This is part one of my interview with Steve McCary, exec chef of Mizuna; tune in tomorrow for part two of our chat.
It's mid-afternoon on a Tuesday, and Mizuna's kitchen is already buzzing in preparation for dinner service. On the line, executive chef Stephen McCary, a six-year veteran of the venerable restaurant -- still one of Denver's most coveted reservations -- is fielding questions posed by his staff, responding to their inquiries in a soft Southern drawl that reflects his Alabama upbringing, which involved blueberries and peas, squashes and melons, corn and tomatoes, all of which were grown in the two-acre garden on his grandparents' homestead.
"I used to spend a lot of time in that garden, fighting off bugs in 100-degree heat, but I was most at home in my grandmother's kitchen," remembers McCary. "I'd help my grandma as much as I could when I was really young, and once I could touch the stove, I started cooking a lot, starting with pancakes," which, he admits, were "originally pretty messed up and burnt."
Nonetheless, McCary knew that a culinary-focused career was in his future. "We always went to Florida on our vacations, and we'd spend a lot of time at all the fry shacks on the water, and I wanted to own one of those," says McCary. But instead of building castles in the sand, he used his hands -- and the beachfront soil -- to build kitchens.
And he soon found himself working in one at a Subway sandwich shop, which was followed up by a stint as a pizza-delivery driver and a grunt job loading ice cream on a truck for Blue Bell Creameries. "Do you want to know the craziest -- make that the stupidest -- thing I've ever done?" asks McCary. "When I was working for Blue Bell, I made a bet with some of the guys that I could pull a load of ice cream on the truck in nothing but gloves, shoes, boxer shorts and a hat in 25-degree-below weather." If he accomplished the feat, he would collect $300. "I did it, and it was very, very painful, and I almost had hypothermia," he remembers.
His next decision -- to attend culinary school at the Charleston, South Carolina, campus of Johnson & Wales -- proved to be a far more intelligent call. "I started off in the culinary department to learn how to cook, and really started falling in love with the cooking side of things," says McCary, who spent six years in Charleston immersing himself in French and coastal Carolinian cuisine.
With a culinary degree in hand and kitchen experience in half a dozen restaurants, including the highly acclaimed Vintage and Zinc, McCary returned to Alabama and landed at Hot and Hot Fish Club, where he continued to hone his talents under James Beard Award-winning chef Chris Hastings. "It was a really hard job with really long hours, and I was exhausted, but I also knew that my experience there had prepped me to do any job," explains McCary, who stayed at Hot and Hot for two years before Hastings offered him the opportunity to become a culinary consultant with his Birmingham-based restaurant-consulting company, which included several resort properties in Florida.
Eventually, though, the Florida real-estate bubble burst. "I was going to move to San Diego, but I loved Denver and wanted to give it at least a one-year chance, plus I wanted to learn how to ski," says McCary, who moved here in 2008.
At the time, a friend was cooking at Luca D'Italia, a sibling of Mizuna, and after knocking on both doors, McCary was hired as a pantry cook at Mizuna. "[Pantry] wasn't my first choice, but I really wanted to work at Mizuna," he says, recalling that he was swayed by the restaurant's "French-inspired food, local sourcing and cool, fresh ingredients."
After proving himself in the pantry, McCary was promoted to the fish station and then the meat station, and when then-executive chef Tony Clement departed Mizuna, owner Frank Bonanno gave the exec-chef position to McCary. "I love working for Frank -- he's been incredibly good to me -- and I love the creative side of everything we do and all the free rein we have," says McCary, who in the following interview recalls the angry dishwasher who brought the kitchen down, advises diners to skip the prime-time dinner reservation, and admits that he still doesn't understand the reasoning of a guest who dissed the okra.
Lori Midson: What's your first food memory? Stephen McCary: When I was around four years old, my cousin and I would hide behind the wall and steal hot bacon off the paper towel every time my grandma -- she made the bacon -- turned her back. I now know that she was well aware that we were taking the bacon, but she'd always act as though it had just magically disappeared. We'd always giggle and think that we were doing something that we weren't supposed to do.
Childhood ambition: In the fourth grade, we had to create something that represented what we wanted to be when we grow up. I made a seafood restaurant out of a shoebox that also had a swordfish drink stirrer hanging outside in the shoebox restaurant parking lot. I also really wanted to be a lead singer in a Guns N' Roses type of band.
Ten words to describe you: New Orleans Saints fan, jokester, easygoing, playful, stern, shaker and a risk-taker.
Five words to describe your food: Fresh, herbaceous, Southern, French and heartwarming.
What are your ingredient obsessions? I lived near the coast for seven years, so I like to be around fresh seafood, and we've also been getting great produce from Steve Cochenour at Clear Creek Organics. We all sat down this past winter to talk about the products he could grow for Mizuna, and it was an incredible experience to forecast what would be on our menu months in advance. We take our kitchen staff to his farm to see where our lettuces, kohlrabi, beets, turnips and other vegetables are grown.
One ingredient you won't touch: I've said it before and I'll say it again: I don't like truffle oil. It's very pungent and doesn't taste remotely like truffles.
Food trend you'd like to see emerge in 2014: I wish there were more places to get some tasty food late at night.
Food trend you'd like to see disappear in 2014: I'd love it if the words "molecular gastronomy" would die. I just keep seeing so many kids coming out of culinary school who want to cook all this food that's fancy and scientific, just like lab work, but they don't even know the basics. Just cook.
Favorite piece of kitchen equipment: Our poissonnier, Mia Kanuk, gave me a small, six-inch whisk for my birthday this year. I use it all the time, and it's the perfect size to keep with my tasting spoons and tools during each night's service.
Your favorite smell in the kitchen: Baking bread. We really pride ourselves on our ability to bake, and Geri Perez, our a.m. sous-chef, makes both white and kalamata-olive boules. We usually have a brioche and a baguette somewhere on one of our menus, and we make our own buns for burgers at family meal, too.
What's the best food- or kitchen-related gift you've been given? My father gave me a set of All-Clad pots and pans that I use almost every day. I highly recommend getting a set; they'll last a lifetime.
Favorite culinary-related item to give as a gift: I've given nice, sharp knives to younger cooks in my kitchen. Knives can be expensive when you're starting your career, but I think that having a good knife helps the younger chefs develop their culinary skills.
What's your fantasy splurge? I'd love to have a ship so I could sail to any port city and hang out and have dinner. If you could dress any way you want, what would you wear in the kitchen? Right now, during the summer, I'd love to wear shorts without burning my legs. That doesn't fly at Mizuna, but you will see us rolling up our pants into a clam-digger look this time of year.
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Last meal before you die: I'm from Alabama, so I'd want fried chicken, biscuits and gravy, peach cobbler, boiled peanuts and some Dreamland ribs. White bread with sauce on the side, of course.