Chef and Tell, part two: Jim Cohen on the Domino's pizza delivery, undercooked partridge and Michel Richard
This is part two of my interview with Jim Cohen, chef/owner of The Empire Restaurant and Lounge and Pizzeria da Lupo. Part one of that interview ran yesterday.
Greatest accomplishment as a chef: Turning the Lodge at Vail into a great food destination. When I arrived in Vail in 1984, I went to a wine shop, and the owner asked me why I was in Vail. When I told him that I was just hired as the chef at the Lodge at Vail, he laughed and asked why they would need a chef, since no one eats there. I think I got nauseous. The first crew I had was drug dealers and bookies, and no one knew how to cook. After the first winter, I just wanted to get out of there, but then they sent me on a two-week vacation to Hawaii. When I got back, we slugged it out until we started getting a much better reputation. Howard Head, who invented Head skis and Prince tennis racquets, lived next store and asked us to do his wedding, and after that, we just started being the place to be. Then, you know, the whole thing steamrolled -- better people started applying for jobs, and we were able to accomplish a lot more because our talent was so much better. The first few years there were the hardest of my career, with a lot of ninety-hour weeks, and then we'd die in the end of the season and our families didn't know who we were. I think after twelve years, though, we created a really great and successful food-and-beverage program that a lot of people had been a part of. It's really sad for me to see what's happened there since: All that hard work, and it's back to having a similar reputation as when I arrived.
Favorite restaurant in America: It was Honmura An, a soba noodle place in SoHo that served the best noodles I've ever had, but sadly, it closed a couple of years ago. I miss it so much. I will say, too, that I really respect the chef of Pizzeria Bianco, in Phoenix. Fifteen years ago, he was doing what I'm doing today, and now he produces consistently day in and day out. He also has an enormous amount of discipline.
Best food city in America: New York City. It has everything. I love Katz's deli; Barbuto for Jonathan Waxman's take on Italian; Prune because Gabrielle Hamilton's cooking is just so honest; Alfred Portale's Gotham Bar and Grill because it's quintessential Manhattan; and, of course, Jean-Georges. Then you can go to Queens Boulevard and walk from block to block and travel the world.
Rules of conduct in your kitchen: Listen to my wife, Connie, who's the chef de cuisine at the Empire; she knows more than me. Taste everything you make; work clean; be focused and professional during service; close the door to the walk-in; no cell phones; be passionate about what you do; and don't use too many ingredients -- that really drives me crazy.
Biggest kitchen disaster: After 32 years, I've had a lot of disasters, but the worst came just after I was promoted to executive chef of the Wildflower, just two weeks after I started working there. It was our first big banquet, for a group of Texas and Oklahoma bankers, and all the meat we served was undercooked and returned. It was a buffet, and we ran out of food halfway through, so we started pulling everything we had out of the freezer to try and get enough food out there. We sent out champagne for the president of the bank, and the waiter spilled it on him, and then his daughter found glass in the ice cream. They finally gave up and had a Domino's pizza delivered. Pretty bad, huh? I hired a new banquet chef after that.