Most memorable meal you've ever had: When some friends and I backpacked through Europe after college, we ended up in Cinque Terre for a few days. I can't remember how we found it, but there was this small, family-owned restaurant on the garden level of some house, and it was there that I ate the best plate of spaghetti and shellfish I've ever had. The pasta was perfectly al dente and the condimento was, for lack of a better phrase, the essence of the sea. The restaurant was absolutely unassuming and just like being in someone's home. We were the only party there, and the family was watching soccer on TV while they served us dinner. It made me feel like I was truly living on the Italian coast. After dinner, we got way too drunk off jugs of wine and ended up swimming in the Ligurian Sea.
Favorite Denver/Boulder restaurant(s) other than your own: When I go out, eight of every ten times, I'm probably at Star Kitchen. It's my staple meal and reminds me of the food I grew up eating. It's awesome every single time, and the owners and staff are super-friendly and playful in that aggressive, fast-paced-Chinese-restaurant kind of way. Some of my other staples are Fuel and the Universal for brunch; Sushi Den and Sushi Sasa for raw fish; Steuben's for fried chicken and lobster rolls; Pizzeria Locale; Masterpiece Deli; Pho Duy; Las Caras and Highland Tap. Recently, I've had good meals at the Squeaky Bean and Il Posto, and I'm really looking forward to trying Old Major, Amerigo and Oak at Fourteenth.
Favorite cheap eat in Denver: Pho. For a mid-sized city, we have an amazing number of really good pho restaurants, including Pho 96 and Pho Duy. It's an extremely satisfying meal and always leaves me in a weird state of euphoria afterwards. Maybe it's all the MSG?
If you could change one thing about the Denver dining scene, what would it be? I wish the investors who have enough money to open restaurants would take a little more risk and open more progressive establishments with independent chefs. It's disappointing that there are all these great cooks and chefs who would die to open a place of their own, yet we see a new burger chain pop up every month. I'm extremely lucky to have been able to open my own restaurant, and I wish the chefs in Denver who are way more talented than I am could be given that opportunity as well. We'd see a more abundant and diverse food scene if the talent in this city was given the means and control to do what they wanted. Granted, it's wishful thinking, and investors are in it to make money, but I think Denver has developed a pretty good clientele to support more ambitious or different concepts.
What's your biggest pet peeve? I hate dirty towels lying around at the end of the night. After everyone leaves, I'm always putting dirty towels in the laundry bin.
What piece of advice would you give to a young chef? Be naive and humble. You can learn something from everyone, no matter what their background is in this industry.