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The Answer Man

Questions for "Ask the Critic" have come from all corners of the restaurant cosmos this month. A sampling:

Q: Enough about Sean Kelly. Whatever happened to Denver's other famous chef named Sean -- Sean Yontz? I know that Vega closed, but is he cooking anywhere now? -- Michael

A: Good question, Michael, and one I asked Sean Yontz just last week. The short answer? Nothing. The long one? Plenty. Yontz (who'd worked with Kevin Taylor for years before becoming head chef at Richard Sandoval's Tamayo, then moving on to his first chef-owner gig at the ill-fated Vega) is currently homeless -- without a kitchen to call his own. He's working with pal Jesse Morreale and crew over at Mezcal, in their continuing attempt to perfect the menu at this eight-month-old East Colfax hot spot. He's spending time with his family, thinking about where he wants his career to go next, and generally taking things easy. The closing of Vega hit Yontz hard, and he, like many other chefs in town, has taken a good, long look at the scene and decided that, for right now, the last thing Denver needs is another fine-dining restaurant, another place with white cloths on the tables and interesting food on the menu, another daring, innovative spot where a chef can really stretch. He's gotten calls from several interested restaurateurs looking for a new top dog, but thus far has turned down every offer.

Meanwhile, work continues on Sparrow, the new eatery that's taking over Vega's former home at 410 East Seventh Avenue. With opening day still a month away (it's scheduled for September 3), the building is already sporting a new coat of pea-green paint.

Q: I'm a culinary student just starting to "make my bones," and I have a question about knives. What would be the best brand/variety to start my kit? -- Lee

A: First off, good use of the lingo. Getting the talk and swagger down is important, especially if (like most C-school brats) you want to jump right into the lucrative world of kitchen confessional writing and hosting food shows without that annoying intermediary step of actually cooking for a living. Knowing a few choice words and phrases should be enough to convince the average civilian that you really know your shit even if you've never worked one night on the hot line. But since you're asking about knives, I'm going to assume that you actually care about cooking and aren't just in this for the big white hat and the title of chef. So I'll give it to you straight.

Buy cheap knives. I know, I know -- everyone will tell you the opposite. They're going to say that, as someone looking to make a career in the culinary arts, you need the best -- and then try to get you to plunk down the green for that full set of pro-series German steel. They'll fill your head with lies about edge maintenance and rocking balance, while at the same time emptying your bank account. But fuck that noise, Lee. You're a student, right? That means you're still learning, and to be honest, you've got no business screwing up five hundred or a thousand dollars' worth of professional tools with the kind of ham-handed abuse you're going to inflict on them in your first couple of years.

But by cheap, I don't mean junk. The basic rules still apply here: Never buy anything with a serrated edge that isn't a bread knife; anything that comes in designer colors or with some celebrity chef's name on it; anything you've ever seen advertised on TV; or anything that says "never needs sharpening" on the package. Just find something inexpensive. What you want is a knife that you won't feel bad about throwing away once you know better and realize what you really like in a blade. For your starter chef's knife, you want something that feels comfortable in your hand, that balances well at the forte, that's got some heft and muscle to it, that you can imagine holding for hours at a stretch. You don't have to love it, just be able to work with it.

Buying your first pro knife is a lot like buying your first car or finding your first girlfriend: You want one you can learn with without fear of fucking it up beyond repair, one you can leave behind with no regrets when you outgrow it. No one starts off driving a Shelby Cobra or dating a French supermodel; that sort of thing would be wasted on someone who didn't know what he was doing. Same goes for knives. No cook should be doing his apprentice work with a grand's worth of custom steel in his roll.

Most of the reputable knife companies -- Wüstoff, Henckel, Sabatier, even Global -- make several lines of blades ranging from the very cheap to the ridiculously expensive. Avoid the very cheap, because they're generally made for amateurs or yuppies who want something to look pretty in the butcher block, and go to the next level. An eight- or ten- inch chef's knife, a six-inch utility, a bread knife (offset, always -- the kind with the blade lower than the handle so you don't scuff your knuckles on the cutting board), a paring knife and another short utility blade (Joyce Chen makes a great one for less than ten bucks) should do you just fine; these are often sold in sets. Butcher's sabers, bird's beaks, specialty veggie knives -- those can wait.

Once you've chosen your weapons, get down to business. You're going to break tips, you' re going to roll edges, you're going to ruin a lot of blades before you get good with the sharpening steel, but that's okay, because you didn't break the bank buying the knives, right? I know, it feels good to be the guy walking into the classroom packing the big iron in your kit, to see all your classmates go green with envy when you whip out that top-of-the-line Wüstoff with the fat spine and tang-heavy handle. But trust me, you don't want to be that guy, because that guy is going to ruin that great knife before long, and it feels even better to laugh at him behind his back when he does.

Once you have a couple thousand hours of serious work behind you, you're going to know much better what you really want and need in a knife, and you'll walk tall when you go into the kitchen store or restaurant-supply warehouse looking for your first real set of knives.

Q: You're always bashing culinary schools. What's wrong with them, and what's wrong with going to school to learn how to cook? -- Chris

A: It's not culinary schools I'm bashing; it's their students. And there's nothing wrong with going to school to learn to cook as long as you don't take your schoolboy ass into a kitchen and start demanding that a crew of solid, hard-way veterans call you chef.

Say I'm an executive sous, a top guy, comfortable with my crew. I've been their de facto boss for three weeks, ever since our last exec quit/shot himself/fled prosecution, and was more or less the boss for the six months prior while the exec was holed up in his office drinking himself blind on corn mash or stomping around the galley shrieking French curses at the communist cubano dish crew. Me and these guys have been through some shit. We've worked together, bled together, gone out drinking together. I know their kids' names, who's banging what waitress, which of them can handle the grill on a fully committed Friday night and who's best shunted off onto the garde manger station. And they still don't call me chef. They call me Jay on good nights, pinche cocksucking bastard when my back is turned. And we like each other. We're friends.

And then in comes some C-school brat, strolling into our house with his starched whites and the ink still wet on his diploma, and he expects to be called chef? Bullshit. A year in the classroom and a few months of extern work does not a chef make, Skippy. You've got to earn that title. Ditch the chef's coat, do a pro's night of work, pitch in wherever you're needed, do it without getting in the way of the guys who actually know what they're doing, and we're cool. But come waltzing in on day one and pretend like you can be our chef? No way.

Prove that you can do the job and I don't care where you've been. Chef school, jail, Mars -- it doesn't matter. In this world, it's skills and dedication that count, not your pedigree or your past. If every C-school grad came into his first kitchen as a dishwasher or third commis, then worked his way up through the brigade same as my prison work-release poissonarde did, I'd be fine with that. Only that never seems to happen.

I believe in the brigade system, Chris, but too many of the culinary-diploma mills operating today appear to exist for no other reason than to try to thwart the system that's trained most of the best chefs in the world, hopscotching a bunch of snot-nosed, soft-handed, know-nothing punks into positions they are grossly underqualified for. To this day, there's still only one way I know to learn how to be a chef, and that's to cook. There are no shortcuts; there's no easy way through it. And anyone who tells you different is just trying to sell you something.

Q: I loved your review of Pho 2000 ("Just Say Pho," October 16, 2003) and have gone every time I get the chance since first trying this wonderful restaurant. But last week, I drove by and saw it was closed. Please tell me it isn't gone for good. -- Jean

A: It's not panic time yet, Jean. Pho 2000 isn't gone, but its hours have changed, as have those of the Asian noodle house next door. The two spots used to be open all day and late into the evening, seven days a week, but now they're closed Mondays. That means they weren't drawing enough weekend traffic and so dropped a full day's service in order to save a few dollars.

Drastic schedule changes are never a good sign in the restaurant world. My advice? Eat more pho every day but Monday. Regatta Plaza, at Parker Road and I-225 in Aurora, has swallowed a few good eateries, and I'd hate to see Pho 2000 go down the tubes, too. Both the former mega-McDonald's across the street (which had a brief second life as an excellent Korean BBQ joint) and the 12200 East Cornell space in the back of the plaza (once home to Maruti Narayan's) remain empty. I've been waiting a long time to see somebody take a crack at one of these locations, but thus far it's been no dice.

Leftovers: Downtown denizens are in a state of reddiness over the new, improved Red Room at 320 East Colfax, which comes with a great marketing gimmick: 25 percent off any dinner-and-a-drink check for all redheads through August. The struggling bar/restaurant had been shuttered this summer so that the owners (a gang that includes Mayor Hick) could conduct a six-figure project that redecorated, revamped, remodeled and "re-redded" the place, according to marketing director Jamie Nicholson. August 7 is the official debut date for the Room, which has been both cooled out and warmed up with lunch, brunch and dinner menus from chef Robert Moser; a design scheme featuring more comfortable tables and booths for lounging; and a cabaret license that allows for live music and entertainment. The management already has three jazz bands booked for August and hopes that a new look, the new sounds and the mere promise of a room full of redheads (real or not) getting stuffed and sloshed on cheap drinks and grub will bring the crowds pouring in.

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Speaking of crowds, since I reviewed Dario's last month ("Send in the Crowds," July 1), the Italian restaurant at 2011 East 17th Avenue that had been suffering from a marked lack of anything resembling a crowd, has had to hire on new staffers to handle a sudden spike in business. Thanks to all the faithful foodies who gave the place a shot. For its cioppino alone, Dario's deserves every table it gets.

So does Go Fish Grille this Sunday, August 8, when chefs Steve and Ian Kleinman will cook up a one-time-only, prix fixe spread as a benefit for their third (and most likely final) trip to the James Beard House. Being asked to cook at the Beard House once is a big deal. Twice is huge. And three times in three years is something really worth bragging about. Of course, the Kleinmans (father and son) still have to pay their own way out to the Big Apple, as well as buy their own supplies and wine, then make sure all of it gets to Manhattan safely. That doesn't come cheap.

But the 6 p.m. dinner at Go Fish Grille, 250 Josephine Street, is a relative steal. Using the kitchen where Ian is chef, the Kleinmans will prepare the menu they'll be doing in New York two weeks later: portobello-mushroom baklava with balsamic lavender honey sauce, seafood sausage, watermelon ice with champagne foam, hoisin-braised Colorado lamb, and a dessert course of Valrhona chocolate seashells filled with tangerine mousse on a bed of sugar seaweed. This is the good stuff, folks, and all for fifty bucks a head, drinks included, which is a whole lot less than you'd pay to fly to New York and eat the same meal at the Beard House. You can call Go Fish Grille at 303-996-9966 for reservations and additional information, but do it quick, because space is limited.

Finally, a correction. In last week's Bite Me, I identified the new restaurant in the 699 West Littleton Boulevard space that had housed Sage Southwestern Grill as Sai Japanese Cuisine. While I got it mostly right, the real name of the place is Kai Japanese Cuisine. People keep telling me I have to stop writing these columns drunk; maybe they're on to something...

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