This is part one of my interview with Scott Yosten, executive chef of Steakhouse 10.
Scott Yosten has seen it all: a maître d' who could acquire any drug you could ever want, another maître d' who had the social skills to get you the services of any woman you could ever want; lobbyists who would do whatever it took to get their bills passed through the legislature; and mob meetings with members of Denver's infamous Smaldone family.
Denver, says Yosten, the executive chef of Steakhouse 10, "was really wild and crazy in the '80s," which was the decade that Yosten, a Denver native, was the executive chef of the Quorum, an ooh-la-la French restaurant that was one of the top dining emporiums in the city during its heyday. And when it was at its worst, at least according to a former Denver Post food critic, it was a great place to take an ugly date, thanks to the dark lighting.
Yosten, who's done time on the line in numerous restaurants in Colorado, including the dearly departed Tante Louise, got the cooking bug when he was eight, while watching his mom play in her own kitchen. "I was young but enthusiastic, and I started taking notice of how my mom made sauces, and as I got older, she'd let me chop veggies, measure ingredients and stir sauces until she finally gave me free rein," recalls Yosten, who secured his first kitchen job in middle school. "I started washing dishes at a hotel restaurant, and by the time I graduated from high school, I was running the kitchen."
And he never looked back, apprenticing for two years at a Marriott hotel, where he was one of ten students out of a pool of hundreds who was chosen for the apprenticeship -- not that it was all rainbows and unicorns. "It didn't matter if you were a culinary grad from Cornell or a guy like me -- no matter what, you started as a grunt, working the graveyard shift, washing pots and pans," says Yosten, who ultimately graduated his way through every station before taking another chef job at a downtown hotel and then Tante Louise, working for legendary Denver restaurateur Corky Douglass. "He grilled the hell out of me," remembers Yosten. "He asked me everything from what the five mother sauces were to how you break down a strip loin to how to make a Béarnaise sauce." And Yosten passed the culinary quiz with flying colors.
He stayed at Tante Louise for two years, working, he says, "as hard as I could and the best that I could for a hard-ass chef who finally took me under his wing" before getting the gig at the Quorum, where he cooked for five years. He danced around several more Mile High City kitchens following that stint, then left for the corporate world of fast food. "That's where the money was," admits Yosten, who was a "corporate cleaner" for Taco Bell. "I'd go into properties that were going down and clean up the messes that everyone else had made," he jokes. And, he confesses, he even had to sling burritos.
After a succession of other jobs in the corporate fast-food and fast-casual world, including managing multi-units of Qdoba Mexican Grill, Yosten took a major detour from food to help his brother run his construction company. "That was a weird change, I admit, but I just wanted to do something different," says Yosten.
But not for long. Yosten soon got a phone call from a server at Steakhouse 10, who revealed that the restaurant was looking for a chef. Yosten was interested -- and hired. "That was in 2005," says Yosten, "and I'm still as happy working here now as I was then."
In the following interview, Yosten retells a tragic restaurant horror story, sounds off on politicians and their issues with food trucks, and ponders the weirdness of the customer who chewed the fat.
Six words to describe your food: Crafted, rustic, traditional, straightforward and consistent.
Ten words to describe you: Loyal, truthful, moralistic, hardworking, creative, detailed, focused, aware and forever learning.
Favorite ingredient: Love. Love the food you prepare, because there's no better ingredient to bring people together, be it a family dinner, a catering event at the Denver Art Museum for 1,000 people, a baptism party for your first child, a holiday party, or a party with your closest friends. When love is the key ingredient in your food, you'll always be successful.
Favorite local ingredient: There's a jalapeno-bacon out there that all the big houses are stocking. It doesn't give off a lot of fat, the color is brilliant after it's cooked, and the flavor contrast it adds to dishes is wonderful.
Most overrated ingredient: Truffles are way overused. If chefs could incorporate them into a dessert, you can bet that they'd most certainly try. Don't get me wrong: I love truffles, but they have their place.
Most underrated ingredient: Salt. Using salt when preparing a dish brings depth and contrast, and salt is essential for the chemical reaction when baking.
Favorite spice: Old Bay has a million different applications, and it brings great flavor to any dish. You can use it very liberally and it still doesn't overpower your food.
Best recent food find: Natural and infused sea salts. We use a Hawaiian red sea salt in our gazpacho, and I love the bacon sea salt that we get from Italico.
One food you can't live without: Any type of pork product known to mankind. We did a catering event a few days back with St. Louis-style ribs that were tastebud orgasms. The bacon products we've got available are just incredible. There are so many different wood-smoked bacons that I love, and let's not overlook the many smoked and cured hams out there, too.
What's never in your kitchen? Bad attitudes, laziness, egos and your personal bad day. If you're having a lousy day, leave it at the door when you come into work, and if you can't leave it at the door, then talk to someone about it and we can help you find a solution.
What's always in your kitchen? Fully stocked herbs and spices. Our chefs have the ability to create with a lot of freedom, and if they need a specific spice, herb, wine or liquor, we'll get it for them. If you need black garlic or opal basil, it'll be in on the next order.
Favorite dish to cook at home: I don't cook much at home, but when I do, I'll batch-cook a big pan of lasagna or a crockpot of beef stew. Then I'll portion it and freeze it for future days of yumminess.
Favorite dish on your menu: We're all about the steak. Recently, we've been running a 22-ounce bone-in ribeye and a 24-ounce porterhouse. Believe it or not, a few weeks ago, a petite young lady was in with her family and downed every bit of that porterhouse.
Weirdest customer request: A few years ago, a gentleman came in and ordered the fourteen-ounce New York steak and requested that we trim the fat off of it and put in on a separate plate. That's not so unusual. But then he proceeded to eat the steak -- and then ate all the fat afterward. Now, that's weird.
Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: Many years ago, I had the pleasure of eating chocolate-covered crickets. If you didn't think about what you were eating, they were really quite good.
What's the best food- or kitchen-related gift you've been given? A few years ago, a sales rep gave me a stainless-steel French mandoline with interchangeable blades for various cuts to do vegetables, and you only have to bust your knuckles on it once to know to never do it again. Then, when I was at the Quorum in the early '80s, the kitchen staff gave me graphite-embedded ceramic steel, which will put an edge on anything. I still use it to this day.
Best compliment you've received: No compliments required. When you take a dishwasher and turn that person into a kitchen manager, that's all you need. A recent scruffy culinary graduate, who has an internship in Italy, came into our family at Steakhouse 10 to work two months for free prior to going to Italy. He showed devotion, desire and truly wanted to learn. We, in turn, gave him all the basic skills to succeed during his internship. On his last day, he repeatedly thanked us. That was a great compliment.
Best culinary tip for a home cook: Do what you do best and are most comfortable with, season your food as you go, and remember that you can always add more seasoning but you can't remove it. If you're cooking for a group of people, have your proteins, starches and vegetables ready to go before they arrive. This way, you only have to heat up the dishes and do a minimal amount of kitchen work -- and you can enjoy their company.
One book that every chef should read: Kitchen Confidential, by Anthony Bourdain. It truly highlights the culinary underworld. Things have changed a lot since that was written, but if you take the things that happen in his book and multiply them times four, you'll have an idea of what the culinary scene was like in the '80s.
What you'd like to see less of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: Lose the political bullshit that's putting the brakes on our food trucks. One could certainly ask: Where are the lobbyists' and the politicians' morals in all of this, and how deep can their pockets be filled? Enough said.
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What you'd like to see more of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: The culinary evolution of Denver has risen to a new level within the last four years, and many of the chef-operators have taken risks with different locations and their conceptual cuisines. Now, what I'd really like to see is them putting their "branded" cuisines into new locations and developing new cuisines within those cuisines on a daily basis -- and then branch out.
Your last supper: A four-cheese and four-meat lasagna, a deep, rich glass of cabernet, steamed asparagus and caramelized flan with fresh berries.