This is part two of my interview with Sharif Villa Cruz, exec chef of Corner House; part one of our chat ran yesterday.
What do you enjoy most about your craft? I've always been an artistic kind of guy, and when I was in high school, I loved my drawing and painting classes -- and cooking is kind of similar to me. You have a white plate -- the blank canvas -- and you're free to create a cool dish, or the picture. I love bright colors, and it's true that we all eat with our eyes and then with our mouths.
What are the most challenging aspects of being a chef? I truly enjoy working hard for what I want, but being a chef requires a lot of time, which can become a huge problem with family and loved ones. It's hard to make time for everything, and you have to be very organized in order to achieve that balance. The more responsible you are for your kitchen, the more time and work you have to put into it. Still, the reward of someone telling you that "this was the best chowder or salmon dish I ever had" gives you a great feeling.
If you could make one request of Denver diners, what would it be? Keep your mind open when you go out to a restaurant, and if you're going to give your server a list of ten items that you can't eat, then maybe it's best for you to eat at home. I understand allergies, but come on: If you're willing to pay $25 for a boiled piece of chicken and steamed vegetables, then that just seems like a waste of money to me.
What do you expect from a restaurant critic? To critique every single detail and aspect of a restaurant: the meal, the music, the service, the time it takes between courses, the temperature of the plates, the wine service, cocktails -- everything. And anonymity is important -- it's like cheating if you know a critic is in the house.
Best recipe tip for a home cook: Make sure you have the right equipment necessary for the recipe, and double-triple-read the entire recipe to understand it...and then read it again.
What's the best food- or kitchen-related gift you've been given? My girl got me a knife roll from Butcher and Baker, and whenever I have it with me, I always get compliments on it. It's really sweet...me like it a lot.
Favorite culinary-related item to give as a gift? Nice bottles of beer or wine.
What's your fantasy splurge? I would love to travel to Spain and just eat every tapa imaginable. I think Spain is a country full of culinary culture, and the flavors are so unique -- and the whole idea of a "siesta" in the middle of the day sounds wonderful.
If you could have dinner, all expenses paid, at any restaurant in the world, where would you go? Pujol in Mexico City. The idea of elevating Mexican cuisine is something I'm starting to contemplate more and more, and chef Enrique is just the beginning of something great.
What piece of advice would you give to an aspiring chef? I know it sounds clichéd, but, man...you'd better love this craft, because the hours are so long and the amount of stress is unthinkable. And always remember that we're not building weapons of mass destruction; it's just food, and there's always tomorrow to improve ourselves.
If you had the opportunity to train under any chef, who would it be? Enrique Olvera, chef-owner of Pujol in Mexico City. I recently bought his book, and reading his history and point of view about food has made me push myself to become something better. He respects and understands our culture, and I respect the fact that he's trying to teach the new generation of Mexican chefs that our roots and cuisine are as beautiful as French or Asian cuisines.
What skills and attributes do you value most when hiring staff? Passion, motivation, and people who are always thinking about how to make things better. You learn so many new things every day, so you can't have the mentality of "my way is the only way," and if you think that being an executive chef excuses you from sweeping and mopping your floors, you're in the wrong business.
If you had all the money in the world, what kind of restaurant would you open? I would love to be the owner of a restaurant that represents my country to the fullest. It would be so cool to come up with a way to build an in-the-ground oven so I can sell "real" barbacoa -- a place where I can bring Mexico to Colorado. I feel like Denver would welcome a place like this, and believe me when I tell you that having a taco with delicious chorizo and verde garnish with crispy grasshoppers and pickled red onion is something you have to have before you die.
It's your night off and you're starving. What's your go-to quick fix? I love the sandwiches from Snarf's. I had one for the first time when I was in Boulder, back when it was in the little trailer car. I just wish they would stay open later; it would be awesome to get a sweet sub after last call.
Weirdest customer request: I was working brunch at Corner House, and this guy came in who was on some kind of protein diet, so he asked the server if he could order six sides of poached eggs, which equated to twelve eggs; five sides of bacon, so ten pieces total; and four sides of potatoes, nearly the equivalent of a pound. I told the server that I'd be happy to do it, but was the guest happy paying $42 for it? The guy said yes, so I made him all of this madness. He ate it all and told the server it was delicious.
Would you ever send a dish back if you were dining in a friend's restaurant? I don't think I would send the dish back, just because I wouldn't want to give the rest of the guests any indication that I have a bad impression of the food. That said, I would totally let my friend know right away if there was something actually wrong with the dish, especially if it's something I knew could be fixed on the spot so that another guest wouldn't have the same experience. We chefs have to help each other, and I, for one, would be so thankful if I made a mistake and was told about it.
Biggest mistake a chef can make on the line: During the heat of the action, we sometimes forget to pay attention to the small details that make a dish special. We forget that every single guest out there made the choice to come to our spot, knowing that there are hundreds of other options. That's when you take a step back and think about every move you're making and making sure you're treating the last plate as carefully as you did the first one.
What's been your worst disaster in the kitchen? When I was working in Boulder, we had a party of twenty people, and fourteen of them ordered our steak dish, which came with twice-baked potatoes. I'm still not quite sure what happened to the potatoes -- maybe they weren't properly stored or rotated -- but nearly half of those dishes had spoiled potatoes. The smell in the dining room was so bad that we were so lucky we didn't get sued. I still remember the face our front-of-house manager made because of the stench. We ended up having to comp around $500 that night...it was horrible.
Craziest night in the kitchen: Even though I've had a pretty short career as a chef, I've had plenty of crazy nights. The latest one was at Jax in Glendale, on a night where we did 250-plus covers -- which isn't a huge number, but most of them were in a one-hour period. I was on the sauté station, and 60 percent of the menu was coming out of my station. Jax has an eight-burner top and a broiler, so I was using every source of flame to try to keep up with all the tickets spitting out of the printer. I was sweating so bad that I think I lost ten pounds that night.
Biggest moment of euphoria in the kitchen: When I was working up with David Welch at Food Hedz. We click so well, and I had so much respect for this chef that it became like we knew each other's moves. We used to put out fifty-plus covers, just the two of us. I believe he respected me as much as I did him, and earning the respect from a chef like him was awesome.
Kitchen rule you always adhere to: I never use my apron to wipe my hands, and even though this is just common sense, I always wash every vegetable that comes into my kitchen. You'd be surprised by how many professional chefs forget how important this is.
Kitchen rule you're not afraid to break: Wearing black chef pants.
What would you wear in the kitchen if you had your way? I would rock a black-and-gold mariachi suit, with hat and all.
Your best traits: I always keep my cool, even when I'm in the weeds. Some chefs would say that I show no emotion, but I think it's good, because just like a line of dominoes, it only takes one person losing his cool to start a chain reaction. I also run a very clean kitchen.
Your worst traits: I tend to procrastinate, and I can't get myself to finish anything on time, but then again, there's only so much my little brain can take.
Which talent do you most wish you had? I really wish I could fly, and I really don't like borders. Why can't we all share the world equally?
What's your biggest pet peeve? I know this is funny for some chefs, and it's a natural human behavior, but I can't stand it when people fart on the line. I know some people will burst out laughing, because there's always that guy in every kitchen that murders the skill, but, really, it's just not cool.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef: I have learned not to be afraid or timid with my flavors. The minute you stop trying new combinations, new ingredients and new techniques -- that's when you should call it quits. And having my parents being proud of my work is a great feeling. They have done the unthinkable for my brother and me, and I hope that someday I'm successful enough to take care of them.
What's one thing that people would be surprised to know about you? Given my name, you might be surprised that I'm from Mexico. I have no idea what my mom was thinking when she picked my name, and even now, I still don't have a valid explanation as to why my name is Sharif Argenis Villa Cruz. It is kind of unique, though, which is pretty cool. Oh, and back in 1995, I got to see Michael Jackson live at El Azteca, Mexico City's biggest soccer stadium. It was by far the best concert I've ever been to.
Last meal before you die: My mom's slow-braised beef tongue with tomato sauce, castelvetrano olives, almonds and spicy yellow peppers, and a side of fresh corn tortillas.
If you hadn't become a chef, what would you be doing right now? I'd probably be a famous painter selling my work for thousands of dollars, or I'd be the best tattoo artist in the United States.
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What's in the pipeline? Making the right people happy so they can help me open my own restaurant, which, of course, will be the best authentic Mexican spot in Denver. And the menu will have my mom's braised-tongue recipe on it. That said, I still have a lot to learn about this animal we call the restaurant industry.