Chef and Tell with Lance Barto of Strings
"It wasn't supposed to happen this fast," says Lance Barto, shaking his head. The 27-year-old chef, who was promoted back in February to the chief kitchen post at Strings following the departure of Aaron Whitcomb (who's now at Yia-Yia's Euro Bistro), still seems shocked by the news. "A lot of people with way more experience than I have aren't where I'm at, so I feel really lucky and blessed by the opportunity," he confesses.
Lori Midson Lance Barto, exectutive chef of Strings
Barto was born and raised in Arvada before eventually taking off for Oklahoma, where he studied architecture at Oklahoma State University. He chucked that program after a year and moved back to Denver, where he started to cook professionally to put himself through college at Metro. "I worked at the Wynkoop as a prep cook, and within six months, I was running the line at night," he remembers. "I left to work as a line cook at Zengo and then went to Palomino as a line cook, where I became more and more successful." In fact, says Barto, he had just become eligible for Palomino's corporate sous chef training program when the restaurant announced it was closing. (PrimeBar now occupies its former home on the 16th Street Mall.)
His Palomino gig reinforced Barto's passion for cooking. "My aha moment initially came when I got a Thomas Keller cookbook two years ago for Christmas, but while I was cooking at Palomino, I realized that I was really in love with cooking, that I wanted this as my career -- and, to be honest, I really couldn't afford college any longer, so I let it go," he says.
And then he found himself in the kitchen of Noel Cunningham's iconic restaurant. "We're on the right path," Barto says of Strings. "I want to take it back to where it was in its heyday. We're not trying to push the envelope any longer. I've brought simplicity back to the kitchen by getting rid of some of the overwrought experimentation," he adds, before expanding on the less-is-more approach in the interview below. But that's not all that gets him talking: Bartow also speaks about the virtues of lemon (and citrus in general), his opposition to steak (and how much money we spend on a slab of steer), his appreciation of Denver's burger joints, and how he can't get enough of Alex Seidel's cooking.
Six words to describe your food: Simple, well-seasoned, straightforward and balanced.
Ten words to describe you: Geeky, laid-back, intelligent, lucky, unorganized, scatterbrained, honest, willing and able.
Culinary inspirations: I find inspiration for food constantly. Oftentimes, I'll spend time in the walk-in and try to listen to how the food wants me to cook it. It sounds silly, I know, but it works. I always have my nose in a cookbook, and nine times out of ten, that book is filled with recipes and pictures of foods that inspire me. I visit foodgawker.com and ideasinfood.com daily for more inspiration. And Thomas Keller is a huge idol of mine. He didn't necessarily find success right off the bat, but he was persistent and worked really hard -- and he eventually became great. He had to keep reaching and reaching and reaching for the next step, and look where he is now. That's inspiring.
Proudest moment as a chef: The moment Noel Cunningham gave me the promotion to executive chef upon Aaron Whitcomb's departure from Strings. I remember that Aaron sat me down and asked me what I thought I needed to do to become a better chef, and I told him that I needed to work on my organizational and managerial skills. He resigned that day, and Noel asked if I'd be interested in the job. I was thrilled. Realistically, it had only been two years since I'd made a real commitment to cook, and even though I'd been working really hard for those two years, Noel definitely took a chance on me. To have someone be willing to put that kind of faith in me -- it was something I'd never experienced before. The fact that Noel is a philanthropist, a great chef and business owner made the moment even more special.
Favorite ingredients: Vinegars, citrus juices and other acidic ingredients. I love acidity in food. It's an integral part of properly seasoning food -- just like salt.
Most overrated ingredient: Steak. Maybe I'm just a little jaded by Denver being such a "cowtown" insomuch that it seems like everyone here prefers to have a steak when they're celebrating a special occasion or night out on the town. People are willing to go out to Morton's, Capital Grille, Elway's or the Palm and pay 50 bucks for a steak, which is just crazy to me. It's not that I don't enjoy a tasty rib-eye cooked rare, but I'd be much more satisfied with a beautifully made burger.
Most undervalued ingredient: Lemon. A squeeze of lemon goes a long way in my book, because the aromatics and acidity of lemon help to awaken your palate. It's also great to use for lightening up a dish.
Favorite local ingredient: It's unfortunate that our growing season is so short here in Colorado, because my most-often-used local ingredients are the fresh herbs from our garden right outside the front of the restaurant. The sage was particularly pleasant this season.