This is part two of my interview with Jimmy Seidel, chef-owner of Snarf's and Snarfburger; part one of our conversation ran yesterday.
Most memorable meal you've ever had: I've had some very memorable meals in my life, including the one where I asked my wife to marry me, but it's another meal that I'll call the most memorable (sorry, Bunny!). It was at Mark's Place, in North Miami Beach, a restaurant that just did everything right. It's unfortunate that Mark Militello's restaurants closed, because the times I ate there still really stick out in my mind.
Your three favorite Denver restaurants other than your own: That's hard, because there are so many great Denver restaurants, and they just keep popping up. Bones is my personal Frank Bonanno favorite, but all of his concepts are way up there. From the food to the service to the overall atmosphere, you're never left wanting for anything. I have a lot of respect for what he's created in Denver. Another all-time favorite is Sushi Den, which is far and away the restaurant I frequent most often. I've eaten a lot of sushi in my life, and Sushi Den is definitely some of the best. Another restaurant I have to mention is Rioja. Jennifer Jasinski is a very talented chef, and I've never had less than amazing food at her restaurant.
Most underrated restaurant in Denver: Tacos Rápidos on Alameda makes a mean taco. But, please, don't you all start going there now. I hate waiting in lines.
Who is Denver's next rising-star chef? Justin Brunson at Old Major and Masterpiece Deli. He's clearly already had a lot of success, but I believe his star quality will continue to rise. From one sandwich guy to another, I'm impressed with what he's doing.
Which living chef do you most admire? It's got to be Anthony Bourdain, for the simple reason that he's living my dream: eating and traveling for a living.
What do you enjoy most about your craft? This is an easy one: I enjoy eating the most, followed closely by seeing the pleasure on my customers' faces when they bite into a sandwich. It's a beautiful thing.
What are the most challenging aspects of being a chef? Growth. We now have ten Snarf's Sandwiches in Colorado and several more in St. Louis and Chicago, and soon we'll have our first location in Austin, Texas. Maintaining food consistency and quality is one thing, but I don't want to lose the unique culture and fun atmosphere that made us special to begin with. That's why we've been very deliberate and cautious when it comes to expanding the brand.
If you could make one request of Denver diners, what would it be? Please share your feedback with us. We care and we listen. But stop telling me it takes too long to get a sandwich. I'm kidding...sort of.
What's the best food- or kitchen-related gift you've been given? The best gift I've ever been given -- and still search for on eBay and at flea markets -- is the original Toas-Tite campfire sandwich press. When your sandwich is done, it looks like a flying saucer.
Favorite culinary-related item to give as a gift: I've given several people a hand-cranked apple peeler. Honestly, I can watch it peel for hours, but I still can't figure out how it works.
What's your fantasy splurge? A 150-foot sailboat. I'd sail away to the edge of the earth and never be heard from again. Unless, of course, the edge of the earth has good cell-phone reception.
If you could have dinner, all expenses paid, at any restaurant in the world, where would you go? The Fat Duck in England is somewhere I must go before I die. Not to mention the fact that "duck" and "fat" are two words I love hearing together.
What piece of advice would you give to an aspiring chef? I think the best piece of advice I could give is to keep it simple. A great meal doesn't have to be complicated. I'm a proponent of removing an ingredient rather than adding one that isn't necessary and just complicates the flavor.
If you could train under any chef in the world, who would it be? I would be honored to train under Thomas Keller of the French Laundry and Per Se. His philosophy on what cooking is all about is really similar to my own: "When you acknowledge, as you must, that there is no such thing as perfect food, only the idea of it, then the real purpose of striving toward perfection becomes clear: to make people happy. That is what cooking is all about." My ultimate goal is to make people happy.
What skills and attributes do you look for when hiring kitchen staff? I'm really looking for unique individuals who embody the culture of Snarf's. For me, it's important to hire people with a good personality and people who care. We can give people the training to perfect their sandwich skills, but you can't train people to have a certain type of personality. I think we've done a pretty good job hiring the right people, because I have several employees who've been with me since the early days at "The Shack" in Boulder.
If you had the opportunity to open your own restaurant with no budget constraints, what kind of restaurant would you open? I would open a $3 million Snarf's Sandwiches with white tablecloths and a server for every table. When I opened our first location in Boulder in 1996, we didn't have heat or air conditioning. We've obviously come a long way since then, but a five-star Snarf's Sandwiches would be epic.
Which talent do you most wish you had? I'd like the ability to be in more than one place at the same time. I would either get a lot more accomplished, or I would just find more distractions. Either option works for me.
Would you ever send a dish back if you were dining in a friend's restaurant? Yes, definitely. I might even throw it at him. But I think my friends know me and expect that of me: I'm nothing if not brutally honest. That goes both ways, too. I care deeply about what people think of my food. I want to know what people really think, even if it's hard to stomach.
Biggest mistake a chef can make on the line: The biggest mistake that we drill into our employees daily is sacrificing quality for speed. I guarantee someone will wait that extra minute for their sandwich to be made right.
What's been your worst disaster in the kitchen? When you don't have heat and it's cold outside, your pipes can freeze and burst. Little-known fact. We learned that lesson the hard way at the original Snarf's in Boulder.
Craziest night in the kitchen: That's between me and my God. No, but seriously, our days are usually crazier in the kitchen compared to nights. When you have a line out the door, the phone is ringing and you have a huge catering order, you definitely have to get in the zone and just crank it out.
Biggest moment of euphoria in the kitchen: I'm euphoric every time I go into one of our restaurants. It'll always be like the kid in the candy store for me. Of course, our employees tell me to get out, because I immediately start asking questions, tinkering and coming up with new ideas.
Kitchen rule you always adhere to: I remind our staff that we only have one customer: the person who's standing in front of us at that moment.
Kitchen rule you're not afraid to break: I rarely put my hair up when I cook.
If you could dress any way you want, what would you wear in the kitchen? I wouldn't.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef: Creating something special and unique from an ordinary staple of the American diet.
What's one thing that people would be surprised to know about you? I think people find it surprising that I started my career in finance, trading options on the floor of the Chicago Board Options Exchange. It didn't take me long to realize that my true calling was making sandwiches.
Last meal before you die: Prime rib with a whole fried chicken on the side.
What's in the pipeline? We have a lot in the pipeline, and most of it is about bringing more Snarf's to the people. We just opened a new Denver location, in the Ballpark neighborhood, and have another location set to open in Highland this summer. We're expanding to Austin, Chicago and St. Louis, too, and we also have plans to introduce a few limited-time sandwich specials. I like to introduce specialty ingredients from time to time and encourage people to get out of their comfort zone and try something new.
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What's next for the Denver dining scene? Denver is becoming such a foodie town, which is great for people like me, who love to eat. There are just so many good places, and I think we're going to continue to see that growth for a long time to come.