This is part one of Lori Midson's interview with Rhett Songer, the executive chef of Zi Fusion. Part two of Songer's interview will run in this space tomorrow.
"It's absolutely silly that it's such a no-no word in the culinary world," says Rhett Songer of the maligned F-word -- fusion -- that most chefs, gastronauts and food writers ridicule. "If you're taking two or more cuisines and folding them together, it's fusion. It's about taking cooking techniques and ingredients from different cultures and putting them together to make something original. What's so bad about that?"
Nothing, insists Songer, the executive chef of the aptly named Zi Fusion, which opened two months ago in Englewood under the direction of owners Ricky and Anna Choi. "We do a lot of meshing to make our dishes new and fun," he says, pointing out that Anna is Chinese and Ricky is from Hong Kong. And Songer? He was born in Wyoming and raised in Bakersfield, California, where he started cooking at the tender age of ten.
"I was a latchkey kid and had to make all of my own meals, so I started reading cookbooks, learning recipes, doing my own grocery shopping and cooking for myself, starting with marinara sauce, which I was completely obsessed with," recalls Songer, who perfected the sauce -- and soon after, Bolognese -- by the time he was fifteen and landed his first kitchen job at a brewpub. "I was this blue-mohawked punk with a spike collar, and it was the only place that would hire me," he adds. Songer stuck around for two years before heading back to Wyoming to pursue a degree in English. "I wanted to teach and write and be the next Tom Robbins or Kurt Vonnegut," he says.
Instead, after spending some hard time in the pokey -- "I got in trouble a lot," admits Songer -- he eventually emerged behind the line as the sous chef of an Italian restaurant (where he made marinara sauce, naturally) in Casper. Then, like a lot of cooks, he became a kitchen gypsy, hopping from burner to burner before finally finding his niche at an Asian-fusion restaurant, where he started as a line mutt and left with the title of executive chef.
Songer packed his knives and moved to Denver, picking up an exec chef/sommelier/food and beverage director gig at the Golf Club at Ravenna. "We cooked everything outside on a barbecue grill, which was really fun until winter came and I'd be outside buried in snow," says Songer, who soon realized that a makeshift outdoor kitchen was more than he bargained for. He spent a brief period at Big Game before a friend introduced him to the Chois. "I wasn't even sure what job I was applying for, but I went in and interviewed and they had me come back in and cook for them," says Songer. He was hired. "They loved what I was doing, and while I drive them nuts and they drive me nuts, at the end of the day, we like each other. In a lot of ways, they're my family, as is the staff."
In this interview, Songer talks about the challenges of overcoming the stigma of fusion cuisine and what happened when he got tricked into eating a puppy...dog.
Six words to describe your food: Fun, uninhibited, eclectic, delicious, unpretentious and inspired.
Ten words to describe you: Loyal, loving, witty, passionate, flaky, idealist, socialist, rebellious, sarcastic and compassionate. My sous chef calls me "Chuckwagon," but he can go to hell.
Culinary inspirations: From being a little blue-mohawked punk dishwasher at fifteen and having the old kitchen pirates -- they seemed like gods to me at the time -- show me how to devein shrimp and do all the other jobs that they didn't want to do, to today, where the owner of Zi shows me Hong Kong cooking techniques that blow me away, my inspiration comes from taking a little piece of everybody who I've worked with over the last seventeen years. If a chef ever feels like he can't learn or be inspired by his staff, it's time to step away or go spend a few years as a line dog to remember where he came from.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef: I was the chef of 303, a fine-dining fusion place in Wyoming, but due to an oil boom, I lost my entire staff to the oil fields -- all I had left was a very ragtag bunch of teenagers. But through cooking classes twice a week and intensive training and supervision, I made cooks out of each of them. On a Saturday night, when we were putting out 250 covers, I'd be beaming like a proud father in the dining room. I loved those kids; they were my Bad News Bears.
Favorite ingredient: Perfectly ripe red bell peppers are pretty hard to beat. They're simultaneously sweet and savory, and you can use them in so many applications: They can complement beef, seafood and chicken equally well, and they can be a part of so many wonderful dishes from so many regions.
Best recent food find: I've recently rediscovered the cherry ice cream soda. How I ever forgot such a magnificent treat is beyond me. I always love the foods that take you back to a different point in your life with just one taste. One of the most beautiful things I've ever read was Anthony Bourdain describing his first oyster experience; it gave me chills in a good way and made me really want a belly full of Kumamotos.
Most overrated ingredient: Anise. I know it has its place, but seriously, a little goes a long way. I've had so many meals that would have been good had it not been for some asshole's complete lack of restraint with the anise.
Most underrated ingredient: I'm not sure if it really counts as an ingredient, but the fond -- that delectable crustiness left in the bottom of a pan after getting a good sear on something -- does wonders for sauces, soups and stocks; it also makes your dishwashers a little less disgruntled.
Favorite local ingredient and where you get it: I've made a killer tarte tatin with Palisade peaches and caramel that was absolutely orgasmic, but I'm still fairly new to Colorado and its produce, so if any of my fellow chefs want to come up for dinner and fill me in, I'll buy.
Favorite spice: I have a bit of a love affair with togarashi, or Japanese seven-spice. Our togarashi fries, which started out as just a side with our sandwiches, are quickly becoming one of our best-selling appetizers. If you haven't used it before, it's a blend of chiles, orange peel and black sesame seeds that you can use as a seasoning for starches, or to add a kick to soups, or even in place of a Cajun-style blackening spice.
One food you detest: I vehemently and passionately despise ranch dressing. My days in Wyoming were painful. I swear, down there they would pour that shit on their Cheerios. Hell, I imagine you could sell ranch parfaits, and I wouldn't be shocked to see ranchsicles.
One food you can't live without: Oysters are the one food that I truly feel are perfect. They bring me a little joy every time I pop one in my mouth, and I use them to bribe myself when I'm really procrastinating.
Weirdest customer request: I had a guy ask me for a side of tartar sauce with a seared toro appetizer. I wanted to ask him to leave, but instead, I gave him a side of remoulade and shut my mouth. Who am I to judge what tastes good to you? At least he didn't ask for ranch dressing.
Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: I was having dinner at a dearly departed friend's house -- he was an immigrant from Thailand -- and about halfway through the main course, he starts laughing and laughing, so I asked him what was so funny, and he replied, "You're eating the puppy." I got physically sick; I love dogs. That said, I'm not going to lie: Before I knew what it was, I thought it was pretty damn tasty.
Rules of conduct in your kitchen: I like to keep the rules of conduct in my kitchen very clear and to the point. Respect your fellow staff; respect the product; follow the recipes and cooking methods exactingly; have fun; and if you don't love what you do, then go do what you love.
Biggest kitchen disaster: You're bringing back painful memories. I did a wedding once for a couple hundred people, and I had checked everything -- well, almost everything -- before the plates went out, but as I watched the first set of plates hit the table, I noticed a guy taking a bite of the steak, spitting it out and wiping his tongue. I ran around trying to figure out what was wrong -- the sauce was fine and the steak, stuffed with fresh mozzarella and capicola, was fine. I finally figured out that my sous chef had emptied a half a box of kosher salt into the panko breading, when the steaks had already been seasoned and stuffed with salt pork. I was mortified, wanted to run away and hide, throw up or commit seppuku with a chef's knife, but it taught me a very valuable lesson: Nothing is small enough to overlook, and no one is immune from a catastrophe.
What's never in your kitchen? Racism or sexism. It's a longstanding misconception in kitchens that the rules of the rest of the world don't apply to us, but it doesn't fly in my book. I've been in restaurants that have different pay scales for whites and Latinos, and in places where a woman -- no matter how good she is -- has no chance for advancement. It's complete bullshit, and it will never be tolerated in a place that I manage. Everyone starts equal in my eyes, and the people who prove themselves are the ones who reap the benefits.
What's always in your kitchen? Fun, coupled with a sense of family. I always believe in putting out the best product possible and putting in a good honest day's work, but life is just too short to not enjoy it.
What's your favorite dish to cook at home? I like to cook for people, especially those I'm in a relationship with -- I'm taking applications, by the way -- so it's more a matter of what will make their eyes light up when I pull it out of the oven. If I'm cooking just for me, it's paella, because I have an obsession with perfecting it, but I don't actually cook at home very often -- or make paella.
Favorite dish on your menu: Our togarashi-crusted New York strip topped with eel sauce over celery-root mashed potatoes and green beans with roasted shiitakes. The flavors blend perfectly, in my eyes, and that plate comes back licked clean more often than not.
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If you could put any dish on your menu, even though it might not sell, what would it be? I'd love to have frog legs on my menu, but it's just not a food most people are willing to try, even though they're completely delicious.
Hardest lesson you've learned: I've learned that there's more to life than just work, no matter how passionate you are about it, and when the opportunity presents itself again, I'll build a life with the people I love around me and find the balance I've never really known before.