Linger's Marty Steinke: "The talent pool in Denver is so overrated""
This is part two of my interview with Marty Steinke, exec chef of Linger; part one of our conversation ran yesterday.
What's your biggest challenge as a chef working in Denver? Finding good cooks. The talent pool in Denver is so overrated. We have some really amazing cooks, but we have some really, really crappy cooks, too. The average cook in Denver is pretty weak sauce; everyone is so eager to move up the ranks and become the chef. I wish the cooks in Denver spent more time in the trenches making mistakes. Not enough cooks put the time and effort in to develop basic knowledge and skills. I can appreciate these new culinary schools, but they give cooks a giant sense of false confidence. It takes years to be good in this industry.
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Most underrated Denver/Boulder restaurant: Boulder's Pizzeria Basta hits the mark consistently, with food and service that are second to none. The level of execution and depth of flavors that Kelly Whitaker reaches are amazing.
Who's the most underrated chef in Denver? My team is badass. I don't tell them enough how much I appreciate what they do.
What skills and attributes do you look for when hiring kitchen staff? Solid knife skills, the ability to take criticism, a healthy lifestyle, passion, consistency, good communication skills, and, in general, they need to have their shit together as a person. It seems like everyone in this town has a DUI and has to take a day off for their alcohol-abuse classes. I understand that we all make mistakes in life, but don't bring that shit to work or let it interfere with work. And please know the basic fundamentals of cooking. Believe it or not, I've interviewed cooks who appear to know what they're doing, only to find out a week later that they can't brunoise an onion. It's depressing and shocking.
What advice would you give to an aspiring young chef? Don't go to culinary school! Learn how to handle a knife, don't be a pussy, and lose the ego. Culinary school is damn expensive, and I find that the burden of debt forces people to focus on getting promoted and making more money when they should be focused on cooking and learning. This is a tough career, and it's not for everyone. You have to be very motivated and really love being in crappy situations; otherwise, you're going to burn out...fast.
Biggest mistake a chef can make on the line: Leading with anger. This is a very passionate and intense industry, and it's all too easy to let your emotions get the better of you. No one ever fucks up a dish on purpose; it's usually because the cook doesn't understand the complexities of execution. The first time I had the honor of being the chef of a restaurant -- Bones -- I was a complete asshole. No one wanted to work with me, and it showed. I fucked that dream up in a major way, and I'll never forget it. That was a hard life lesson.
What specific requests would you ask of Denver diners? Stop giving money to chain restaurants. So many great local restaurants struggle to survive, while Chili's is raking in the money.
When guests want to thank you for a meal that really wows them, what do you wish they'd send to the kitchen? Healthy criticism. That's the only way to get better. If everyone loved everything all the time, then nothing would ever get better. I like it when I go to a table to ask, "What could we have done better?" There's always something to improve on. I love this quote from Justin [Cucci, owner of Linger]: "I'd rather be saved by criticism than ruined by praise." There's a constant, gentle pressure to be better. Mediocrity or complacency isn't allowed.