Round two with Pizzeria Basta's Kelly Whitaker: "When did we stop being the cook?"
Part one of my interview with Kelly Whitaker, exec chef-owner of Pizzeria Basta , ran yesterday. This is part two of our chat; part three will run tomorrow.
What are your kitchen-gadget obsessions? Cryovac machines and immersion circulators. We don't have stoves or conventional ovens -- only a wood-fired oven, so we learned really quickly that if we were going to keep up with quality and consistency then we would have to have a total understanding of sous-vide cooking. I'd already experimented with it in kitchens in LA, and when I had the opportunity to work with Bruno Goussault, the inventor of sous-vide cooking, in New York, it opened my mind to the endless possibilities. Since then, it's been an integral part of our program. My next investment will be the Thermomix, a blender that can mix, knead, stir, cook and so much more. I know it sounds like a cheesy commercial, but it's the real deal.
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What's never in your kitchen? Unsustainable seafood. Our oceans are sacred, and as restaurant owners and chefs, we have a responsibility to be stewards of the land and sea. Working with Michael Cimarusti of Providence restaurant in LA showed me what dedicating myself to this would look like. He's done a huge amount to protect the land and sea, and he's one of my heroes and mentors because of it.
What's always in your kitchen? Flour and water. We bake all of our breads in-house in the wood-fired oven, and something I noticed right away when I moved to Colorado was that most restaurants were outsourcing their bread. At first I brought in a small convection oven to cook pastry shells and delicate breads like crackers and breadsticks, but then I noticed my chefs starting to use it more frequently and moving away from baking in the wood-fired oven, so I took it out of the kitchen.
Favorite dish on your menu: Our half chicken. We don't sous vide or brine the chicken, but we compress it with herbs in our Cryovac machine, which changes the tenderness slightly -- and the wood-fired oven does the rest of the work. The result is an incredible product. I love taking something that guests eat all the time, [then] making it great by using an alternative method and surprising them. I could eat our wood-fired chicken on a daily basis, right along with our oysters.
Favorite junk food: I don't really eat junk food. Sometimes when I finish cooking, I come home and eat granola and soy milk or a frozen pizza from Amy's. Truth is hard.
Weirdest customer request: Gluten-free and/or dairy-free pizza in a pizzeria. We have it, and I don't mind cooking it, but c'mon, man.
Weirdest thing you've ever put in your mouth: I don't want to call anyone out, but a few weeks ago in Aspen, at the Cochon pig event, I had this pork-skin-wrapped dumpling in a cup that kinda resembled a testicle. I don't know if that's what the chef was going for or not, but after that, my Aspen Food & Wine weekend eating was over.
Most memorable meal you've ever had: There have been many. One of the reasons I'm in this industry is that I love to eat great meals with family and friends, and I feel blessed to be in a position that's allowed me have some phenomenal meals. When I was working in Italy, every Sunday was a ceremony of going from house to house and eating with whomever you were visiting; I like to eat like this at home, too, and I often stop by several restaurants for bites in a single night. A memorable meal would start at the Populist, followed by oysters at the Kitchen, bites at Linger, an entree at Old Major, and then dessert and an amaro at the Squeaky Bean. Sitting with my wife and eating at Basta is always memorable, too.