Will Cisa, kitchen magician of the Corner Office, on monumental cooking disasters, Euclid Hall's boudin noir and the impossible thirty-minute meal
This is part one of my interview with Will Cisa, executive chef of the Corner Office Restaurant + Martini Bar. Part two of that interview will run in this space tomorrow.
It's day three of Denver Restaurant Week, and Will Cisa and his disciples are scurrying around the kitchen -- a huge galley filled with the clank, clamor and thud of pots and pans and invigorated by the controlled pandemonium that comes with the awareness that, in less than an hour, the uninhabited dining room will be overrun with hundreds of mouths to feed; the bar is already six-deep.
But Cisa, who moved to Denver from Portland, Oregon, three months ago to become the executive chef of the Corner Office, the in-house restaurant of the Curtis Hotel, is taking it all in stride, waxing rhapsodic about Denver, his new gig and the "Tampopo" ramen -- a pork-and-chicken broth stoked with pork belly, confit of pork shoulder, mustard greens and a 62-degree egg -- that's on his Denver Restaurant Week menu. "It's amazing," croons the South Carolina-born chef, who claims that he can't remember a time when he didn't want to cook. "I've always been a cook, from the moment I stepped foot in the kitchen at my house. Every night, my family and I cooked -- and ate -- dinner together, and I started peeling fifty pounds of shrimp and taking off the strings on the string beans when I was eight or nine," he recalls.
At sixteen, Cisa got his first restaurant gig as a dishwasher at a fried-seafood joint, where he worked his way up to fry cook and eventually to the grill. He boomeranged around several other kitchens before heading to college -- but chucked the classroom after less than two years. "It was a brief run, but I was eighteen, and at eighteen, that's what you're supposed to do, but school didn't really interest me," he confesses.
But cooking did. Cisa packed his bags, hit the road for North Carolina and fell in love with the line after doing a stint at a Southern diner, where he was brought on as a pantry cook. "I loved the camaraderie, the people and the lifestyle of the restaurant business," he confides, "and it was while I was working there that I really knew that I wanted to pursue becoming a chef."
But first he lived in a teepee on an Indian reservation, a six-month lifestyle change that Cisa calls "weird stuff." Life away from the burners gave him the opportunity to evaluate his next move, which turned out to be culinary school at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. "I knew I needed to get serious about my life -- that I wanted to be a chef -- so I took off for New York and culinary school," he says.