Chef and Tell with Samir Mohammad from the Village Cork
The Village Cork
1300 South Pearl Street
Long before Samir Mohammad could legally drive a car, he'd flipped burgers, rolled taquitos, tossed pizzas, blistered his hands cooking red and green chile, washed dishes, waited tables, prepped and drunk from the bottom of a keg. "Yeah, I started cooking in restaurants when I was around twelve, so pretty early on," says the 25-year-old Miami-born chef who was raised in Taos. Now the executive chef at the Village Cork, a lively neighborhood wine bar at the start of Old South Pearl Street, he's focused not on beer and rolled tacos, but on global wines, rooftop vegetable gardens, curing his own prosciutto and pancetta, and growing herbs on the high shelves in his exhibition kitchen.
Mohammad credits his uncle for steering him toward a professional cooking career. "My uncle was a chef all over Taos -- he worked everywhere -- and I was always interested in watching him cook and hearing him talk about his restaurants," he recalls. His parents were in the restaurant business, too, and when they opened a Hawaiian grill and coffeehouse in Taos, sixteen-year-old Mohammad dropped out of high school to work in the family business. He eventually got his GED, enlisted in the military and headed off to boot camp before finally landing in Hawaii aboard a United States Coast Guard ship. "I was mess cooking -- you know, the kitchen bitch," he says, laughing. But being a kitchen bitch had its advantages, he learned. "While I was cooking on the ship, I found out that the Coast Guard had a kick-ass culinary school in Petaluma, California, so I enrolled in their eight-month program and graduated in the top of my class," Mohammad relates.
For the next three years, he cooked for crew members aboard a ship stationed in Alaska; when his military service ended, he returned to Taos, where he snagged a gig on the sauté station at Joseph's Table -- a stint that convinced him to keep cooking. "That kitchen was like a classroom; there was always something new to learn," Mohammad says. "We were taught to really appreciate local ingredients and to use every scrap of food, including the skins from purple onions, which we'd throw in a coffee grinder to make purple powder to garnish the plates."
He kicked around Taos a while, headed west to Arizona for a three-year stretch at a resort on Lake Havasu, then moved to Denver, where he was initially hired as a line cook at Pesce Fresco. Three days later he was promoted to exec; two years later, when new owners were about to take over at the end of 2009, he was fired. "Joel Diner had approached me to see if I was interested in buying the place, and then, for whatever reason, he decided to sell it to someone else who just happened to be a chef, so I kind of knew that my days there were numbered," divulges Mohammad. "I was supposed to be there for another three months, but Joel gave me the go-ahead to interview for another job and then fired me as soon as I got back from the interview."
That interview was for a position at Shanahan's Steakhouse, but according to Mohammad, partner Marc Steron passed, calling Mohammad "overqualified." An ad on Craigslist led Mohammad to the Village Cork, where he couldn't be happier. "I interviewed, staged, knew this was where I wanted to be, and the rest is history," he says.