This is part one of my interview with Will Cisa, executive chef of the Corner Office Restaurant + Martini Bar. Part two of that interview will run in this space tomorrow.
It's day three of Denver Restaurant Week, and Will Cisa and his disciples are scurrying around the kitchen -- a huge galley filled with the clank, clamor and thud of pots and pans and invigorated by the controlled pandemonium that comes with the awareness that, in less than an hour, the uninhabited dining room will be overrun with hundreds of mouths to feed; the bar is already six-deep.
But Cisa, who moved to Denver from Portland, Oregon, three months ago to become the executive chef of the Corner Office, the in-house restaurant of the Curtis Hotel, is taking it all in stride, waxing rhapsodic about Denver, his new gig and the "Tampopo" ramen -- a pork-and-chicken broth stoked with pork belly, confit of pork shoulder, mustard greens and a 62-degree egg -- that's on his Denver Restaurant Week menu. "It's amazing," croons the South Carolina-born chef, who claims that he can't remember a time when he didn't want to cook. "I've always been a cook, from the moment I stepped foot in the kitchen at my house. Every night, my family and I cooked -- and ate -- dinner together, and I started peeling fifty pounds of shrimp and taking off the strings on the string beans when I was eight or nine," he recalls.
At sixteen, Cisa got his first restaurant gig as a dishwasher at a fried-seafood joint, where he worked his way up to fry cook and eventually to the grill. He boomeranged around several other kitchens before heading to college -- but chucked the classroom after less than two years. "It was a brief run, but I was eighteen, and at eighteen, that's what you're supposed to do, but school didn't really interest me," he confesses.
But cooking did. Cisa packed his bags, hit the road for North Carolina and fell in love with the line after doing a stint at a Southern diner, where he was brought on as a pantry cook. "I loved the camaraderie, the people and the lifestyle of the restaurant business," he confides, "and it was while I was working there that I really knew that I wanted to pursue becoming a chef."
But first he lived in a teepee on an Indian reservation, a six-month lifestyle change that Cisa calls "weird stuff." Life away from the burners gave him the opportunity to evaluate his next move, which turned out to be culinary school at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. "I knew I needed to get serious about my life -- that I wanted to be a chef -- so I took off for New York and culinary school," he says.
And then he went back to home to South Carolina, where he snapped up a job in Charleston at a James Beard Award-winning restaurant named Fig, before moving to Oregon to experience that state's renowned farm-to-table restaurant culture. "I had visited Portland in the past, and I really wanted to be a part of the city's amazing restaurant scene," says Cisa, who was part of the opening team of Laurelhurst Market, named one of the top ten best new restaurants of 2010 by Bon Appetit.
Late last year, though, Cisa got a phone call tipping him off to an executive chef opening in Denver -- and it sounded promising. "I decided to check it out and then decided to stay," says Cisa, who calls the Corner Office job a "fantastic opportunity to play around with Asian ingredients, street food and other international cultures.
"I'm drifting further and further away from fine dining, because the formal stuffiness of fine dining doesn't make a lot of sense to me," he admits. "But cooking big, bold flavors that have a relationship with nostalgia, history and culture does make sense to me, and that's why I think my being here at the Corner Office is a really good match."
In the following interview, Cisa dishes on some monumental cooking disasters, disses brown rice, sliders, white pepper and truffles, and dodges the death question.
Six words to describe your food: Porky, eclectic, bold, creative, playful and delicious.
Ten words to describe you: Tall, skinny, sarcastic, humorous, passionate, dedicated, demanding, curious, intelligent and unique.
Culinary inspirations: Growing up near the water in Charleston, South Carolina, and being able to eat the best shrimp, oysters and crab you could get, straight from the ocean, was a big inspiration, as was the fact that my extended family would gather around the dinner table and eat, fight and laugh together. When the boys and I fished in high school, I'd always cook what we caught (poorly, I'm sure); when we had the hundred bucks to buy a pig, I smoked it; and when we had oysters, I roasted them. That's a Southern thing -- we eat them in the winter, so we make them hot. I've always loved food and I've always been a cook.
Favorite ingredient: The egg for its versatility; butter for its exquisite and intrinsic luxury; olive oil for its ability to elevate so many plain things; and the pig for its delicious jowls, salted and turned slowly into guanciale. Or perhaps it's the pigs' ears, fried to gooey, crispy perfection, or the shoulder, slowly smoked by a master of the craft, or the rich and savory belly, or the fantastic loin, where you can tear the flesh from the bones right at the top corner for the most satisfying bite. Or maybe it's ham, salted and left to dry in the elements forming perfect prosciutto, Serrano or country ham. Then again, it could be the unctuous and gooey feet of the pig, or the fried skin, or its blood in a well-made sausage or sauce. Yeah...I'm gonna have to go with the pig. I also love tomatoes in the late summer, oysters, Brussels sprouts and salt.
Best recent food find: The boudin noir at Euclid Hall. I've spent five years trying to perfect a boudin noir and that one has me straight beat. It's got just the right balance of the iron from the blood and the sweetness of apples. Boudin noir can be really crumbly, too, but the texture of this one is amazingly rich. I'm jealous.
Most overrated ingredient: I like truffles; they're awesome and special and smell kind of like sex and all, but they're not even in my top-ten list of favorite mushrooms. They're kind of used as a cheap trick to elevate a dish -- and they're far from cheap. So many of them are harvested before the point of ripeness, or mixed with flavorless Himalayan varieties (which can't even be sorted from the real thing using a microscope), or stored poorly in shipping. In other words, I'll take a pass. I do know this guy in Oregon, though....
Most underrated ingredient: Curly parsley. It's got a bad rap from being stuck under a lemon on the side of your plate, but it's got a great flavor and texture -- at least the equal of flat-leaf parsley. I like to joke that, someday, I'm going to bring back the curly parsley and tableside crepe Suzette. Everyone likes crepes and everybody likes fire.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: I've only been here for three months, but I really like the Colorado striped bass, and I was delighted when I saw that it had such a good rating from the Monterey Bay Sustainable Seafood Watch program.
Favorite spice: Piment d'Espelette. It's a dried Basque chile that's slightly spicy, has a lot of really good, almost paprika-like flavor, and it's exotic enough to help make a dish pop.
One food you detest: Brown rice. In the low country, where I'm from, you eat rice in some form at every supper during your life, and despite the health benefits -- or whatever hippie nonsense I'm told -- I'm very disappointed by the chewy, unappealing texture of brown rice. Poor cultures don't even eat brown rice; we learned to mill it long ago both for storage and taste, and when my hippie friends serve it to me, it makes me sad.
One food you can't live without: Oysters? Tacos? Sushi? That's too big of a question to answer, but if I found out tomorrow that I was allergic to pork, my friends and family would be really concerned about my mental health.
What's never in your kitchen? White pepper. People use black pepper way too much anyway -- and it really doesn't have to go on everything. White pepper is black pepper without the good part of the flavor; they just take the good-tasting part and make it white so that it looks good in mashed potatoes and on fish.
What's always in your kitchen? Korean fish sauce, fleur de sel and lard.
Favorite music to cook by: That's a silly question. How about Ace of Spades, by Motörhead, or "Shimmy Shimmy Ya," by Ol' Dirty Bastard?
Biggest kitchen disaster: Oh, Christ on a bike, there are dozens of them. There was the time the dishwasher's buddies jumped the chef on the busiest night of the year; the night the transformer blew; the time frame where we had no refrigeration for three days; the day when the water main blew at 4 p.m. on a Friday; the time when the dishwasher pulled a knife; the heart attack in the dining room; and watching the grill cook get fired at 7 p.m. on a Friday night with the delivery of this line: "I know sometimes cooks drink the [cheap box] cooking wine, but most people have the common decency to use a glass." Outside of (most) injuries, it all gets pretty funny after about a month. I don't know how people work in offices.
Favorite dish to cook at home: I cook a lot of Southern food at home -- fried chicken and collard greens, or red rice, or shrimp and grits. That's the food I was raised on.
Favorite dish on your menu: I'm really proud of the hamachi crudo. It's made with high-quality ingredients, carefully prepared, and it's an exciting combination that still maintains the integrity of all its ingredients.
If you could put any dish on your menu, even though it might not sell, what would it be? Brandade. I've tried to put it on other menus -- and nothin'. This is funny: I once worked in a restaurant where the customers would say, "The halibut is okay, but dang, I loved them fish mashed potatoes." For real.
Best culinary tip for a home cook: Get a sharp knife, and don't think that it has to be expensive. Go to a restaurant supply store and get a twelve-dollar Victorinox, but for goodness' sake, when I show up at your house for dinner, please don't make me use some beat-up, serrated, thin-bladed Walmart piece of crap to slowly ruin a pile of vegetables.
If you could cook for one famous chef, dead or alive, who would it be? Julia Child. I have an amazing amount of respect for her, and I imagine it would be a really good time.
Favorite celebrity chef: Eric Ripert. He's just a classy dude.
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Celebrity chef who should shut up: It would be easy to pinpoint Rachael Ray, so I'm going to do it. I'm sorry, but no good meal was ever cooked in thirty minutes. Cooking for your friends, family and self is not a chore -- it's a pleasure. Cooking for company, with a glass of wine in your hand and good conversation, should last at least three hours in a well-lived life. She had this other show about traveling and rubbing nickels together at restaurants, and while I'm not opposed to eating peanut butter for six days in a row while hitchhiking across country if you're flat broke, the whole idea of being purposefully cheap at subpar tourist restaurants while you're on vacation is completely at odds with my life philosophy.
Last meal before you die: Why, do you know something I don't?