Annabelle Forrestal, exec chef of Vine Street, Mountain Sun Pub and Southern Sun, on food critics, the French Laundry and hot sauce
If you want to pick a perfect melon, Annabelle Forrestal suggests that you pick her brain. Growing up in St. Louis, Forrestal, now the executive chef of Vine Street Pub in Denver and Southern Sun and Mountain Sun Pub & Brewery in Boulder, spent summers -- six, to be exact -- as the resident melon expert at the local farmers' market. "My first job was at the local farmers' market -- I begged the people who ran it to give me a job -- and I was the best melon picker in town," claims Forrestal. "People would come down on a Thursday asking for a cantaloupe that would be perfect on the following Tuesday, and without fail, I could pick the best one, even if I did get really dirty."
Her melon knowledge grew out of working in her family's garden as a child. "We'd go out and pick vegetables every day for dinner, and just about every meal we had included something from our garden," she remembers. "It was a family activity, and I loved having access to raw produce and fruit, and I loved being outside."
But while Forrestal had a fetish for food and farmers' markets, she didn't aspire to become a chef. "I wanted to be an architect, so I moved to New York City for college, thinking that my career would take me away from food," she recalls. She graduated from Parsons School of Design with a degree in architecture and then headed west to Denver to be closer to her sister and continue to build her portfolio. "My plan was to get some experience and just stay with my sister for the summer, but I needed a job, so I applied for a waitress position at Mountain Sun to make some extra money."
She never left. "From the very beginning, I really enjoyed working there," says Forrestal, noting that while she started as a server, the trio of pubs cross-trains its staff, which meant that she'd eventually land in the kitchen. "I'd never cooked professionally, and I was terrified, plus I was a vegetarian when I got the job, and I had to cook an enormous number of burgers. That scared me."
She's no longer a vegetarian. "It turned out that I started to eat meat again, and I loved -- absolutely loved -- being in the kitchen," confides Forrestal. "It amazed me, it was fast-paced, I had to think on my toes, I could hold my own, and I cooked good -- and good-looking -- food." So good, in fact, that she didn't return to the front of the house. Instead, she continued to be a kitchen sponge, prepping, grilling and frying until she became the assistant kitchen manager.
"I bit off a huge chunk of responsibility, and I was really determined to do a great job, so I went home and read cookbooks every night and cooked for my friends," recalls Forrestal, who less than two years later was made the kitchen manager. "When I got that job, I finally committed to this career -- to something that I'd always been passionate about." And this past March, Forrestal became the executive kitchen manager, a job that entails overseeing all three lines. "Someday, I'd really like to open my own restaurant," she says, "but I'm really enjoying my time here, and every day is a new learning experience, which I crave."
In the following interview, Forrestal reminisces about her dinners at the French Laundry, muses on restaurant reviewers who like the sound of their own voices, and downplays the merits of hot sauce and birthday cake.