. I was changing out a pan over the flat-top and moving very fast, and some of the fat splashed out of the pan, and my hand was under it. There were flames everywhere. I didn't drop the pan, and I didn't stop cooking, but I knew it was bad. When I finished service and called the chef over to look at my hand, it got cold, and in a span of twenty seconds, it puffed up like a balloon while we were looking at it. That sucked.
Biggest moment of euphoria in the kitchen: When we opened L20 and a car hit Laurent. The part about him getting hit wasn't euphoric at all, but we had to unexpectedly take charge of the kitchen, and it was super-intense for a few of us, who were going in to work at 8 a.m. and leaving at 1 a.m. six days a week. After a few weeks, I thought back on my career and never expected to be in such a place. It was rewarding.
Kitchen rule you always adhere to: I'm not really sure what rule I'm adamant about, but if you look at the back page of the second issue of Lucky Peach magazine, there's a list of rules from Andrew Carmellini. It's amazing and so dialed in.
Kitchen rule you're not afraid to break: I don't always say "Behind." If you're experienced in a kitchen, it's easy to tell where people are, even if they're behind you. If someone has a sharp knife or a hot pan, however, that's a different story. When that happens, then speak up.
What are the most challenging aspects of being a chef? The hours -- or, more to the point, the supposed hours we put on ourselves. If it's sixteen hours well spent, I'm down, but if it's twelve hours poorly spent, let's make it ten and enjoy life, make a game plan to kill it the next day and keep it there.
What do you enjoy most about your craft? Making people happy. I love making people smile without them ever knowing it was me.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef: Opening restaurants. I was on the opening team at Frasca in Boulder, Olive and Ivy in Scottsdale, L20 and Gilt Bar in Chicago. All of them are very successful restaurants, and I'm proud to have been a part of their foundations. Cooking for Massimo Bottura and Marc Vetri on the same night last year was pretty cool, too.
What's one thing that people would be surprised to know about you? I'm really into CrossFit, and I try to get at least five workouts in a week at CrossFit Sanitas in Boulder. I find moving very fascinating, and the coaches there are great support. And lately, some of us, including me, have been eating paleo. It's challenging, but it feels very good. And it's cleansing.
If you hadn't become a chef, what would you be doing right now? I'd probably be a fireman or in the military. My personality would suit me well in those situations, plus I really like to help out and make people happy -- and for some reason, I like taking risks, too.
What's in the pipeline? Right now, it's to continue to make great food that's fun and keep up with CrossFit. Who knows what the future holds?
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What's next for the Denver dining scene? Hopefully, it keeps growing and the demand for higher-quality product increases. Denver is a really fun city, and I'm excited to be a part of it.