Z Cuisine's Charles MacDonald on his little white knife, "wilties" and the cake disaster

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Charles MacDonald Z Cuisine 2239 West 30th Avenue 303-477-1111 www.zcuisine.com

It's late Tuesday afternoon, and Charles MacDonald, wearing a baseball cap, T-shirt and jeans, is hunched over the bar at Z Cuisine, tasting a fleet of Infinite Monkey Theorem wines, which are lined up like dominoes behind a charcuterie plate. "I hope you're hungry," he says, sliding over the platter of cheeses, marinated olives, country pâté, chutneys and pickled cornichons. The guy clearly knows his way to a girl's stomach.

MacDonald takes a swig from his glass of Infinite Monkey syrah, one of the wines he's pouring at an upcoming tasting, leans back and starts talking. "I'm a poor boy from a small mountain town," says the 29-year-old chef de cuisine. Originally from Leadville, MacDonald moved around Colorado before heading off to school in Arizona in 2000. "I thought I wanted to be the shark in a suit -- and that college was the way to get there." He stuck it out for two years before returning to the Rocky Mountains, where he managed a retail clothing store in Breckenridge -- a horrible gig that forced him to re-evaluate his future. "I seriously hated that job -- couldn't stand it -- so I started looking around to see what else I could do with my life," he says.

While sailing around the Caribbean, he met the cruise's on-board chef, a guy who inspired MacDonald to consider a career in food arts. "I got home, started researching cooking and got in touch with the head culinary instructor of Colorado Mountain College, who told me I didn't know enough to get in, but set me up with a private chef gig at Blue Valley Ranch, just outside Kremmling," recalls MacDonald. "I didn't know dick about cooking, but the chef at the ranch took me under his wing and taught me how to make stock, mirepoix, crème Anglaise, and he taught me all about knives."

The instruction paid off, and MacDonald was soon accepted as a student at Colorado Mountain College in Keystone, a three-year European-style apprenticeship program, funded by Vail Resorts, that gives its culinary scholars the opportunity to rotate through several different Keystone-based, Vail Resorts-owned restaurants. "It's a great, albeit underrepresented, program, where you don't just graduate with book knowledge, but with 6,000 hours of on-the-job experience," explains MacDonald, who'd worked in a half-dozen restaurants by the time he was done.

And then, says MacDonald, "I got a wild hair up my ass." Or, rather, a wild desire to reach for the stars: "I knew there was something else out there, and I was bound and determined to work for a Michelin star restaurant, so I started reaching out to restaurants in Northern California, and Cyrus, an amazing restaurant in Healdsburg, responded." The plan was to stage for a single night, but at the end of service, he was offered a job working the meat station, so he bolted back to Colorado, packed up his stuff, grabbed his wife and hauled ass back to California, where he worked in the Cyrus kitchen until the state's economy made it too expensive to stay and the hours became too much to bear. "To see food performed at that level was amazing and spectacular," he remembers, "but I realized that I had to give up everything else, that working there had to be my one and only focus -- plus, the economy was killing us."

He and his wife moved East, to Vermont, where they stayed for one "depressing winter" before MacDonald finally said, "Fuck it, let's go back to Colorado." It was in Denver, while scouring Craigslist, that MacDonald spotted an ad from Z Cuisine. "They were hiring for a chef tournant, and I'd heard awesome things about the restaurant, so I drove over immediately in my jeans and shirt inside out to drop off a resumé," he says. He staged for a night, was hired as the sous chef -- not a tournant -- and a year later, took over the chef de cuisine position when former chef de cuisine Pete Ryan left to become the executive chef/instructor at Cook Street School of Culinary Arts.

Here's what MacDonald has to say about the challenges of the restaurant biz, his little white knife and his intolerance of egos.

Six words to describe your food: Balanced, seasoned, traditional, simple, fundamental and delicious.

Ten words to describe you: Humble, passionate, leader, principled, grumpy, respectful, devoted, husband, tired and genuine.

Culinary inspirations: Anyone who's slaying it. There are so many great cooks and chefs out there these days, and lots of them are taking food to the next level. Slay or be slayed, we say. And all the local farmers -- they're the true heroes of the restaurant industry and our modern food movement -- inspire me. Because of the demand for fresh and local ingredients these days, farmers are really stepping up their game by using good farm practice techniques, growing different and varied crops, and providing us with some unbelievable products.

Greatest accomplishment as a chef: I've been privileged to work in environments where I can teach and work with younger cooks -- our stages. Our profession is one of passion and tradition, and it's almost our duty to pass these things down to the new cooks entering the business. At one point in my career, a chef took the time to teach me all the things that he knew, and I owe it to him to keep spreading the knowledge. Outside of the kitchen, my greatest accomplishment is somehow keeping my amazing wife, Stacy, around for so long. She puts up with the crazy hours I work, the demanding overall lifestyle of being in the restaurant business, and she moved across the country so that I could work in certain restaurants. That girl deserves a medal.

Best recent food find: Coco Rouge shelling beans, available only in the summer and early fall. You don't see fresh beans too often, and I don't think people get too excited about beans or give them the credit they deserve. But, man, these beans were amazing.

Favorite ingredient: Butter. Oh, give me a break: I'm the chef of a French bistro -- we put butter in just about everything.

Most overrated ingredient: I think the burger thing is getting out of control. Don't get me wrong: I love a great burger just as much as every other red-blooded American, but honestly, it's gotten out of hand.

Most underrated ingredient: Salt. Good salt -- Fleur de Sel sea salt. It goes on every single thing I cook. A lot of people use crappy salt and/or don't know how to properly use it for seasoning. It's the first and last thing that should be taken into consideration when you're cooking.

Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: We put greens in just about every dish at the restaurant, whether they're wilted (we call them "wilties") or fresh -- big surprise we call them "freshies" -- and the boys at Abbondanza Farms keep us on lockdown with those. They have a great variety of chards, kales, tat soi, spinach, arugula, mizuna and more.

Favorite spice: Salt and pepper. Yeah, I know that salt's not a spice, but I think proper seasoning is one the most widely overlooked things in both home and professional kitchens. It can make or break your meal, man. Now, of course, everyone is going to be criticizing my seasoning at Z.

One food you detest: Detest is a strong word. I'll eat just about anything, though I'm not a big fan of eggplant. Usually it's not cooked properly, and the combination of bitterness and texture just doesn't appeal to me. Sorry, eggplant fans. You'll still find it on my menu, though.

One food you can't live without: Sandwiches. I can beat up a good sandwich. The possibilities are endless, the combinations inspiring, and I never get sick of them. They're fully satisfying, and I can't get enough of them. There's nothing worse than a bad sandwich, though. You're going to fuck up a sandwich? Ridiculous.

Biggest kitchen disaster: I knocked over a cake once. I had only been cooking for a year, and I got a great opportunity to work on a hard-core line in a great restaurant. It was the middle of service, I was in the weeds, and I frantically ran to the walk-in cooler to grab more scallops and turned too quickly. My arm hit the cake and the cake hit the floor. The cake was beautiful, with crazy chocolate garnishes, and it was for one of our regular customers. White as a ghost, I went to tell the chef, and his face turned beet red. He was yelling at me so ferociously that he was literally spitting. I felt like I was seven years old again and Daddy was about to get the belt out. It was horrible.

What's never in your kitchen? Egos. I don't cook with cocky people. My kitchen is too small as it is, and I don't have room for anyone's ego. We all roll our pant legs up at work -- and we make any new stage or cook do the same. It looks ridiculous, but the idea behind it is that if one of us is going to look like a jackass, we all are, plus it sets the tone for humility.

What's always in your kitchen? Stock. It's the foundation of everything I do. A chef I used to work for once told me that a kitchen without stock has no soul. We make a large variety of stock in our kitchen from beef marrow, oxtail, chicken, fish, pork, tomatoes, roasted spices and anything we can extract flavor from, and then we concentrate it.

Favorite dish to cook at home: Pho. I know it's not French, but it's delicious, and my wife can't get enough of it.

Favorite dish on your menu: Bœuf bourguignon. Sit down to one of those and a glass of wine, and it'll fix anything.

If you could put any dish on your menu, even though it might not sell, what would it be? Lamb sweetbreads. It's the thymus gland of the young animal. I love them.

One book that every chef should read: For the cooks out there just getting started, I recommend Letters to a Young Chef, by Daniel Boulud. It's a reality check for what you're getting into. For the more seasoned chef, you have to have a Larousse Gastronomique lying around. It's kind of like the Bible.

What show would you pitch to the Food Network, and what would it be about? I'm never going to do a cooking show, so, sorry, but I'm not putting any more thought into this.

What's your favorite knife? I have a little serrated paring knife that I bought four or five years ago from the guy who owns Rolling Stone [mobile knife sharpening]. My guys make fun of me, always joking about my "little white knife," but I can get precision cuts on small things like shallots and cherry tomatoes with it. I love my little white knife.

Weirdest customer request: Before we started carrying gluten-free bread, people would ask for our French onion soup without the bread, but they still wanted the cheese on top. Fine, so no bread. I don't have a problem with that, but I explained that without the bread, the cheese would sink to the bottom in a big gooey ball. They insisted, the cheese sank and I was dumbfounded.

Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: I wouldn't say weird as in, like, gross, but when I was working at Cyrus, the chef got in Pen Shell clams. I don't even know how he found them. They were so unbelievably good. Unfortunately, I've never seen them anywhere again.

Hardest lesson you've learned: Sacrifice. Ask any chef working in the business, and they can relate. It's difficult to swallow all that you give up to achieve success in this business. You really have to dig deep to miss out on all the other events going on in your life in order to wake up every morning and stay on top of your game. The passion has to supersede everything else, and it's hard. Honestly, it's really hard, but I love the pleasure and satisfaction I get from performing for people; I get a kick out of it. I love pushing myself to see what I'm capable of.

Read the rest of Lori Midson's interview with Charles MacDonald.

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