Cafe Society

Smashburger, Live Basil and Tom's Urban chef Andrew Selvaggio : "You don't learn a trade; you steal it"

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"Four years into it, Tom joined the team, and he turned everything upside down, all for the better," says Selvaggio, who immediately hit it off with Ryan, so much so that when Ryan left for Denver to do concept development for Quizno's, Selvaggio was right behind him. And things were going well, but Ryan, whose brain never stops spinning, had a lightbulb moment that would soon smash the world: a burger concept called Smashburger, the first of which opened in Denver in 2007. Ryan hired Selvaggio as his vice-president of product innovation.

Tassa, a fast-casual pizza joint in Boulder, followed in 2011 but closed a year later. And out of those ashes, says Selvaggio, "rose Live Basil," a similar pizza concept that's quickly expanding throughout Colorado. "We want to create a point of difference between us and everyone else by using nothing but high-quality, authentic, imported, all-natural and local ingredients that taste great," says Selvaggio, who in the following interview likens his dad's mozzarella to forbidden fruit, argues that butter is better, and explains why sous-chefs -- not chefs -- deserve all the credit.

Lori Midson: What's your first food memory? Andrew Selvaggio: I was in kindergarten and living in Chicago, where my father owned a bakery in the Italian neighborhood. The bakery was full of fresh-baked aromas...I remember fresh Danish, Italian cookies and seeing cakes being decorated, although the one particularly special memory I recall is the fresh mozzarella. Jimmy, my father, reached into a large oak barrel filled with a milky water and pulled out this wet, white ball and took a big bite out of it. I asked what it was, and he said "mutzarelle," and then he gave me a ball so I could taste it for myself. It was cold, creamy, salty and full of fresh dairy flavor. The brine ran down my chin as I took the second and third bite, and once my father saw the expression on my face, he told me that only he could get the cheese; I wasn't allowed to get my own or else I'd get in trouble. It was sort of like forbidden fruit.

Ten words to describe you: Father, funny, Italian, loyal, focused, experienced, honest, self-effacing, nurturing and optimistic.

Five words to describe your food: Real, authentic, flavorful, satisfying and relevant.

Your favorite smell in the kitchen: When I walk into our newest restaurant, Live Basil Pizza, and the cooks are making our imported and organic San Marzano pizza sauce with live basil, fresh garlic and sea salt. That, combined with the aroma of our roasted organic mushrooms and the fragrant aroma of oak smoke, is amazing.

What are your ingredient obsessions? Whole, unsalted butter to mount sauces and melted butter brushed on breads and buns, which creates that wonderful caramelized flavor. I also like it clarified and mixed with olive oil to sauté with, or infused with flavor, like in our salted caramel butter that we top our pancakes with at Tom's Urban. I jokingly tell my staff: "If anything happens to me, God forbid, whatever you do, never stop using butter."

One ingredient you won't touch: Marjoram. I must have had a bad experience with this herb in a former life, or perhaps I was burned at the stake and it was used to start the fire. No matter how I attempt to use it, dry or fresh, it just seems to be too assertive for my taste. I made beef Bourguignon when I was apprenticing at a restaurant called La Petite Cuisine in Illinois, and one time, I added too much marjoram, and it ruined me for life. I wonder if they have such a thing as a culinary counselor to work through the food issues that chefs have.

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Lori Midson
Contact: Lori Midson