This is part one of my interview with Chris Canales; part two of my chat with Canales will run tomorrow.
Volta, with its sophisticated menu, swank interior and elegant al fresco courtyard, is far from the world where executive chef Chris Canales grew up in Fullerton, California. "We didn't have a lot of things, we didn't go out to dinner very often, and we didn't have much money, but my mom and aunts, all of whom are 100 percent Mexican -- not to mention awesome cooks -- always made up for it by having really, really good food, even if it was just a pot of beans and tortillas," says Canales, who started cooking at thirteen as a way to put some cash in his pocket.
A friend of the family, the owner of an Italian restaurant, "offered me a job as a dishwasher and busser, and he also offered me a free pizza to take home after every shift, which was a deal that I couldn't pass up," recalls Canales, who spent his teen years ladder-stepping up the line at that restaurant. "By the time I was fifteen, I'd had three years of cooking experience, and I was doing well and realized that I was good at it -- and over time, I just got better and better."
But despite the money he was collecting -- and the free pizzas -- Canales wasn't interested in becoming a chef. "I was sweating my ass off at work and going to school, and back then, in the '80s and '90s, there was no glamour in being a chef. We were just cooks coming up from the ranks and paying our dues, and it was hard work," he says. Still, the longer he cooked, the larger the paychecks became, and as Canales watched his friends mow lawns, he slowly warmed to the idea of cooking professionally. "I guess I was around nineteen or so, and I knew that I needed to start taking something seriously -- that there might be a future for me in this industry," he remembers. "So I kinda just decided to develop my skills and technique and bounced around California a bit, working in different restaurants."
In 2000, Canales moved to Beaver Creek -- though not only to pursue cooking. "I wanted to ride my snowboard, and when you're poor, the best way to get in a season of snowboarding is to work at the resort," says Canales, who got a line-cook gig at Toscanini, where he was later promoted to sous-chef.
He left after three years for a cooking intermission in San Luis Obispo, but when the economy started to tank, so did the restaurant scene, so Canales, who had since tied the knot, returned to Colorado with his wife, moving to Nederland so he could be close to a good skate park. "That was the deciding factor -- a skate park -- because I have to be near someplace good to ride," he explains. But he also needed a job, which he found at the now-closed Gold Lake Resort, in Ward. "They went through hack after hack after hack, but for a while, the owners let us do things the right way: We had our own greenhouse; we had goats that we'd bought from Haystack Mountain, so we were doing our own cheese and yogurt; we had chickens and our own eggs; we even had our own turkeys," says Canales, who departed when the lodge was purchased by new owners, who offered him the chance to stage for a line-cook stint...or get laid off.
Canales took a position as chef de cuisine at the now-defunct Savory Cafe, a Nederland gathering place that grew its own vegetables and collected appreciative crowds. But most of the restaurant's profits were going toward Canales's salary, so rather than bleed the cafe dry, he left for a sous-chef position at Trillium, where he cooked alongside exec chef Ryan Leinonen, whom he'd met at a wine dinner at the Savory Cafe. The stint didn't last long: "Ryan and I had our differences, and it just became a place that I didn't want to be, so I left and cooked at Olivéa until it closed," Canales says.
And then, while breaking up a dogfight, he broke three fingers -- which required surgery and a few months of downtime. Once he got his fingers back in motion, he began job hunting, and last September he landed at Volta, starting as sous-chef and soon moving up to exec chef. "I love making awesome food and giving people awesome experiences and food memories -- that's why I cook every day," says Canales, who in the following interview pleads for a proliferation of all-you-can-eat pizza joints; admits that if he could open the restaurant of his dreams, he'd serve free food to everyone; and insists that being a chef is about mercenaries and pirates -- not celebrities.
Lori Midson: What's your first food memory? Chris Canales: Eating bean-and-rice burritos. We didn't have a lot of money when I was growing up, and my mom worked nights and my dad worked days, so we'd get dropped off at my grandma's house after school, and we ate bean-and-rice burritos every day. I'm sure if I think really hard, I could remember eating meat dishes, but I like bean-and-rice burritos the best.
Ten words to describe you: Wildflowers, rainbows, avocados, the mountains, seasons, yerba, sweet songs, the smell of rain, wolf howls and the wind.
Five words to describe your food: Deliciousness, deliciousness, deliciousness, time and place.
What are your ingredient obsessions? Fresh, seasonal vegetables and fruits, especially heirloom varietals, are essential to my cooking and are what I like to work with best. I'm glad I don't have to compromise on ingredients at Volta. We source mostly organic, seasonal and local ingredients, the same way everyone should. People should know where their food comes from. We always did before.
One ingredient you won't touch: Anything that doesn't taste good. You should never have to say, "Eh, that's not so bad." My goal is to achieve deliciousness on every plate, which is why I'll only use ingredients that taste good. At Volta, I aspire to create only with ingredients that have flavors and tastes that complement the dishes I put out. I don't believe in putting ingredients in a dish just to brag about them. People eat things that don't taste good because that's all they know or have, but when you're a chef at a fine-dining restaurant like Volta, you have way more options. I can play with ingredients I believe in and use them accordingly to complement my dishes.
Food trend you'd like to see emerge in 2014: More all-you-can-eat pizza. There's not enough. People will say that all-you-can-eat pizza would be low-quality pizza, or factory pizza...but I don't care. Pizza has one of the highest profit margins out there, and you should be able to go somewhere, pay $7.99 and eat forty slices if you can do it. When I was a kid in elementary school, you'd sell your neighbor's cat if it got your class a pizza party. All-you-can-eat pizza equals a pizza party every day.
Food trend you'd like to see disappear in 2014: Bad food, especially bad vegetarian food. I believe that vegetarian food can be prepared with technique that brings out incredible flavors and textures. I tried planting eggs in my garden once, but a chicken never sprouted. I guess I just don't understand.
Favorite piece of kitchen equipment: My spoons. I've gathered them over the years and really like them a lot -- and they all have different uses. I have one that will lay down just the right amount of sauce in whatever direction I want, and I have another that I used as my fish spatula for four years. One time I did a stage at a restaurant where the chef was an old guy who'd trained in France for most of his life, and he put me on sauté to work the station on a Friday evening. I held the station down all night with just three spoons and my knife, all while I was making all my calls back in French. Needless to say, I got the job.
Your favorite smell in the kitchen: Fresh bread. The fat kid inside me loves fresh bread. Everybody says you have to let it rest -- that you're not supposed to cut it when it's hot. I'm not talking about cutting it; I'm talking about tearing into it and letting the steam burn your lips as the first chunk goes down. Give me some peanut butter and bananas, and I could do some serious damage to a tray of focaccia right out of the oven.
Your three favorite Denver/Boulder restaurants other than your own: Lee Yuan, Lee Yuan and Lee Yuan, a Chinese restaurant in Boulder.
What's your fantasy splurge? A hacienda on a thousand acres of beautiful land, with ponds and creeks, lots of forest and meadows and all sorts of wildlife, and all my friends and family could live there for free. There would be a concrete skate park outside and an indoor empty pool, which means we could ride our skateboards all year 'round. There would also be a garden, a greenhouse, and tons of places to forage. There would be large studios for music and creative activities and a huge outdoor kitchen surrounded by a giant courtyard where people could hang out. There's way more that I'd like, but you get the idea.
What's the best food- or kitchen-related gift you've been given? A friend gave me some soup once. I took it to work and ate it with some avocado and some homemade pita. It was delicious.
Favorite culinary-related item to give as a gift: I gave some soup and a loaf of bread to a friend of mine once. It was full of vegetables and beans, and the bread had sage and green olives in it. Good food is good medicine.
If you had the opportunity to open your own restaurant with no budget constraints, what kind of restaurant would you open? If I had no budget constraints, then the restaurant would be free to everybody. It would be the same high-quality food and service you would expect from a fine restaurant, but there would be no money exchanged. Too many people are in this business to get rich. How rad would it be to open a restaurant that feeds amazing food for free to those who are less fortunate? Fine dining for all.
It's your night off and you're starving. What's your go-to quick fix? Beans. I've eaten them all my life, and I love them. Beans and tortillas, beans and rice, beans and potatoes, beans and guacamole, beans and salsa, beans and calabacitas, beans and cheese. Beans are good to me.
Last meal before you die: Beans, rice, guacamole, fresh tortillas, calabacitas and watermelon.
If you hadn't become a chef, what would you be doing right now? Probably getting a lot more sleep.
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What's in the pipeline? I don't pipeline, but the wind brings me new ideas all the time.