Mark Monette, executive chef of the Flagstaff House, on the woman who asked for raw elk and his disdain for duck tongues
This is part one of my interview with Mark Monette, executive chef of the Flagstaff House. Part two of my chat with Monette will run in this space tomorrow.
While Boulder today is renowned for its culinary scene, back in the '60s it had no dining culture to speak of -- unless you count the Village Inn Pancake House, which is where Mark Monette, executive chef/co-owner of the Flagstaff House, got his first taste of the restaurant business. His dad, a chef, was the manager there, and while he was still in elementary school, Monette used to hang out in the dining room and swell his belly with flapjacks. "I grew up eating lots of pancakes doused with syrups -- blackberry, boysenberry, raspberry -- and the Village Inn was one of the only restaurants in Boulder back then, so I spent a lot of time there," he recalls.
But while his dad ran a pancake parlor, eating out at restaurants -- good restaurants -- was part of his upbringing. "We were always searching for the best places to eat, both locally and whenever we traveled," says Monette, whose father opened several java joints and restaurants before he purchased the Flagstaff House in 1971.
By then Monette was a teenager, the age when many chefs-in-training get their first job as a dish rat; that was his first assignment, too, though by the time he was sixteen, he'd graduated to a waiter position. "There were no female servers at the time -- only tuxedoed men -- and since I was underage, I had to have someone else carry alcohol to the tables," remembers Monette, who stuck around for a few more years before heading off to wine country -- still too young to drink.
Not that it mattered, because Monette was there to cook -- and to learn his way around a kitchen that was far more mature than the one at the Flagstaff House. "I knew I wanted to cook, but the Flagstaff House wasn't what it is today, and I didn't want to go to culinary school -- that didn't interest me at all -- so I went to Napa instead," he remembers, "and got a job at a restaurant called Miramonte" -- which was a major adrenaline rush. "I saw the professionalism of the kitchen there, how orderly and clean it was, the skill level, the beautiful dishes and food, and the awe on the guests' faces -- and I knew then that this was what I absolutely wanted to do," Monette says.
He learned what he could and took his skills back to Colorado -- specifically to Vail, where he did a short winter stint at Mirabelle, working alongside a Master Chef who took Monette under his wing. From there he went to New York, where he had the opportunity to breathe the same air as Thomas Keller. "I was working in a very high-end French restaurant, and when the executive chef quit, Thomas Keller, who had just gotten back from France, was hired as the new chef, and as soon as he stepped in the kitchen, I know that he was going to change the way that people looked at cuisine," says Monette, who soon took off for France himself, doing time in several three-star Michelin restaurants.