This is part one of my interview with Geoffrey Groditski, executive chef of The Fort. Part two of my interview with Groditski will run in this space tomorrow.
Less than 24 hours before the Valentine's Day stampede, the kitchen at the Fort is in a state of perfectly controlled chaos, preparing for the Sunday night pre-show. Executive chef Geoffrey Groditski is expecting to feed nearly 400 mouths tonight, and 450 more on February 14, but the skyscraping number doesn't seem to worry him in the slightest. "We're used to it," he says, adding that with nine guys on the line, they can handle the crush -- and impending Valentine's Day proposals. "Every year we get loads of them," he attests.
Groditski, of course, would be running the line on Valentine's Day, cooking a four-course dinner, including buffalo filet mignon, for which the Fort, open since 1963, is known. But cooking is a craft he fell into strictly by accident -- and interestingly, it all started at the Fort. "My very first job was here, as a dishwasher, when I was sixteen," he recalls, "but after a year, I left and said that I'd never work in a restaurant again. I didn't like being dirty and wet, and washing dishes isn't exactly a lot of fun."
But soon he was back in the kitchen. "A friend of mine was working as a busboy at the Country Broker, and he convinced me that being a busboy was a lot better than being a dishwasher, and I needed a job, so I took it," he recalls. And he hung around for several years, starting as a busboy, moving his way up to pantry and eventually landing a gig as a grill cook. "I was working there six days a week and started to actually have fun," says Groditski, who worked at the Country Broker until it closed in the mid-'90s.
He bumped from kitchen to kitchen after that, soaking up fancy French food at Chateau Pyrenees, Italian grub at Fratelli's and steaks at the DTC Broker -- all of which are now gone. Then he decided that he might be a good candidate for culinary school, so he joined the like-minded fray at the Art Institute of Colorado. And then he dropped out. "I had hoped that it would give me the tools to move up and become an executive chef, but I left, because everything that I thought I'd get out of it, I didn't," he says, calling it "the $40,000 mistake."
Still, he enjoyed cooking and wanted to stay in the kitchen, so he returned to familiar scenery: the Fort, where he was hired as a line cook. And then he left -- again. "I didn't feel like there were any opportunities, at least at the time, to move up, so I moved out," he remembers. He finally snagged an exec-chef position at Pasta's, where he stayed until 2004, just before it closed, and then went back to -- guess where? -- the Fort. "I still had friends here, and there's a real family atmosphere," he says, "so, yeah, I came back as a line cook, worked my way up to sous chef and then executive chef," a position he's held since 2009. "I love surrounding myself with passionate people -- they keep me going -- and this is a kitchen where we get excited together, play together and create new food together," says Groditski. Fort founder Sam Arnold, who passed away in 2006, ran his restaurant the same way that Groditski tries to run his kitchen: "Sam was the kind of guy who would talk to you no matter who you were, and he knew everyone's name. He cared about his staff a lot, and this restaurant was his life."
In the following interview, we take a peek into Groditski's own life -- a life that includes a tremendous amount of butter, customers who ask for raw bull's balls, and ritualistic she's hot/she's not debates at Hooters.
Six words to describe your food: Spicy, rich, simple, big, rich, satisfying, hearty, rich and rich.
Ten words to describe you: Strong, crazy, passionate, funny, intelligent, kitchen pharaoh, opinionated, demanding, hungry and creative.
Culinary inspirations: My love of food began at a very young age, and with my family. I can remember being in kindergarten and ordering escargot -- quite the adventurous dish for a five-year-old -- while I was out for dinner with my mother. My mom, who is of Hispanic and Native American descent, was a stay-at-home mom when I was young, and dinnertime was always great, because she was just an amazing cook. My dad, who's Polish, was a firefighter when I was little, and he was also the firehouse cook when he was on duty, so eating the food my parents cook has always been one of the great joys of my life, and food and drink have always been at the center of family gatherings and celebrations. But everywhere you go to eat, or drink or play, there's inspiration. Food sustains us, and every bite of everything we eat should be excellent, but food itself, in its most basic form, is what truly inspires me, because there are so many things you can do with the simple stuff. Take a tomato, for example: It's absolutely delicious, plain and adorned; it's sweet, acidic, juicy, fleshy and awesome. From that naked state to charred tomato soup, or with cheese or some salt, or with bacon on bread with mayo and lettuce, there are endless possibilities -- and that's why food can never be boring. It's always exciting and makes my mouth water. "Eat, eat, eat!" as my grandmother used to say, because food, cooking and life are always adventures.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef: Being the executive chef of the Fort is a great honor; it's given me so many different opportunities. I helped Holly Arnold Kinney with the food styling for her Shinin' Times at The Fort cookbook and have done several TV spots, including one on the Fine Living Network, and in June of this year, we'll be doing a dinner at the Beard House in New York. Seriously, being at the Fort is an awesome experience that brings new challenges daily.
Favorite ingredient: Butter. I love fat. I put butter on my bread, I use butter to cook my eggs and toast, butter to finish a sauce, butter to sauté vegetables and butter to top my steak. Should I keep going? I love butter in -- and on -- everything.
Most overrated ingredient: Wasabi. Don't get me wrong: I love it with my sushi, but the trend of putting it with, in and on everything was insane. Wasabi-infused this and wasabi-crusted that, wasabi in marinades and vinaigrettes -- everything does not have to have a wasabi flair to it. Trends are great, but often they become stupid and overdone. Like wasabi.
Most underrated ingredient: Onions. They're in everything we do here. When guests come in and say that they have an onion allergy, I'm like, oh, crap -- they can't eat here! Actually, they can, but almost everything we do and make has onions in it -- in sauces and stocks, in our compound butters and potatoes, and in our grits and rice and marinades. It's probably one of the most versatile and necessary ingredients out there.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: Colorado lamb from Tony's, or one of my other food purveyors. I also love the microgreens from Josh at Verde Farms. It's good to be a chef.
Best recent food find: Wild boar baby back ribs. They have a great, meaty flavor and have been a great seller on the menu ever since we put them on.
Favorite spice: Ground ancho chiles. My food has its roots in Southwestern cuisine, and the ancho chile achieves the perfect balance between hot and flavor. I love to use it in lots of different applications, mostly because it's really versatile and I love the flavor.
One food you detest: Pine nuts. I hate the flavor. Every time I see them, I eat a couple and try to like them, but I just don't. When I find them in cookies, they make me want to puke. I hate pine nuts.
One food you can't live without: Pork green chile, the way my grandma made it -- thick, not from a roux or slurry, but from the amount of chiles she put in it, and it's oh, so spicy. It was a staple at every meal at her house when I was growing up, and it was awesome.
Biggest kitchen disaster: It was my nineteenth birthday, and when I got to work, the manager gave me a pint glass of B-52 and said slam it. I got totally hammered and cut myself twice while chopping salad for the night and was absolutely useless during service. There is no worse feeling than trying to do your job but knowing that you can't because you're too drunk. Terrible.
What's never in your kitchen? Iodized salt, people who don't speak English, and culinary-school graduates.
What's always in your kitchen? Onions, toques, a good attitude and disco music.
Rules of conduct in your kitchen: We love what we do, so enjoy it. You've got to have a good attitude; being a badass on a sauté or grill station should be fun. We obviously have rules -- professionalism is a necessity if you want to produce high-quality food. But I'm not a drill sergeant; I'm a chef. In order to get my staff to perform at a high level, I have to show them the way and lead by example, so we cook together and I teach them how I want things done. I honestly believe that I've got cooks who would follow me anywhere because I've nurtured their passion for food by showing them mine. Treating people with respect and not being an asshole is a must; I love my guys and they know it, even if I won't let them wear their ballcaps backwards. The main goal in my kitchen is to cook good food and have fun doing it.
Favorite dish to cook at home: Anything on the grill. I'll grill while it's snowing out; I don't care what the weather is. I love grilled chicken and pork and steaks, but just about anything can be cooked on the grill. It's the root of cooking -- meat and fire -- and it's so simple but always delicious.
Favorite dish on your menu: The Aztec duck -- two duck breasts rubbed with ground ancho chiles and coffee. We pan-sear it and serve it with chipotle peppers, bacon, stone-ground grits and spinach and roasted red peppers wilted in duck fat with chile oil and fig demi-glace.
If you could put any dish on your menu, even though it might not sell, what would it be? A chicharrón plate. They would have to be freshly cooked -- not just a bunch of pork fat thrown in a fryer and then held, but diced with care and slowly fried in a pan until they're golden brown but still slightly gooey on the inside and then lightly seasoned with salt. I know: It's an exercise in gluttony, but I love fat.
Weirdest customer request: I once had a customer ask for Rocky Mountain oysters served raw. He was well aware that they were testicles, and he still wanted them raw. I love oysters on the half shell, but raw Rocky Mountain oysters are just gross.
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Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: A roly-poly when I was a child. It had a nice crunch but tasted gross.
Hardest lesson you've learned: You have to make sacrifices for the things you want most. In order to be a chef, you give up any notion of having a normal life. You're never home on weekends or holidays, so family time takes a back seat to your career. I get home late and get up early just to spend a few minutes with my kids, before they go to school, and my wife, before we both go about our days. I know that the long hours, burns, bad back, smoking, drinking, lack of sleep and strains on my family will all catch up to me someday, but to be right here, right now, doing what I love to do, is totally worth it. I'll have plenty of time to rest when I die.