Thomas Salamunovich, exec chef of Larkspur (and Larkburger) on farm-to-table fatigue
This is part one of my interview with Thomas Salamunovich, exec chef of Larkspur and Larkburger, Part two of our chat will be posted here tomorrow.
"Food wasn't a big deal in my life, but music? Music was everything," says Thomas Salamunovich, the owner-chef of Larkspur in Vail and founder of Larkburger, the fast-casual chain that got its start in Edwards and now has seven Colorado locations. "My dad is the world's preeminent choral conductor, and our life revolved around music. I had no idea that 'Happy Birthday' wasn't sung in eight parts until I heard someone who wasn't a singer butcher it."
Salamunovich grew up in Los Angeles, in a "crazy house chock-full of musicians and singers," and if you were hungry, "you cooked it yourself," he remembers, which is how he found himself in the kitchen. "I made my first pizza at ten," he recalls, "and while I made the dough -- quite badly, from what I can remember -- it was the most complicated pizza ever, because I put different toppings on every slice." And then, he says, "I moved on to tacos, sandwiches and hamburgers. That's the stuff I grew up eating, and one of the reasons I opened Larkburger: I love burgers."
He moved to Vail at eighteen -- initially, he admits, "to be a ski bum" -- and quickly found work at the Lancelot, first as a busboy and then as a line cook. "I saw the kitchen and immediately gravitated toward it," recollects Salamunovich, who, after a year of working in fine dining, applied to the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco to hone his skills. "I was at the ground zero of fresh ingredients and ended up working at Stars as an entry-level line cook," a gig that handed him his ass. "It was such a professional, intense working environment, and I failed miserably," he says. "They threw me on the grill and I went down in flames."
He was given a choice: Hit the pavement or work the garde manger station. He smartly chose the latter. "It was one of the best decisions I've ever made, because I learned to touch food with my hands -- to feel the ripeness of a piece of fruit, its different sizes and state -- and knowing how food feels in my hands is something that I'm fanatical about," says Salamunovich, who notes that it's also a "critical piece to composition and developing complete menus."
After several years at Stars, he returned to the California Culinary Academy to teach a cooking class for six months, and ultimately wound up sharing space alongside Wolfgang Puck at Postrio. "It was a beast -- the biggest restaurant opening on the West Coast at the time," remembers Salamunovich, who got some sage advice from Puck. "I asked him once what mattered most about a dish, and he said that it was simple: Just make it taste good. There was nothing about making sure you caramelize your foie; it was, first and foremost, 'Do you want another bite?'"