Round two with Trattoria Stella's Valentino Ujkic
This is part two of my interview with Valentino Ujkic , executive chef of Trattoria Stella. Part one of that interview ran yesterday.
Favorite restaurant in America: Kabob Cafe in Astoria, Queens. There's no menu, no front-of-the-house staff and no dishwasher; it's just one man -- chef Ali -- plus a CD player, random bottles of opened wine (the rule is that no one at the table can order the same glass), and fifteen seats at most. Ali is Egyptian, and he won't be rushed, which means it can take two and a half hours for lunch. The goat shank and the bluefish are unforgettable, but no more so than having the incredible experience of eating the food of a chef who has such a relentless passion for food. He's larger than life; he's Santa Claus on Christmas, Lionel Messi in Barcelona and Curtis Mayfield on a summer night in Brooklyn. He encompasses what it truly means to be a chef: He's passionate and confident, but simultaneously vulnerable and insecure, and he doesn't ask you how your meal is; he makes you tell him how much you liked it. "Valentino," he says, "I feel fat today. Tell me how good my food is!"
Best food city in America: I wish I could say something other then New York City -- but then I would be lying. I love immigrant food, and I'll try anything twice.
Favorite Denver/Boulder restaurant(s) other than your own: For breakfast, I like Waffle Brothers; for the record, get the Nikita sandwich and not the Aussie waffle. Moe's on Broadway has the best pulled pork in town, and I love the calamari -- it's off the chain -- at L'Asie Fusion Bistro. My girlfriend is Asian, and when I was courting her, I took her there. She loved it -- I was relieved; we've been dating for three weeks and we've only broken up once.
Current Denver culinary genius: Justin Cucci, the chef and owner of Linger and Root Down, and his executive chefs, Daniel Asher and Victor Mena. Justin's knowledge of the industry and the risks he's willing to take to make a mark on the city leaves me in awe. His restaurants are spectacular; it's like going to an opera or a Broadway show. His staff performs, while the kitchen composes and turns out hundreds of beautiful dishes every night. Daniel's passion for supporting local farms and hunting down the best of ingredients is humbling, and his enthusiasm lights up a room. Daniel is also the Willy Wonka of tofu. I swear, he approaches it as though it were the vodka of foods -- and its mixability is only hindered by your imagination. Victor Mena is the man in the kitchen; he's one of the strongest cooks I have ever worked next to, and he's calm, passionate and humble.
What you'd like to see less of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: Fewer pizza places. My mile-and-a-half bike ride to Stella's involves dodging pizza places that seem to be spreading faster then a venereal disease from Charlie Sheen. Winning! With seventeen pizza places in one small strip of land, anything different would be good.
What you'd like to see more of in Denver/Boulder from a culinary standpoint: More crêperies; more bakeries that do fresh breads and pastries; and more bubble tea, Indian restaurants and Vietnamese sandwich shops. Denver, and Colfax, especially, could use some fresh ideas.
Favorite music to cook by: When I'm rolling out pastas in the morning, I rock to everything from early Mariah Carey and Bone Thugs-n-Harmony to the new Lupe Fiasco and Raphael Saadiq albums. During dinner service, we dance to soul music, classics like Sam Cooke's "Another Saturday Night" and Bill Withers cuts like "Lean on Me." Fortunately, our bar, R BAR, hosts live music five nights a week.