The Kitchen's Hugo Matheson on escapism, a contrary vegan and fair wages

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Hugo Matheson The Kitchen Boulder & [Upstairs]; The Kitchen Denver 1039 Pearl Street, Boulder; 303-544-5973 1530 16th Street, Denver; 303-623-3127 www.thekitchencommunity.com

This is part one of my interview with Hugo Matheson, exec chef of The Kitchen Boulder and The Kitchen Denver. Part two of our chat will run in this space tomorrow.

Hugo Matheson likes to escape -- to the countryside, to the back yard, to Australia and to the solitude of the wine cellar at The Kitchen Denver, the seasonal, New American restaurant that he and co-owner Kimbal Musk opened in March following the success of the original Kitchen and The Kitchen [Upstairs], which the two opened in Boulder in 2004.

"I think a lot about how to give people an escape from life, and I've escaped a few times myself," admits Matheson, who was born in London and raised in the country sixty miles north, near Cambridge. His own "dream world" began when he was seventeen, when he got his first job at a hotel in Cornwall, where, he remembers, "we had the most amazing produce and fresh fruit right outside in the garden, and the sea was just at the end of the road. It was magical."

But his love affair with food actually started at home, in his mother's kitchen. "I loved cooking when I was young, and my mom's kitchen was very much a hangout kitchen, so we all gathered together and cooked a lot -- quiches, steak with sauce béarnaise, amazing legs of lamb that my grandmother would do, and incredible chicken -- and everything was homemade," says Matheson, adding that "good food was just a part of our life."

When Matheson turned eighteen, he attended "cookery school," but not because he was determined to become a chef. "It was a two-month program, and I did it because it looked like fun, all my friends were doing it, and there were a lot of girls," he recalls. A few years later, he went back to culinary school -- a different one -- and this time he took it seriously. "By then, I knew I wanted to be a chef -- there was something about the lifestyle that appealed to me -- and the second time around was a full-time curriculum, and it gave me a chance to connect food back to my childhood, which was really significant to me."

After graduating, he got a call from a guy who had a catering company and was searching for a head chef to oversee the kitchen, and for the next few years, Matheson cooked for a passel of rock stars: Mick Jagger, whose fiftieth birthday party was catered by Matheson; Pink Floyd; the Rolling Stones; and Sting. "It was an incredible experience," he says, "and we had a blast, but we bullshitted our way through it, and eventually I realized that I needed to get away from partying and get my life together."

Matheson ended up taking a position working the front of the house at the River Cafe in London, the same restaurant where Jamie Oliver was plucked from his gig as a line monkey and later catapulted to celebrity-chef stardom. Matheson did time as a server, worked behind the stick and cooked, and this crossover job helped move his career. "I was able to learn a lot of different aspects of the industry beyond cooking, and working in that kitchen changed my understanding and love of food," he explains.

In 1998, Matheson left London for Boulder, where he landed behind the bar -- and on the line -- at Mateo; a few weeks later, he was running the kitchen. "I went in as a $10-an-hour line cook, but I was frustrated with the way the kitchen was being run, so a couple of weeks into the job, I was running it myself," he recalls.

Not long after, he was sitting outside a local cafe one afternoon, downing java, when a Labrador came bounding up to him; it was Kimbal Musk's dog. "Kimbal and I started to talk, I invited him over to my house for dinner, and we became great friends," says Matheson. The pair spent the next two years looking for a spot in Boulder where they could open the original Kitchen. "We'd go hiking, look over the mountain and tell ourselves that there had to be a space out there somewhere," he remembers.

That "somewhere" was on the Pearl Street Mall, where The Kitchen, along with restaurants like Frasca Food and Wine, Pizzeria Locale and Oak at Fourteenth have boosted Boulder's culinary landscape. "I live and breathe every detail of the restaurants. I can't imagine doing anything else," says Matheson, who, in the following interview, weighs in on the restaurant he'll never open, a contrary vegan and his fight to give industry workers a fair wage.

Six words to describe your food: Fresh, simple, clean, approachable, familiar and honest.

Ten words to describe you: Conscious, aware, dedicated, detail-oriented, trustworthy, artistic, driven, shy and a loving dad.

What are your ingredient obsessions? It really depends on what kind of mood I'm in, but at the moment I'm inspired by English peas, fresh fava beans, good calf's liver and all kinds of fresh herbs. But that could all change tomorrow.

What are your kitchen-tool obsessions? A pestle and mortar. I've always liked kitchen tools that are basic forms of hand-driven technology -- things that are timeless -- and a pestle and mortar are perfect examples, plus you can do so much with them: crush peppers and make aioli, garlic paste, salsas and pestos. I'm also obsessed with a sharp knife: That way I won't cut myself.

Most underrated ingredient: Mackerel. It's delicious, versatile and a sustainable source of fish that many people don't approach.

Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: Foraged wild foods, especially mushrooms. I forage, along with some of my staff, near Rollinsville, not far from the train tunnel. There are a lot of mushroom stashes along the Peak-to-Peak Highway. Favorite spice: Cumin takes me to so many different parts of the world and goes so well with eggs.

One food you detest: Bananas. I've never liked them, even as a baby. They're for monkeys.

One food you can't live without: Olive oil. It's become, at least for me, the perfect medium for cooking just about everything. I buy the California olive oil, which is what we use at the Kitchen. Bread is a very close second; it's comforting and nourishing.

Food trend you wish would disappear: I like good food, and that means food with longevity. If I had to pick one practice I'd like to see go away, it's the whole "painted plate" brush and squiggle trend. That's one I don't really appreciate.

Most memorable meal you've ever had: Grilled fish on a plastic plate with fries on the Moroccan coast. It was simple and fresh, and they stick to what they do best.

Favorite childhood food memory: You just opened the memory box from growing up in rural England. I loved the mackerel pâté the quiche and the chicken with sour cream and lemon, but roast rib of beef on a Sunday with all the trimmings has to be way up there; I very rarely have it nowadays. God, my mouth is watering at the very thought of it...and I still think about the gravy that leaked into the roast potatoes and the Yorkshire pudding. My mother still makes some of the best roast potatoes out there. Liver and bacon with onions at boarding school is also a strong contender.

Favorite junk food: A burger and shake. I like West End Tavern and Larkburger, but hear I need to try Highland Tap and Burger.

What are your favorite wines and/or beers? Easy drinking. I'm a sucker for Bandol rosé with a cube of ice, or a cold Stella out of a frozen tap. Ray Decker and Tim Wanner would die at the mere thought of this, but you have to take it how you enjoy it without being ashamed.

Favorite dish on your menu: Goat Gouda gougères. I have to force myself to stop ordering them; they should be a meal unto themselves, along with a salad.

Biggest menu bomb: Deviled lamb's kidneys. I liked it, and so did my guys, but that's about it.

Weirdest customer request: The self-described vegan, who, midway through her dish, asked for grilled chicken on top. You probably need to change your medications, love. We also had a guest ask for an egg-white omelet...made with one and a half yolks. And then we had someone come in for dinner who brought a set of electronic scales and weighed everything they were eating.

Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: Sauerkraut still just tastes of rotten food.

Last meal before you die: The word "meal" is so generic and institutional; it makes me feel like I'm already in hospital. Anyway...I had lunch once with friends at a hotel, on an island just off Saint-Tropez, and I remember sitting outside under very large trees, where we shared fruits de mer. If it was my time to go, I'd want that, but it would have to include langostines, plus a really good green salad, côte de beouf, potatoes roasted in duck fat with rosemary and hollandaise sauce...oh, I'm in trouble now, back into that dream world. I do hope that I have a few more breakfasts, lunches and dinners in me. Let's try and think of that.

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