This is part one of Lori Midson's interview with Brandon Biederman, exec chef of Steuben's. Part two of that Q&A will run in this space tomorrow.
Brandon Biederman is having a difficult time coming up with ten words to describe himself, so he defers the question to Sean Kenyon, the bar manager of Steuben's, where Biederman is the executive chef. Kenyon crackles and tosses out a bunch of adjectives that both he and Biederman determine aren't fit for print. "You can't write any of that," Biederman pleads, squinting through his spectacles. Hoping for more G-rated material, he turns to Josh Wolkon, the owner of Steuben's and its sister restaurant, Vesta Dipping Grill, and poses the same question. They banter for a while but can't come to a consensus. Biederman peers over the bar and ropes in one of his sous chefs, who echoes Kenyon's uproarious laughter. The back-and-forth goes on for a good fifteen minutes before there's any unanimity.
"These questions are hard," mutters Biederman, who got his culinary start at the age of thirteen working as a prep cook in a Chicago steakhouse -- an experience that he'd like to forget. "It's a horrible steakhouse," he says, "so horrible that I'm not even going to tell you what it is." At eighteen, he left his home on the south side of Chicago and moved to Flagstaff, Arizona, where he graduated with a degree in hotel and restaurant management from Northern Arizona University while working as a line cook in various restaurants, cultivating his culinary wizardry.
Degree in hand, knives in tow, Biederman moved to Denver. "I met a girl in Arizona from Denver, so I followed her," he admits, adding that once he landed in the Mile High City, the girl thing didn't exactly pan out. But everything worked out for the best, since he soon met his future wife and landed a gig as a line cook at Tommy Tsunami, a now-defunct downtown Asian restaurant where he was eventually promoted to executive chef. But Biederman left in 2001 to join the crew of Vesta Dipping Grill as a line cook, then snagged the sous chef position under Matt Selby. In 2006, Biederman became the executive chef of Steuben's.
"I love my job, and I love running this kind of restaurant, where it's really busy and everyone has a story about the food at Steuben's, whether it's a story about how one of our dishes reminds them of the food they grew up with, or how, sometimes, it's even better than the food they grew up with," he says. "We're not reinventing the wheel here or breaking culinary ground, but we are making really good regional food that's accessible to everyone -- kids, parents, grandparents -- and you don't need a Food Lover's Companion to figure out what's on your plate."
Over beers and fried Brussels sprouts at Steuben's, Biederman talks about his favorite new food find (beef short plate), the dearth of kid-friendly joints in Denver, the oversaturation of the local, organic, green movement and the woman who brought her own scale to Steuben's.
Six words to describe your food: Simple, homey, familiar, good, honest and real.
Ten words to describe you: Dad, hilarious, intense, goofy, easily distracted, driven, carnivore, busy and bipolar.
Culinary inspirations: Local boys Matt Selby, Wade Kirwan and Jamey Fader, because they're hometown heroes that I really respect for their work in the community and in the kitchen. And while I've never met Martin Picard, the chef of Au Pied de Cochon in Montreal, or Daniel Boulud, their food and books blow me away. Daniel's approach to five-star dining -- opening super-high-end restaurants while managing to keep his food accessible -- is something that most chefs aren't able to pull off, and Martin Picard -- the farm-to-table guy in Canada -- cooks whole beasts and off the land. He cooks all the foods that I love.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef: Opening Steuben's was a lot of work, what with building out the kitchen how I wanted it, designing menus and staffing, but now, four years later, seeing the success of what we built is like watching your kid grow up and mature. Actually, I was so honored to get the job here that I tattooed my leg with one of the original Steuben's logos: the cave woman. She's on the cover of the drink menu, too. When I moved to Denver ten years ago and had the opportunity to become a part of a really great culinary community that gave me the chance to participate in special events with all the chefs I respect -- all the chefs that I looked up to when I first moved to Denver -- to be invited to those culinary events is really, really cool.
Favorite ingredient: Salt and pepper. Both are instrumental in enhancing the natural flavors of food, and if they're forgotten or misused, you can totally ruin a dish. I put salt and pepper in everything. You shouldn't need to taste either one of them, but when used correctly, they make food taste right.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: River Ranch ground beef (and special stuff, like short ribs) in Steamboat Springs. The meat comes from grass-fed Highland cattle that have been dry-aged for fourteen days before we get it. It's got that great beefy, metallic flavor, and the head rancher, Bucky, delivers it to Steuben's. It's nice to know that the same guy who raises the cattle also delivers it to the restaurant. He's awesome.
Best recent food find: Beef short plate. It's a cut from the belly of the cow that's really fatty, but a great braising cut, because the fat renders out, leaving really flavorful, tender meat, plus it's not expensive. I started messing around with it at Steuben's just a few weeks ago. It's old-school, but I love cooking with it. I'm doing it braised in Strange Brew pale ale with steak fries, grilled asparagus and hollandaise for beer week, but if it sells well, it'll stick around on the menu.
Most overrated ingredient: Who am I to say? If you feel that an ingredient adds something to a dish, then good for you. If you're throwing a handful of microgreens on top of all your food to cover up poor work, then the root problem is the preparation of the dish, not the ingredient. Personally, though, I don't like tarragon. It tastes like licorice, and I don't like licorice.
Most underrated ingredient: Time. A lot of the recipes that we have at Steuben's require a lot of time to prepare in a relatively small kitchen, especially considering the amount of volume we do. Brining, braising and smoking all require time, and too much or too little of that can seriously affect the outcome of a dish.
What you'd like to see more of in Denver from a culinary standpoint: Kid-friendly places that aren't chains or cheesy, and restaurants, in general, that are more amenable to kids. Why should well-behaved kids get shoved into the corner or banned to the basement? There need to be more places that still have macaroni and cheese but where, as an adult, you can get good drinks and good food. Like Steuben's.
What you'd like to see less of in Denver from a culinary standpoint: People pushing the local, green, organic movement just for the sake of it. Don't get me wrong: I believe in all those things, but I just don't think it needs to be shoved down people's throats. I don't need to see the whole green thing on every window, menu and bathroom wall. Being green, local, organic -- whatever you want to call it -- should be the norm rather than the exception. I really don't need to know about your wind power...blah, blah, blah.
What's the best food- or kitchen-related gift you've been given? A Cut Brooklyn knife from my wife; a Masahiro knife from my current sous chef, Fred; and another Masahiro knife from my other sous chef, Josh. They're all awesome, and it's cool that someone puts thought into what I like.
Favorite dish to cook at home: I roast a pig in our yard every year for my daughter, Lilly, on her birthday.
Favorite dish on your menu: Etouffée. It's loaded with seafood, sausage, bacon and all the good stuff, it's not too spicy and it's a total meal. I eat the dirty rice that goes into it every day. Fred, my sous chef, even teases the new prep cooks that if they screw it up, they'll get fired because I eat it so much.
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SHOW ME HOW
If you could put any dish on your menu, even though it might not sell, what would it be?: Fried Braunschweiger sandwiches with mayonnaise, American cheese and iceberg lettuce on Wonder Bread.
Weirdest customer request: We had a woman at Steuben's recently who asked us to weigh all of her food. But then she brought her own digital scale, and when her food came out, she weighed it again. Then she freaked out, because the weight wasn't exactly what she asked for.
Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: At a restaurant in Las Vegas that I promised to keep secret, I had five courses of soft-shell turtle, starting with a glass of blood -- "makes you strong, like Red Bull!" -- followed by a dish of heart and liver with housemade soy sauce; deep-fried turtle meat and shell; a hot pot of vegetables and more meat; and then they made congee from the leftover broth in the hot pot. It seriously blew my mind.