Mitch Mayers, exec chef of Black Pearl, on Mohawks and Agio
This is part one of my interview with Mitch Mayers, exec chef of Black Pearl; part two of our conversation will run tomorrow.
Mitch Mayers wanted to cook; his parents insisted that he go to Cornell. He negotiated. "I made a deal with my parents that I'd go to Cornell if they'd also send me to culinary school," says Mayers, now the executive chef at Black Pearl. After all, he'd been playing around in his own kitchen -- and learning about food -- since before he was a teenager.
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Although he was born and raised in Seattle, Mayers spent his early teens living in Germany with his parents (his dad was involved with the World's Fair), and his time there convinced him to consider a career behind the burners. "The whole food scene there really opened my eyes to different culinary cultures, and that's where I really started to think about cooking," he remembers. He returned to Seattle and got his first job on the line at fifteen, and it didn't take long for him to realize he didn't want to do anything else. "I loved the people, the volume, the speed and the passion in the kitchen -- and I saw myself being good at it," he says.
So while he was enrolled in the Cornell School of Hotel Administration, he simultaneously attended the Culinary Institute of America -- and was rewarded with a summer externship at the Herbfarm, a James Beard-winning restaurant in Seattle that changed his life. "It was the most fucking awesome experience ever, but I've never felt so intimidated," Mayers admits, noting that he cooked alongside chefs from Per Se and the French Laundry. "Everything was herb-oriented, which is now part of my own cooking school of thought, and I learned more in that kitchen than anywhere else I've ever been." Including how to multi-task, he says, a skill that would later help him get a gig with the Hillstone Restaurant Group.
"I had some bills to pay, but more important, I wanted to learn about the managerial side of running a successful, profitable and efficient restaurant, and frankly, no one does that better than Hillstone," explains Mayers, who spent nearly three years with the group, working in Miami, Houston and, eventually, Denver, where he ran the kitchen at Cherry Creek Grill.
But while his experiences with Hillstone gave him the insight he wanted, Mayers was eager to cook at an independent restaurant. And at a wine-tasting at Table 6, he met Steve Whited, owner of Black Pearl. "I got into food because I love playing with ingredients and being creative, and when I met Steve, his former chef had just left, and after we talked, it really felt like it was the right fit," recalls Mayers, who took the exec-chef position at Black Pearl in May of last year. "I was absolutely petrified at first, so I called a buddy of mine from culinary school who was working at the Inn at Little Washington, and he was just like, of course you should take the job. You already know how to run a kitchen; creating new recipes is the fun part. He was pretty convincing -- and he was right," says Mayers, who in the following interview extols the virtues of the blowtorch, reveals some of the rather offbeat rules he has for his kitchen staff, and explains why it's not necessary for Denver's dining scene to become a New York copycat.