Chef and Tell with Max Mackissock of Squeaky Bean
"After all that nonsense at Primebar -- those guys are the biggest scumbags ever -- it was unbelievably refreshing to get a job at a restaurant that's owned by one of the nicest guys I've ever met," Max Mackissock says during our interview at Cafe Europa. Mackissock, who was the commander-in-chief of Primebar (and before that, Vita) for less than a month before he hurled that gig to the curb, is now the executive chef of Squeaky Bean, the Highland restaurant he oversees with proprietor Johnny Ballen.
Lori Midson Squeaky Bean executive chef Max Mackissock
"We seriously miracle it every day," reveals Mackissock, who turns out breakfast, brunch, lunch and dinner from a tiny kitchen that has exactly one electric convention oven. "We call the oven 'Chuck Norris' because it's the worst oven on the planet. We literally cook everything in that oven, and there's not one minute of the day that it's not full."
But that could be changing soon. Ballen and Mackissock are talking with their landlords, the Aguirre family -- owners of Rosa Linda's Mexican Cafe, directly next door to the Bean -- about putting in a new kitchen, which would allow Mackissock and his crew to develop a more ambitious menu. "They're fantastic people, and they understand that our kitchen is so limited right now in terms of what we can do, so we're all working together to hopefully make it happen," he explains.
In the meantime, Mackissock and Ballen have made other inroads since opening the restaurant back in May. They've built a vegetable and herb garden behind Squeaky Bean; joined forces with Jason Griffith, a Longmont farmer who grows the rest of their produce; and even introduced their own micro farmers' market on the patio. "I get to create freely and have fun, and with the garden and the farm and all the other great things that have happened to us since we opened, everything has fallen into place and worked out," Mackissock says. "I work more now than I ever have in my life, because now I have to do all the little things, but I've never been happier."
What else makes Mackissock happy? Music (all kinds), kale, late-night noodles from JJ Chinese, pickles, and pizza from Virgilio's.
Seven words to describe your food: Seasonal, playful, layered, well-seasoned, balanced and sexy.
Ten words to describe you: Honest, direct, dedicated, daring, leader, fortunate, fun, even-tempered, foodie and a gentleman.
Culinary inspirations: My mother always pushed the culinary limits, and my grandmother was always at the stove with a pot of chicken stock, or she was busy making cassoulet or toutiere, so I always had exposure to food when I was growing up. I think it was their genuine love of food that first inspired me, because food was always at the center of everything. My grandmother even made thirty different kinds of candy for Christmas. Who does that? I also spent some time in Italy -- nine months, off and on -- and that experience was so influential. It was amazing to me there was virtually no importation, even from different parts of the country. It was this whole "mine is better than yours" concept, but that resonated with me because people took so much pride in their regional cuisines and traditions. The beans in the next town, for example, were never as good as the beans in my town.
Favorite ingredient: I don't necessarily have one favorite ingredient because I'm always going through phases. Right now I'm really into Colatura di alici, a salted anchovy sauce from Italy. I love using it instead of salt; it's almost like using soy in an Asian dish. It adds a very distinct and unique savory/salty aspect to a dish.
Most overrated ingredient: I hate truffle oil. Just the smell of it will nearly induce vomiting.
Most undervalued ingredient: I love kale. Unfortunately, most people think of that ubiquitous garnish, along with an orange wedge, that's adorned plates for so long. But kale has such a wide range of flavors, from young and sweet to older, earthy and bitter. There are so many cool varieties -- Chinese, red, cavolo nero -- that we get from our farm and grow in the garden. We like to cut it young and serve it raw on salads, but people would freak out because they couldn't believe that they were eating kale. Trust me: It's delicious.
Favorite local ingredient: I'm so fortunate that I have a veggie freak -- Jason Griffith -- who grows all my produce locally at Aspen Moon Farm in Longmont. He's the kind of guy who picks squash with socks on his hands so he doesn't bruise them. I truly believe that anything that comes out of his farm is as good as anything you'll find elsewhere in Colorado.
Favorite music to cook by: Now you're talking. If you know me at all, you know that I love music. I'm not one of those chefs who needs to have silence in the kitchen; in fact, I hate it. We listen to music all the time, even during service. Here's the breakdown of an average set list at the Bean:
11 a.m. to 1 p.m.: Arrive at work early in the day and put on something mellow like bluegrass or reggae. I like Yonder Mountain String Band.
1 p.m. to 4 p.m.: The severity of the prep list determines what we play. On a chill day, it might be some Neil Diamond or Talking Heads. If there's heavy prep involved, it means heavy beats -- bands like Talib Kweli, Wu-Tang Clan or Heiruspecs.
During service: Things get a little louder and a little faster. We listen to people like the Glitch Mob or Sound Tribe Sector 9.
Closing: Jay-Z and DJ Z-Trip. Yo.
What's never in your kitchen? Bad attitudes, pretension or cocky cooks.