Ever since I saw Grover waiting tables on Sesame Street, I knew I wanted to work in restaurants," says Paul Reilly. And he didn't waste much time following in Grover's footsteps, considering that he got his first taste of restaurant life while washing dishes in a German joint at the age of fourteen.
Reilly, now the kitchen magician at Encore, the regional American food temple (and home of the best fries on the planet) in the Lowenstein complex, sharpened his knives at several restaurants in the Hudson Valley before moving to Colorado in 1995, where he put in time at Dandelion, a Kevin Taylor restaurant, as well as 221 Oak and Allred's in Telluride. He eventually headed back to New York to attend the French Culinary Institute and then continued to hone his craft in noted Big Apple kitchens, including Danal, a French-Mediterranean restaurant that was awarded two stars from then-New York Times restaurant critic Bill Grimes.
In 2004, Reilly moved back to Denver, where he opened Mirepoix (now Second Home Kitchen and Bar) with Bryan Moscatello, then did a stint as executive chef at Mona's before taking a sous chef job at Black Pearl. From there, he moved to sibling restaurant Encore, where he was promoted to executive chef following the recent departure of Sean Huggard. "Being a chef has been the best damn experience of my life," says Reilly, who also freely admits that he can't live without coffee, despises hard-boiled eggs (but loves them scrambled or over easy), doesn't understand Denver's obsession with green chile, and wonders when it became necessary for restaurants to stock baby slings.
Six words to describe your food: Simple riffs on the American kitchen.
Ten words to describe you: Loud, infectious, impatient, raconteur, debonair, imaginative, husband, father, son and chef.
Proudest moment as a chef: Every day that I walk through the kitchen door at Encore, I'm proud to be a chef...but I think that all the philanthropy we do around town is when my proudest moments really hit home. We work in an industry that's all about self-promotion and prima donnas, especially among chefs. It's often all about us and our restaurants, so when I work with organizations like Project Angel Heart, Operation Frontline, American Liver Society and the Christopher Reeve Foundation — just to name a few — I'm contributing my talents to help others. Those are proud moments for me.
Favorite ingredient: Lemon. For years, I've taught cooks under me that salt breaths life into food, but lemon is the alarm clock that wakes food up and brings it around to its full potential. Every time I'm stumped on a dish, I add a drop of fresh-squeezed lemon and it comes to life.
Most overrated ingredient: Salt. I don't know how we'd cook without it, but how many times do you hear someone complain that a dish is too salty, or that it shouldn't be made with salt at all? It's overused, and I'm totally guilty of overusing it myself, but I think that people's palates are extremely discerning toward salt — more so than with any other ingredient. It's a tricky slope to tread.
Rules of conduct in your kitchen: Be on time, come ready to work, keep your station neat, call back orders, help out your teammates, have respect for the ingredients and equipment, don't overcook the hard-boiled eggs, don't slice the cucumbers too thin, and don't over-sauce the pasta. My cooks will love those last three.
What you'd like to see more of in Denver from a culinary standpoint: I'd like to see more Denver diners taking chances. We have a plethora of great chefs with great restaurants and great imaginations. We all joke about it, but it's a shame that so many diners always fall back on the ubiquitous green-chile-smothered breakfast burrito, peppercorn-crusted steak or cheeseburger. Those dishes are fine in their own right, and we put them on our menus to appease the masses, but I really wish that diners would be a bit more adventurous.
Denver has the best: Neighborhoods for eating and drinking. I love all the different sections of Denver, each with their own look, residents, restaurants and bars. I don't think most outsiders realize how diverse Denver really is. It's fun to drive people from out of state around and explain each neighborhood's name and history.
Denver has the worst: Food delivery. It's either pizza or Chinese — and that's it. I'd love to see some good Mediterranean, Thai or healthy Mexican restaurants with delivery options.
One food you detest: I hate hard-boiled eggs! Hate them! It's a long story that involves my youth, a playground on Long Island, a sweltering 98-degree summer day, a picnic lunch, too much iced tea and a merry-go-round swing. You fill in the gaps.
For the rest of Lori Midson's Chef and Tell interview with Paul Reilly, go to westword.com.