Johnson & Wales chef Eric Stein dishes on vegetarian food (Denver has the worst), Michael Long (he's a genius) and peanut butter and jelly
This is part two of Lori Midson's Chef and Tell interview with Eric Stein, chef/instructor at Johnson & Wales. To read part one of that interview, click here.
Most embarrassing moment in the kitchen: I worked for a restaurant called Adesso in Providence, Rhode Island, that featured an open kitchen. One night while I was chopping parsley on the line during service, I shaved the nail right off my index finger. One of the line cooks yelled to me to put my hand above my head to slow the bleeding down, which I did. And then I promptly passed out right there on the line.
What you'd like to see more of in Denver from a culinary standpoint: Tasting menus. When I try a new restaurant, I usually eat almost everything on the appetizer menu. Small plates are generally a really good indication of the chef's skills and flavor profiles. Chefs in Denver have a lot of talent to show off, and I think diners here would really benefit from more tasting menus.
What you'd like to see less of in Denver from a culinary standpoint: Overpriced menu items. Everyone is feeling the pinch, so it bothers me to see restaurants that have $12 cocktails and $9 desserts.
Culinarily speaking, Denver has the best: Culinary diversity. We have seriously talented chefs who bring an abundance of flavors to the table, whether it's at a hole-in-the-wall or a high-end place.
Culinarily speaking, Denver has the worst: Vegetarian cuisine. Considering we're one the healthiest cities in the country, it's a shame that our best vegetarian options are either fried, wrapped, smothered or pizza. Denver needs a vegetarian restaurant that offers a menu like Ubuntu in Napa, Green Zebra in Chicago or Dirt Candy in New York City.
What do you cook at home? I never cook at home. I don't even have a dining room table. But if I did cook at home, I'd make posole or country-style spare ribs -- things that are hearty.
Favorite cookbooks: Rick Tramonto's Amuse-Bouche, a book that reflects how I like to cook and how I like to eat: small plates, bold flavors and outside-the-box thinking.
What show would you pitch to the Food Network? I actually pitched this idea to the Food Network in 2005, but now it's already kind of played out in a lot of their shows. People are so curious about food but intimidated by ingredients, so I wanted to have a show where I took people to their local market -- grocery store, farmers' market or ethnic market -- taught them about the ingredients and how to prepare dishes using what we bought. I think it'd also be fun to have a show where a bunch of chefs go to a restaurant, sit around the table and try to figure out how the dishes are prepared and the thinking process behind the presentations.
Weirdest thing you've ever eaten: Braised cockscomb -- you know, the red floppy thing on the head of a rooster. It was like chicken-flavored gummy worms.
Weirdest customer request: It wasn't a restaurant request, but I was doing a cooking demonstration about the benefits of salmon for heart health, when right in the middle of showing the audience how to portion the filets, someone stands up and asks, "Is peanut butter and jelly bad for me?" I had to literally stop and field questions for five minutes about how to choose the right peanut butter, why it's important to avoid hydrogenated fats, and why whole wheat bread is better than white bread before I could get back to the topic of salmon.
Current Denver culinary genius: Michael Long at Opus. There's got to be a little bit of madness involved with being a genius, and Michael Long is definitely a mad genius chef in his approach to food and his innovativeness -- and he has a quirky personality. I also think that Andre Lobato at Interstate Kitchen & Bar has a wicked way of updating American classics. There are so many things on his menu that he's rejuvenated using a modern approach and bold flavors.