Paul Nagan, exec chef of Zink Kitchen + Bar, reveals his top ten pet peeves
Food trend you'd like to see in 2013: I think the food magazines and the TV shows decide the trends. I haven't heard what it's going to be this year, but I do know that the Denver food scene has been exploding, and it's difficult to keep up with everything that's going on. With all the new restaurants, cocktail lounges, pubs, breweries, wineries, retail shops and local producers, I really do sense an energy and passion about food in this city that continues to surge. I can't wait to see what happens this year.
Food trend you'd like to see disappear in 2013: Trends are what fuel the industry. They keep people interested and excited about what's going on, although they've gotten a little wacky lately. A few years ago, who would have thought that people would be doing Twitter-based treasure hunts all over the city in search of a slice of pie or a taco or a hot dog? That said, I think trends keep things fun and fresh. The problem is when you get too many copycats, which results in a lot of watered-down versions. Once Amanda Freitag and Alex Guarnaschelli declare their latest foodgasm on The Best Thing I Ever Ate, then everyone jumps on the bandwagon. I call it cupcake Darwinism.
What do you enjoy most about your craft? Creating new dishes, learning new techniques, writing new menus and pretty much cooking in general.
What's your biggest pet peeve? Let's do a top-ten list: No. 10: Plastic wrap that jams and tears every time you need a piece. No. 9: Banquet servers blocking the aisle with an empty cart. No. 8: Servers not picking up their food. No. 7: Box lunches. No. 6: Tall white toques. No. 5: Wedding parties that want to push their food back after you've already started plating. No. 4: The freezer -- nobody wants to clean the freezer. No. 3: Meetings. No. 2: The Cookie. No. 1: People who say, "Oh, you're a restaurant in a hotel?"
Describe the biggest challenges facing today's chefs: All in all, it's a great time to be a chef. The availability and selection of products, the popularity and respect of the profession, the expectations of the consumer are all at an all-time high. Unfortunately, so is the cost of food. The prices of a lot of meats and seafood have doubled in the last few years, and it's very challenging to keep menu prices at current levels. I think between the rising prices and the growing popularity of vegetarian diets, many chefs will have to rethink their menus. Vegetarian dishes will play a much larger role than the previous one or two token dishes at a lot of restaurants.
Most humbling moment as a chef: I had just gotten my first executive-chef position, and the menu at the restaurant was old and tired. We didn't have many guests at night, and the ones we did have weren't leaving happy. The food was really bad, so I figured I'd show them what I had to offer and write a new menu. We did taste panels, and everyone seemed pretty excited about the new menu, and the customers that came in liked the food, too, but we still weren't seeing as many guests in the restaurant as we wanted. I came to work one day and was told I needed to attend a meeting -- that's all I knew. It turned out that my meeting was with a menu consultant from New York City, and I was immediately defensive. He explained his background and told me he was a founding partner in the Myriad Restaurant Group. That didn't mean much, because I'd never heard of them, but when he listed the restaurants they created and operate -- Montrachet, Tribeca Grill and Nobu -- that got my attention. He laid out all the issues with my menu: prices too high, verbiage too complicated, not cooking for your audience, too many ingredients. It was humbling to have someone come in and tear apart your menu, but at the same time, the amount of knowledge and experience he imparted in just a few hours was invaluable.
Biggest moment of euphoria in the kitchen: Two years ago, I woke up to go to work, and I knew it was going to be a busy day, including preparing for a competition we were doing that night. As I was getting ready, something just didn't feel right. It was kind of a queasy feeling with a dull ache in my stomach. It wasn't that bad, and I figured I could make it through, but as I drove to work it just kept getting worse...and worse -- and when I got to work, all I could do was lean on a table and hold my stomach. When my boss walked in and saw me, he told me I needed to go home. I refused; there was just way too much stuff to get done. I went to lie down, but I finally had to succumb; I couldn't take it. I had to go to the ER. The pain had become excruciating. I had no idea what this was, but when I got to the ER, I was in tears, screaming and pounding my fists against the wall. It was the most intense pain I've ever experienced. I was rushed in for an emergency appendectomy. If euphoria can be attributed to seeing God, it was definitely euphoric. Then again, maybe it was the morphine...I don't know.