This is part one of my interview with Thomas Salamunovich, exec chef of Larkspur and Larkburger, Part two of our chat will be posted here tomorrow.
"Food wasn't a big deal in my life, but music? Music was everything," says Thomas Salamunovich, the owner-chef of Larkspur in Vail and founder of Larkburger, the fast-casual chain that got its start in Edwards and now has seven Colorado locations. "My dad is the world's preeminent choral conductor, and our life revolved around music. I had no idea that 'Happy Birthday' wasn't sung in eight parts until I heard someone who wasn't a singer butcher it."
Salamunovich grew up in Los Angeles, in a "crazy house chock-full of musicians and singers," and if you were hungry, "you cooked it yourself," he remembers, which is how he found himself in the kitchen. "I made my first pizza at ten," he recalls, "and while I made the dough -- quite badly, from what I can remember -- it was the most complicated pizza ever, because I put different toppings on every slice." And then, he says, "I moved on to tacos, sandwiches and hamburgers. That's the stuff I grew up eating, and one of the reasons I opened Larkburger: I love burgers."
He moved to Vail at eighteen -- initially, he admits, "to be a ski bum" -- and quickly found work at the Lancelot, first as a busboy and then as a line cook. "I saw the kitchen and immediately gravitated toward it," recollects Salamunovich, who, after a year of working in fine dining, applied to the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco to hone his skills. "I was at the ground zero of fresh ingredients and ended up working at Stars as an entry-level line cook," a gig that handed him his ass. "It was such a professional, intense working environment, and I failed miserably," he says. "They threw me on the grill and I went down in flames."
He was given a choice: Hit the pavement or work the garde manger station. He smartly chose the latter. "It was one of the best decisions I've ever made, because I learned to touch food with my hands -- to feel the ripeness of a piece of fruit, its different sizes and state -- and knowing how food feels in my hands is something that I'm fanatical about," says Salamunovich, who notes that it's also a "critical piece to composition and developing complete menus."
After several years at Stars, he returned to the California Culinary Academy to teach a cooking class for six months, and ultimately wound up sharing space alongside Wolfgang Puck at Postrio. "It was a beast -- the biggest restaurant opening on the West Coast at the time," remembers Salamunovich, who got some sage advice from Puck. "I asked him once what mattered most about a dish, and he said that it was simple: Just make it taste good. There was nothing about making sure you caramelize your foie; it was, first and foremost, 'Do you want another bite?'"
Salamunovich exited Postrio for a three-year move to France, but later returned to Puck's restaurant as the executive sous chef before packing his knives and returning to Vail. "My wife and I wanted to start a family, and I'd heard about an executive-chef position at Sweet Basil, where I stayed for six years until I left in 1999 to open Larkspur," says Salamunovich. At 10,500 square feet, Larkspur is the largest independent fine-dining restaurant in Colorado, he notes: "Larkspur is extremely unique, because we do many different things, and that's hard to compete with. We've done buffets for 800 people and, on the same day, a fourteen-course tasting dinner, or a private dinner for thirty with revolving seating after every course."
He introduced the more casual Larkburger in Edwards in 2006, and then went on to open Avondale, an original restaurant concept at the Westin Riverfront Resort & Spa in Avon, in 2008. "It was all mine. I opened it, I created it with a great team, and it was a shining star while it was there," says Salamunovich, who eventually sold the place (it's now Cima, a Richard Sandoval concept). "Avondale required constant attention, and it was a beast with a few hundred employees, and I wanted to focus on other elements of my life."
Elements, he says, that include opening more Larkburgers: An eighth outpost will soon open in Northglenn, followed by another downtown and then one at University Hills. "I have a fine-dining restaurant because I was trained in fine dining, and I have a hamburger restaurant because I'm an American kid who grew up on hamburgers," says Salamunovich, who, in the following interview, gives a shout-out to the "Pussy Posse," tells why he's disenchanted with pig-centric restaurants and explains why he's obsessed with quality and systems.
Six words to describe your food: Thoughtful, approachable, refined, authentic, flavorful and artistically presented.
Ten words to describe you: Evaluative, flawed, motivated, passionate, engaging, intense, striving, compulsive, curious, and did I say flawed?
What are your ingredient obsessions? Everything. Every ingredient has a story and history, and I care as much about ground beef -- hamburgers -- as I do about foie gras, truffles and caviar. I'm obsessed with each ingredient being the best it can possibly be, because it's far easier to make food with quality ingredients -- and try not to screw them up -- than to try and compensate for inferior ingredients. That adds an unnecessary pressure.
What are your kitchen-tool obsessions? A wood-burning oven and wood-burning grill, Japanese knives, juicer, Vitamix, my Combi oven, perfectly clean and heavy chopping boards and custom stainless steel. I also like our sous-vide machine and thermal circulators, but those are the obvious sexy answers. The day-to-day tools, in perfect working order, are more paramount to producing solid cuisine.
Most underrated ingredient: Water. It's used constantly, and the quality of water that we use dramatically impacts the finished product.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: The young greens we grow just outside our kitchen. We have a mesclun mix on the menu at all times during the summer, and right now at Larkspur, we're combining the greens with carrot quinoa, a delicate vinaigrette and a variety of spring vegetables, including artichokes barigoule. Favorite spice: Tellicherry peppercorns. I cook with them in so many applications, and we sieve a lot of different size grinds to garner consistency. I'm also having fun right now with vadouvan, which isn't really a spice per se, but a slow-cooked mixture of assorted French-Indian spices and aromatics that really add soul and depth to the flavor of a dish.
One food you detest: Anything made without care. It makes me crazy to eat food that was produced without love or commitment. Why do it at all if you can't do it right?
One food you can't live without: So many great items can be made with eggs, which cross over between savory and sweet. I'm in love with aioli, there's nothing so perfect as a simple French omelet, and I love thickening soups with the egg yolk; it adds a great texture on the palate, and it really enriches the soup. The French call that baby Jesus in velvet pants.
Food trend you wish would disappear: I know I'll be maligned for saying this, but I'm so tired of hearing -- and reading -- "farm-to-table" in every conversation and article. Hopefully we all use seasonal ingredients, store them properly, mise en place them properly and finish them à la minute properly. I've been cooking for an extended period of time, and when I was younger, I was blessed to work in great kitchens in San Francisco when farmers first started growing food for restaurants, and we were making dishes with ingredients that had been in the ground that very morning. That was in the early '80s; the "farm-to-table" movement is hardly new.
Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: Andouillette sausage filled with colon and more intestines and offal than one should probably eat in one meal. I didn't enjoy it, nor could I finish it. That's not common for me.
Weirdest customer complaint: A customer chastised us for having garlic in our restaurant. According to him, there's no need for garlic in American food.
Weirdest customer request: When I was at Sweet Basil in Vail, there was a group of extremely wealthy women -- they were decked to the nines -- who called themselves the "Pussy Posse," and they'd came in every Saturday night and make me always prepare potatoes eight ways, all on the same plate, one for each woman in the posse. That's weird.
Biggest menu bomb: I've had many. There was once a pounded diver scallop warmed with a Tahitian vanilla-bean nage, ruby grapefruit and some other items that I've tried to forget. Let's just say it wasn't successful.
Favorite dish on your menu: Right now, it's the tuna carpaccio Niçoise. It's an entire play on a Niçoise salad, but done as an elegant carpaccio. We pound tuna from the top of the loin and press it with lemon oil, which almost makes it seem confited. Then we add a mosaic of soybean tapenade, which replaces the green beans; botarga -- that replaces the anchovies; tomato powder; two types of salt (one for texture, intense hits of flavor and mouthfeel; the other for the flavor development); Niçoise tapenade; pommes gaufrette; micro-basil; and caramelized garlic aioli. When you think of what's in a classic Niçoise, you'll find all the same elements in this dish, but even if you're not focused on these details, the dish is beautiful and really enjoyable to eat -- and if you do understand the thought processes behind its creation, then it's even more interesting. Nonetheless, everyone who's tried it seems to really enjoy it.
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Favorite childhood food memory: Frying just-caught abalone with my uncles, parents and siblings. My oldest brother and uncle used to go scuba diving off the coast of Los Angeles on Fridays, and since we're a Catholic family, we ate things from the ocean on Fridays. The old-style pan skillet with the plug attached to it sat on the counter with newspaper under it, and we'd eat the crispy pieces with squeezes of lemon while standing at the counter. They'd have their spears with the rubber strap to propel the spear in the water, and I'd sneak out to the yard with fish in my mouth to practice using the spear, shooting it into the lawn. What little kid doesn't like spears and fried fish? I didn't know at the time that abalone would become such a delicacy.
Favorite junk food: I don't really indulge in junk food, but on the very rare occasion that I do, McDonald's hash browns are to die for. It requires a total slip of decorum and common sense, but every now and then, they're an amazing guilty pleasure. Of course, I hate myself the minute they've gone down my throat.
Last meal before you die: Any meal made with loved ones and enjoyed together with great music, good wine, and candles burning everywhere. I'd love to start it during the late daylight and go right through the night. No one would be in a hurry to leave; they'd be totally committed to the moment. And there would probably be a roast chicken or two on the table.