This is part two of my interview with Noah French, pastry chef and co-owner of Sugarmill; part one of our conversation ran yesterday.
Most underrated Denver restaurant: TAG|RAW BAR. It gets tons of awards and accolades, but somehow people still look at me blankly when I talk about it. I love the cool, urban underground location, and chef Shaun Motoda's lunch rice bowls with sashimi are the absolute best.
Who's the most underrated chef in Denver? Kelly McGeehan, my assistant pastry chef, is an incredible talent and makes the most insane, inventive custom cakes. She designed and made an incredible birthday cake -- a three-tiered red-velvet cake with cream-cheese icing and red and black fondant -- for basketball star LeBron James just a few weeks ago.
What specific requests would you ask of Denver diners? When you're dining in a restaurant that's busy, please be patient. The kitchen knows you're there, but unfortunately, the whole dining room can't all get their food at the same time. A restaurant at 7:30 is packed, and yet people still expect boom, boom, boom. We don't want to compromise quality in order to get the food to your table super-fast.
What are your expectations of a restaurant critic? I appreciate fairness and understanding. I know most critics dine at a restaurant two or three times before reviewing it, which I think is important. I also believe anonymity is critical, because anonymity parallels the true experience that an average diner will have at the restaurant. Critics should be treated the same way that any other guest is treated in order to ascertain what the overall experience is really like.
Would you ever send a dish back if you were dining in a friend's restaurant? No, I wouldn't send it back. I'd let him or her know on the side, privately, as a common courtesy if there was something terribly wrong.
Weirdest thing you've ever put in your mouth: Rattlesnake. It was a little weird, but it actually tasted really good.
What's always lurking in your refrigerator? A bottle of 2003 Dom Pérignon. I'm waiting for just the right time and just the right girl before I pop the cork.
What should every home cook have in the pantry? Chocolate. There are so many things to make from that one ingredient. In addition to the obvious uses in desserts, chocolate also enhances chili, is critical for making mole, and it's great just all by itself as a midnight snack.
Best recipe tip for a home cook: Use the best ingredients you can find. For example, if you're using vanilla extract, splurge to get a good, high-quality brand. It really does make a difference.
What cookbooks and/or food-related reading material do you draw inspiration from? Dessert Professional is a great publication that showcases pastry chefs, chocolatiers and gelato producers, and it also offers great tips and techniques for our industry.
What recent innovation has most influenced the restaurant industry in a significant way? I'm not sure if you would call it an innovation, but social media has a huge impact. Facebook and Twitter allow diners to be constantly in the know about restaurants, events, new menus and special dishes. The restaurant now reaches out to the guests on something as small as a three-by-four-inch phone.
Favorite culinary-related gift you've been given: A chef I worked for -- chef Mizuno at the New York Athletic Club -- gave me an awesome counter-mounted apple peeler for Christmas one year, the kind where you set the apple on a spike and turn the hand crank to take off the peel and core it at the same time.
Favorite culinary-related item to give as a gift: My favorite cookbooks, like Michael Laiskonis's Elements of Desserts, especially if it's for a pastry chef, or a good bottle of wine. You can't go wrong with either choice. Plus, chances are good that the wine will be shared with friends, which might include you.
What's your fantasy splurge? Spending a week eating my way through Paris. I'd definitely check out a lot of pastry places...and eat a lot of croissants.
What advice would you give to an aspiring young chef? It's probably cliché by now, but it's still true: Work hard, and go above and beyond what's expected. There are a ton of culinary students graduating from school, and how you set yourself apart from the other thousands will show the chef that you're committed.
What skills and attributes do you look for when hiring kitchen staff? I look for someone who listens and jumps right in to help. If you're going to watch me do something with your hands folded, you don't have what it takes to make it in this industry.
What's your biggest challenge as a chef working in Denver? My biggest challenge at Sugarmill is getting the word out that we're a lot more than just a dessert place -- that we have really fantastic, savory breakfast, lunch and dinner menu items, too. So, yeah, we have the best dessert menu in town, but you can also come in and get a killer plate of three beautiful short-rib tortellini, or a perfectly portioned beef Wellington.
Biggest mistake a chef can make on the line: Not working in an organized manner. If you aren't organized, it will have a negative domino effect in your kitchen.
Your biggest pet peeves: In my kitchen, my biggest pet peeve is when I say something and the person I'm talking to doesn't acknowledge that they heard me, so then I have to ask. There needs to be mutual communication at all times. In other restaurants, it's being greeted poorly by the front-of-house staff. The host/hostess provides the first impression, and if it's a bad one, I'm skeptical of the rest of the experience. I recently ate at a Denver restaurant, and the hostess looked at me as if I had two heads; there was zero warmth in her greeting and no smile at all. That's unacceptable.
Your best traits: My sense of guest hospitality. You need to be hospitable in this industry to set yourself apart from the competition. I want to make the guest feel -- and know -- that they're welcome in my restaurant and that I'm grateful they chose to dine at Sugarmill.
Your worst traits: I get very focused on what I'm doing, and I may sometimes come across as short, but I'm just in a zone.
If you could cook in another chef's kitchen, whose would it be? I'd like to do a stage at Jean Philippe's pastry kitchen at Aria in Las Vegas. His desserts and pastries are over-the-top beautiful.
What would you cook for Jean Philippe if he came to your restaurant? I'd make him my "Noahsphere," a hollowed-out chocolate sphere, and for him, I'd fill it with brandied cherries, Tahitian vanilla cream and cubes of Valrhona chocolate cake.
If you could have dinner, all expenses paid, at any restaurant in the world, where would you go? I'd like to go back to Paris and try Alain Ducasse's restaurant. Hopefully it won't be closed this time.
If you left Denver to cook somewhere else, where would you go? I've worked all over the world, including Barbados, Miami, Hawaii and South Africa, but when I came to Denver, I knew this was the last stop for me. I love being the chef-owner of Sugarmill, and I'm not leaving Denver anytime soon.
If you had the opportunity to open your own restaurant with no budget constraints, what kind of restaurant would you open? I just did! I'm living my dream now with Sugarmill. I've been working toward this moment all my life. Sugarmill is the place I've always wanted to open.
Biggest moment of euphoria in the kitchen: When I was working in Barbados, Gordon Ramsay came to the resort for a vacation, and I was nervous, because I knew his standards and reputation. I made him a sampler plate of three different desserts, and he loved it.
Craziest night in the kitchen: When I worked at Sandy Lane, a five-star resort in Barbados, we had to do a birthday party for a billionaire and 300 of his guests. The dessert had six components, and everything had to be perfect. Talk about a stressful, pressure-filled evening.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef: It has to be becoming the chef-partner of Sugarmill. Ask anyone working in a kitchen, and they'll all tell you that someday they want to own their own place. What's one thing that people would be surprised to know about you? When I was growing up, I wanted to be a veterinarian, but I decided to go to culinary school instead.
If you hadn't become a chef, what would you be doing right now? I like building things, so I might have pursued a career as a carpenter.
If you could dress any way you want, what would you wear in the kitchen? On Saturdays, my kitchen team and I wear our Sugarmill logo T-shirts. We call it "casual Saturday," and it feels very comfortable and relaxed. I'm a T-shirt-and-jeans kind of guy, so I guess that would be my preferred uniform.
What's in the pipeline? My baby, Sugarmill, is just one month old, so I need to focus on it before I start developing anything else.
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