Nate Booth, chef of the Rio: "Sous-chefs are the backbone of most kitchens"
This is part one of my interview with Nate Booth, exec chef of the Rio, Boulder; part two of our chat will run tomorrow.
It's a question that just about everyone has asked: What's in those potent margaritas? According to Nate Booth, executive chef of the Rio Grande Mexican Restaurant in Boulder, it's "love." That, and three and a half shots of Jose Cuervo, triple sec and jugged margarita mix, the contents of which are fiercely guarded. But while Booth admits that the Rio is renowned for its mind-altering margaritas -- limit three -- he thinks the food menu deserves the same recognition. "We've significantly upped the quality of our ingredients, and we have a scratch kitchen, where everything we do is made in-house," says Booth, adding that the Rio's homage to homestyle Tex-Mex "reminds me a lot of the Mexican restaurants that I grew up with in Texas. It's the same kind of Tex-Mex food I loved at home."
"Food has always been a huge part of my life, and my mom was unbelievably good with pastry," adds Booth, who began his own cooking career after moving to Monte Vista, a small Colorado town in the San Luis Valley. "My first job was as a prep cook at a burger-and-beer joint, and while it was just burgers, I loved it, and that's where I really started to enjoy playing with food," he says. He stayed there through high school, eventually moving to New Orleans after a friend of his blindly pointed to the Big Easy on a map. "We were all drinking beers and trying to figure out what to do next, so one of my buddies put a blindfold on with a map in front of us, and his finger landed on New Orleans, so four months later, we picked up and left," recalls Booth, who secured a position at a small, influential French bistro. "I knew I loved cooking long before I got here, but once I got behind the line of an open kitchen, I realized that I wanted to cook for the rest of my life -- that I really enjoyed making people happy," he says.
But while his stint at the bistro cemented his career path, he wasn't quite as enamored of New Orleans. "I was there for a year, and by that time, it was time to go. We were all partying a lot, and while New Orleans is a great town to visit, it's not a great place to live," admits Booth, who then moved to Denver, where he landed a lead line-cook job at the former Wolfgang Puck Grand Cafe in the Denver Pavilions. Puck, a celebrity chef, visited the kitchen twice, and it wasn't to mentor his cooks. "He'd come on the line and yell at the kitchen crew, and then we'd never see him again until he came back the next time and yelled again, which sucked, because we were young and excited to see him," says Booth, who packed his knives and headed back to Texas, where he got a gig with Truluck's, a seafood-and-steak restaurant, graduating from grill guy to sous-chef to executive chef, then opening locations throughout Texas and in San Diego.
And he would have remained in San Diego, he admits, were it not for a now-ex-wife from Texas. "You can take the girl out of Texas, but you can't take Texas out of the girl," he jokes. But Booth had no desire to return to the Lone Star State, so they compromised and headed back to Denver, where Booth was quickly hired as the sous-chef at Shanahan's. He left after five months to open Fleur Bistro, which closed not long after it opened, then spent some time as a chef consultant in Durango before joining the Rio earlier this year. "I had to go through five, maybe six interviews before I got the job, but it was completely worth it," says Booth, who in the following interview admonishes lazy-ass cooks, admits that sous-chefs are the real heroes of the kitchen, and confesses that he's still searching for the courage to open his worm salt.