This is part one of my interview with Sharif Villa Cruz, exec chef of Corner House; part two of our chat will run tomorrow.
It's a tradition in Mexico to "gather our families together for big meals, usually at our grandmother's house," says Sharif Villa Cruz. And Villa Cruz, today the executive chef at Corner House, spent much of his youth lingering in the kitchens of his kin, "cleaning dried hominy" for his grandmother's posole and eating lots of butter -- which his mother used instead of lard, much to the chagrin of other family members. "My mom never let us have soda, bad food or fast food," he recalls. "She made dinner every night using fresh ingredients from the market, and she always cooked with butter, which everyone else thought was weird."
But in Silverton, the Colorado mountain town where Villa Cruz moved when he was twelve, butter was prevalent in most kitchens, at home and in restaurants. And during a dinner at Keystone's Ski Tip Lodge, Villa Cruz realized that butter had equally magical counterparts, ingredients that had "never looked so pretty on the plate." That dinner, combined with a high-school shadowing day at the Ski Tip, convinced Villa Cruz that culinary school -- and cooking -- was his calling.
He enrolled in the culinary program at Colorado Mountain College, rotating through various Keystone restaurants, including Keystone Lodge, Ski Tip Lodge, Alpenglow Stube and even the employee cafeteria. But his dream was to cook in the kitchen at Keystone Ranch, which at the time was helmed by acclaimed chef David Welch, a culinary superstar for whom Villa Cruz has mad respect. "He's classic: He still wears his toque, and he's old-school, even mean, but he's also not afraid to grab a mop or scrub a plate," says Villa Cruz, who eventually had the opportunity to work beside Welch at Food Hedz World Cafe, Welch's unassuming restaurant in Frisco.
"David had left the Ranch and had opened Food Hedz, and I knew I wanted to work for him, and I got my wish when he hired me as a line cook," remembers Villa Cruz. Among other things, Welch taught him that "you don't need to use truffles in order to make food taste good."
Villa Cruz cooked alongside Welch for two years, finally departing to "see something more than the mountains and the boring winters," he explains. He moved to Boulder, landing at Tahona Tequila Bistro, where he started as an opening line cook and eventually moved up to sous-chef. He also put in time at L'Atelier, Centro and the now-closed Seven on Pearl, where he held the position of executive chef.
A co-worker from Seven had found a gig at TAG and encouraged Villa Cruz to drop off a résumé. He did, and for two years, he cooked in Troy Guard's flagship restaurant in Larimer Square. Family issues in Mexico required him to take a year away from the burners, but in 2011 he returned to Denver and shared space in the galley with Jensen Cummings, then the exec chef of Row 14, where Villa Cruz stayed for just over a year, until the tease of working in an upscale Mexican restaurant lured him away.
"I had dinner at Paxia, because I'd heard really good things about it -- and they make their tortillas by hand, which I love -- and while the food was good, I thought it could have been better, so I asked them if they were looking for a cook," remembers Villa Cruz. It turns out that the kitchen brigade was hiring, and Villa Cruz was tapped as a chef. But when the promised leeway with menu development didn't come to fruition, he split and found a home as a line cook at the Jax Fish House in Glendale.
This past January -- six months into the gig at Jax -- he got the opportunity to work at Corner House, a restaurant in Jefferson Park that had opened a year before with chef Matt Selby commanding the line, and what started as a brunch stint quickly morphed into the exec-chef job. "It's a fun challenge because of the limitations of the kitchen, and I like that it's a small restaurant, plus I have the freedom to come up with the menu, which is now a lot more seafood-focused and affordable, and the neighborhood is just so cool," says Villa Cruz, who in the following interview admits that he doesn't find farting on the line remotely funny, advises picky eaters to stick to their home turf, and recalls the guest who ordered a $42 breakfast.
Lori Midson: What's your first food memory? Sharif Villa Cruz: When I was little, my father used to take my brother and me on summer vacations to his house, and I remember telling my dad that I wanted to cook dinner for him since he had to work during the week. He would leave us cash so my brother and I could go to the mercado to buy the groceries for that day's dinner. I remember cooking lots of ramen noodles, chicken milanesas and lots of side salads, but the best part was watching my brother, who's a year older than me, run and hide behind the couch when it was time to fry the chicken. He was incredibly afraid of the hot-oil splashes, and I was, too, but I used to put on a big jacket with long sleeves and gloves -- anything that would protect me from the oil. It was always an adventure when we cooked at my dad's house.
Ten words to describe you: Intense, loyal, shy, humble, friendly, quiet, creative, artistic, dorky and familia.
Five words to describe your food: Colorful, interesting, clean, delicious and humble.
What are your ingredient obsessions? I love every staple ingredient of Mexican cuisine, from the moles and cactus to the dry and fresh chiles and huauzontle, and every time I see any of these ingredients in the little Mexican markets around Denver, I get excited, because they all bring back memories of my childhood growing up in Mexico City. And whenever I get a chance to do something with Mexican influences at work, even though I don't have a menu that displays Mexican food, I like to play with all the flavors.
One ingredient you won't touch: Bottled lime or lemon juice. It ruins anything you put it on. Yup.
Food trend you'd like to see emerge in 2014: I'd like to see Mexican cuisine taken to the next level; I'm talking about doing authentic, non-fusion, simple-but-full-of-culture-and-flavor food -- the kind of food you eat in the southern states of Mexico.
Food trend you'd like to see disappear in 2014: There's plenty of room for every idea, but if I had to pick one, it would be that every restaurant in Denver has fried Brussels sprouts on their menu. I get that they're delicious, but I think it's time to give the little guy a break.
Favorite piece of kitchen equipment: I got a new pair of tongs from chef Matt Lewis when I was working at Jax Fish House, and they're awesome -- so awesome that after I got mine, every other cook at Jax got them, too. We all had to put different colored tapes on our tongs so we could tell which one went with what chef, and, of course, my colors were green, white and red. I'm such a flashy Mexican, jajaja, and I use those tongs for everything.
Favorite smell in the kitchen: The smell of confiting octopus in oil with guajillo chiles, ancho chiles, epazote, thyme, garlic and onion.
Favorite dish on your menu: I really like my octopus confit dish with gazpacho broth. I've had guests tell me that they're not big on eating octopus because of its texture, but after they eat ours, they admit that they really enjoy the tenderness of the meat. I pair it with red onion, tomato, almonds, capers and castelvetrano olives, and all these flavors go really well together.
What dish would you put on your menu, regardless of how well it would sell? My mom's beef-tongue stew. If you had it, you'd be hooked.
Most memorable meal you've ever had: When I was in high school, my mom worked as a housekeeper at the Ski Tip Lodge in Keystone, and on New Year's Eve of 1999, chef Scott invited my mom and the whole family to dinner -- and it was that dinner that made me want to become a chef. I remember a beautiful salad with endive, baby arugula, goat cheese and pistachio dressing; the salad looked like a flower from the movie Avatar. I had a consommé of smoked oxtail that was garnished with little ravioli of orange zest and oxtail meat, and the broth was clear as water, with this beautiful translucent brown color that looked like honey. My main dish was a duck breast marinated in some kind of sweet barbecue sauce -- molasses or maybe hoisin -- and the skin was crunchy like a chicharrón, the meat of the breast so perfectly cooked. After dinner, they took us to the fireplace and gave us a big platter that had four different desserts, including an apple strudel with mascarpone cheese that I now have on my menu at Corner House. It's not the exact same dessert, but the inspiration for the dessert definitely comes from the Lodge. A big shout-out to chef Brian Baker, who's now running that kitchen; I hear he's kicking ass.
Your three favorite Denver restaurants: Star Kitchen, Work & Class and Euclid Hall. I love Star Kitchen because every time I go, I just get really good Chinese food for a really good price, and I like to look around and see what the Chinese guy next to me is eating, and if it's something I haven't had before, I get it. That's how I discovered crispy duck jaws in some kind of barbecue sauce, which is weird, but awesome. I just love the food at Work & Class, and the service is always good. The kitchen makes really good cochinita pibil tacos, and I really like the rotisserie chicken, too, plus the drinks are awesome. Euclid Hall has just become my go-to spot almost every weekend after work. My girl loves the pig ears, and the chefs are always cool to us. There's good beer and great food; it's just a sweet place all the way around.
Most underrated restaurant in Denver: I'm a big fan of Pho 96, which is always good, and it stays open till 3 a.m. on the weekends, which is great. Pho has a lot in common with all the soups I grew up eating: menudo, posole -- even the very classic caldo de pollo or caldo de res back in Mexico. The pho might not have the same level of heat, but all you have to do is ask the server to bring you extra slices of jalapeño and some sriracha, and you have a good hangover remedy for the couple of drinks you had earlier that night.
Who is Denver's next rising-star chef? There's so much talent popping up in Denver that it's hard keeping up with it all, but I do have a couple of friends in the industry who have inspired me, including Omar Garcia Abarca, who was the pastry chef when I was working at TAG. I've always been a fan of his desserts, especially his beet cube, sort of like a panna cotta, that was perfectly square, with bright, pretty colors. If I ever open a restaurant, I'm definitely going to try to have him as my pastry chef. I'm also a fan of chef Jon Mendoza. He views food a lot differently from other chefs, and I think what he's doing with his Bad Apple pop-ups is very interesting, inspiring and fun.
Which living chef do you most admire? There are two: Chef David Welch, owner of Food Hedz in Frisco, whom I consider my mentor. I worked for him for more than two years when I lived in Summit County, and he's just a hard worker with no ego, and he really showed me what being a chef is all about. His passion for food is so strong, and no matter how successful he is, he's never above grabbing the broom or the mop to clean the floor, or jumping in the dish pit and getting down with the dishwasher. That's the kind of chef I strive to be: humble and a hard worker. The other chef I really admire is Enrique Olvera, the chef-owner of Pujol in Mexico City. He's changing how the rest of the world sees Mexican cuisine, and he's opening a new restaurant in New York City, which is so exciting; I can't wait to eat there.
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What's next for the Denver dining scene? Nothing more than pura cosa chida. There are so many cool places opening their doors, and with so many unique ideas and concepts, I'm so happy to live in Denver. I think it makes all of us chefs push ourselves to want more and become better at what we do. And with that, many thanks to you all.