Chef and Tell: Paul Reilly of Encore

Paul Reilly chef and tell.jpg
Lori Midson
Encore executive chef Paul Reilly

"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.

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.

Most undervalued ingredient: Tarragon. It's my favorite herb. So many times when people eat my food and they can't quite put their finger on why they're enjoying it, I'm sure it's because of tarragon. It gives the dish a "Why am I enjoying this so much?" feeling.

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.

One food you can't live without: Coffee. Need it first thing in the morning, have it when I first get to work, have it again after lunch and then right before dinner. It's my friend, my blanket of comfort, my solace and my pick-me-up.

Favorite local ingredient: We get the most beautiful micro-greens, micro-herbs and salad greens from Josh Halder at Verde Farms. He's a former cook, so he knows exactly what chefs like and want. Not only are they the perfect aesthetic finisher to our dishes, but they taste unbelievably good, too.

Most embarrassing moment in the kitchen: I moved back to Denver to take a job at Mirepoix under Bryan Moscatello, who opened Adega. Because I was living in Brooklyn, I was about two days behind the rest of the kitchen as we were preparing to open the new restaurant. On my first day there, no one knew me, so I'm a bull in a china shop trying to show off the fact that I'm the new kid from NYC that's gonna cook circles around the guys in the kitchen. I volunteered to make duck-liver sausage, which was going to be the accompaniment to the seared duck breast, one of the signature dinner dishes, and I'd barely begun to grind the meat when I realized I had the blade in backwards. So I took it over to the dish station and started to clean the whole thing out. As I dropped the blade in the sink, the dishwasher turned on the disposal...so not even two hours into my new job, it was goodbye grinder. Later I heard chef Bryan lean over to our sommelier and whisper, "Who hired this fucking kid? I can't let him ruin my new restaurant." It took a week to get a new blade, and I don't think that exact dish ever made it on the menu.


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