This is part one of my interview with Sam McCandless, chef de cuisine at the Squeaky Bean; part two of our conversation will run tomorrow.
When he was a kid, the mere thought of cooking panicked Samuel McCandless. "I was kinda scared to cook when I was young, and I have no idea why, other than that I was intimidated and didn't want to be bad at it," says McCandless, who went on to cook in some of the best restaurants in the country, under some of the best chefs in the country, and is now the chef de cuisine at The Squeaky Bean. The fear dissipated as soon his clogs shuffled into a professional kitchen, which happened to be in a retirement home in Billings, Montana, close to Red Lodge, where he grew up.
"Being around cooks and knives looked like a lot of fun to me, and as soon as I started cooking, I knew that's what I wanted to do with my life, plus I just really loved the speed and intensity," explains McCandless. "I learned pretty quickly on that food made people happy, which makes me happy." And McCandless, who started out as a plate-scraper, worked every station in that kitchen during the three years he was there, an experience that prepared him for much bigger -- and better -- things.
He was offered a stint at a French/Mediterranean restaurant in the same town, cooking alongside a chef who'd trained at Le Bernardin and Bouley, two of New York City's most prestigious restaurants. And while McCandless, who was initially hired as a prep cook, admits that the demands of the new kitchen were far more stringent than those at the retirement home, it didn't take long for him to find his groove. "I sucked to start with -- I was really bad -- but I don't like sucking, so I got good. And I got good fast," he remembers.
Still, there wasn't a whole lot happening in Billings, and McCandless soon moved to Boulder, where he had been accepted by the Cooking School of the Rockies. "It was an instant not-for-me," he recalls. "I didn't like sitting down, and I wanted to be around people who were more experienced than I, as opposed to being around one experienced teacher and twenty inexperienced kids." After just two weeks in culinary school, he tossed his textbooks and began cooking full-time at Q's, where he already had a part-time line-cook gig. "I liked it a lot," says McCandless, "but it was an old kitchen in an old hotel, and while I had no real plans to leave, a friend of mine from culinary school told me about a new restaurant that was opening in Boulder." That restaurant turned out to be Frasca Food and Wine.
Hired as part of Frasca's opening kitchen brigade, McCandless stayed there for just over a year, until he broke his leg. His wallet was broke, too, so he hobbled back to Red Lodge to recuperate at home, and eight months later, after he'd healed, he was offered the chance to open a high-volume restaurant-and-grocery concept in Scottsdale with Brendan Sodikoff, a then-chef/now-restaurateur whom McCandless had met during his tenure at Frasca. When Sodikoff was let go from that position, he headed to Chicago to take a corporate chef job with Lettuce Entertain You -- and McCandless followed, landing in one of the Windy City's top kitchens: L20, a Lettuce Entertain You restaurant whose kitchen was quarterbacked by Laurent Gras, a French chef who catapulted L20 to Michelin three-star status during the time McCandless was cooking in his galley. "I'd always wanted to work with Laurent -- the guy is the best chef I've ever seen by far -- and while he's also the most intense dude I've ever met, I had the opportunity to learn every single savory recipe that he created, and not many people can say they've opened a three-star Michelin restaurant," says McCandless. "That was epic."
After a year and a half, though, he was done with what he calls "extreme fine dining." The challenge was amazing, but "I wanted to cook for people I like to hang out with, and I couldn't see myself hanging out at L20, so the time was right to leave," McCandless says. So he rejoined Sodikoff, who by then was at Gilt Bar, where McCandless was tapped as the executive chef.
During his time there, McCandless's then-girlfriend had a baby, and the two moved back to Boulder, where they had both family and friends. McCandless took a sous-chef gig at the Greenbriar Inn, a place he describes as "this crazy, old, mysterious building." And although he enjoyed his time there, "there was, you know, this restaurant called Frasca," he points out, so he returned to Frasca and became chef de cuisine.
"While I was there, the kitchen had incredible talent, including Alex Figura at Lower48, and it was fucking awesome," recalls McCandless. But the pressures of being a single dad got to him, and he departed Frasca to "decompress from the stress." Not long after, Theo Adley, exec chef of the Squeaky Bean, sent McCandless a text asking if he had any suggestions for a kitchen magician. "I knew Theo from when he was at the Pinyon in Boulder, and I knew I liked him," says McCandless, who started at the Bean last October. "It's a great team of cooks, and there's no tension, because none of us are amateurs. We're all skilled and on a level playing field, plus we make it fun and enjoy what we do," explains McCandless, who in the following interview recalls the time his hand blew up like a balloon, admits that he's obsessed with the basics, and asserts that your hand sink is your reflection.
Lori Midson: What's your first food memory? Samuel McCandless: I'm not sure which came first, but it was either eating abalone on Catalina Island with my grandparents Jim and Marge, or eating salami with them in San Francisco.
Ten words to describe you: That's way more words than I need. I'm stubborn, shy, compassionate, funny and loyal.
Five words to describe your food: My food varies, but I like to think of food by adapting it to the space where it's being created. Right now, because of the season, it's light, floral, direct, playful and locally sourced, at least as far as Colorado produce goes.
What are your ingredient obsessions? I'm very driven by high-quality ingredients, no matter what ingredient it is. My mantra is to start with the best and end with something even better. Filtered water is huge, but the best vinegar is amazing. Olive oil from Steve Lewis is unreal, but buying close to home is something that should be done as much as possible.
One ingredient you won't touch: I have a hard time touching commodity liver. Liver raised by truly passionate farmers, like Clint Buckner and his wife, MaryKay, who have a farm in Longmont, is an honor to handle. Otherwise, it reeks of feedlot to me.
Food trend you'd like to see emerge in 2014: I'm so behind on food trends, but I really would like to see a trend in healthier foods in restaurants. Good fat is healthy. I guess I'd like to see more good fat, great veggies and sustainable meat from Colorado. That should be obvious, though, as opposed to a trend.
Food trend you'd like to see disappear in 2014: I'm sick of hearing about pork and whole-animal butchery. Yeah, it's really cool; I even have a pig tattooed on my arm, for goodness' sake -- it's that cool. Ultimately, though, all meat is cool; all veggies are cool; all food that's raised in the proper way by someone who cares about it from start to end is cool. Focus on quality of production and buy accordingly.
Favorite piece of kitchen equipment: A very well-built table with a hood vent, which is as basic as it gets. I love the dist-vac, freeze dehydrator and Pacojet, too, but come on: Without the basics, things as fun as those wouldn't exist.
Your favorite smell in the kitchen: There are many individual smells that I love: traditionally braised lamb shanks, sautéing white mirepoix, roasted garlic in the skin, veal basting in butter with thyme, and super-fresh ikejime fish that's as clean-scented as the ocean we wish we had. That said, my all-time favorite scent is a kitchen that smells like it's functioning on all cylinders. Walking from station to station and having your nose tell you that everything is okay is the best smell ever. Complicated but so simple. Nostalgic.
What's your fantasy splurge? Fantasy splurge. Shit, you got me at fantasy. I'd travel the world with Willa, my daughter, and eat everywhere.
If you could have dinner, all expenses paid, at any restaurant in the world, where would you go? Nihonryori Ryugin, in Tokyo. Seji Yamamoto has truly fascinated me from the second I laid eyes on someone trying to do something similar to his strawberry dessert. He's so thoughtful and clean; his food is East-meets-West in the East; and if you haven't seen any of the Tokyogastronomy videos on YouTube, well, you should. And I hope you do. I first heard of him on wbpstars.com, the site for reviewing "the best restaurants in the world." That's where you'll find the real one though sixty in the world, and Ryugin, which is on there, is the place I'd like to eat the most.
If you could dress any way you want, what would you wear in the kitchen? I wouldn't wear a chef coat. Ever. What's the point unless you're working the start of a braise or using pans a lot? A more efficient long-sleeved coat could be made, though -- something breathable and comfortable. I like my workout clothes a lot and shoes with less than a four-millimeter rise from toe to heel. Workout clothes made for sweating make a lot of sense to me.
It's your night off and you're starving. What's your go-to quick fix? A Big Daddy bacon cheeseburger from Good Times. I indulge in one maybe twice a year, and it's awesome. I'm not really proud of it, though. Aside from that, it's meat and sweet potatoes cooked in coconut oil.
Favorite dish on your menu: It varies a lot, but right now, it's a red-beet dish with charred green-garlic yogurt, blood-orange jam, caramelized cocoa nibs, and almonds roasted in coconut oil with Aleppo peppers.
What dish would you love to put on your menu, regardless of how well it would sell? If I like it, I'd put it there no matter what. The more we grow, the more we will know about things of this nature.
Weirdest customer request: "I'm vegan but want chicken." Yeah. Okay. If you have a sincere request, any honest food-service person is happy to go out of their way to accommodate you. But if you're a complete jackass and don't even know what you're requesting, that's a whole other story. Yes, there's a difference. I live to make people happy when they go out, and I'll always go above and beyond, unless the request is absolutely ridiculous. I have to make sure the other guests are satisfied first.
What's your biggest pet peeve? Dirty cooks who whistle and drag their feet.
Your best traits: Attention to detail. Dedication.
Your worst traits: Attention to detail. Dedication.
Which talent do you most wish you had? Better marketing skills. I'm not able to sell myself. At all. I wish I knew how to self-promote, but I don't.
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Last meal before you die: Hard question, but I wouldn't mind having Alice Waters cook for me. Her sourcing is so special, and something pure along those lines would be nice.