Robert Alfaro, chef of Atticus, on ridding the culinary world of complicated menu jargon
This is part one of my interview with Robert Alfaro, chef of Atticus; part two of our interview will run tomorrow.
Most of us have childhood food memories: Lucky Charms, chocolate-chip cookies, flipping our first egg, cracking the shell of our first lobster. But for Robert Alfaro, the executive chef at Atticus, the memory of bloody deer carcasses in his kitchen is what stands out. "My mother was a bow-and-arrow hunter, and so was my grandmother, and they'd go out in the morning to hunt deer and then come home in the afternoon and break it down right in the middle of the kitchen," recalls Alfaro. And deer wasn't all he was eating for dinner. "My grandfather hunted frogs, turtles and squirrels, so it was commonplace to have turtle soup, squirrel soup, squirrel stew and roasted squirrel," he remembers.
His other grandmother, who was Latina, raised chickens and grew vegetables on the property that surrounded her cabin on the Mississippi River, not far from Galesburg, Illinois, where Alfaro was born. "My brother and I would wrangle the chickens, grab them by the neck and watch our grandmother cut their heads off, and then we'd start laughing while they ran around the yard with their heads cut off," recalls Alfaro, who admits that all that carnage didn't push him toward a cooking career. "I love the ocean, and I wanted to be a marine biologist," he says.
Nonetheless, after he and his family moved to Arizona, Alfaro joined the fast-paced production line at a Taco Bell to get extra cash -- and beer. "We used to trade a couple of tacos for a couple of beers from people going to the drive-thru, and I learned that two beers fit perfectly inside a Pringles can," quips Alfaro, who put in two years at the fast-food giant before stripping off his queso-splattered uniform and trading it for whites and a gig as a cook at an upscale bar and grill. "By the time I'd been there for a few months, I realized that I was getting a lot better at cooking, that I had a talent for cooking, and that I liked creating dishes and seeing the smiles on people's faces at the end of a meal," says Alfaro, who went on to spend several years cooking at various restaurants in Chicago. "Being in Chicago was the time in my life that I was wild and reckless and everything was spinning out of control," admits Alfaro, who ultimately decided that "dumping out of bars at four in the morning" wasn't his thing.
Instead, he returned to Arizona and enrolled in an apprenticeship program in conjunction with the American Culinary Federation, an opportunity that, unlike culinary school, pays chefs to work in restaurants -- and he cooked in plenty of kitchens, including the Phoenician Resort, the Arizona Biltmore and Tempe Mission Palms, where he spent eight years, working both front- and back-of-house jobs. "I wanted to learn as much as I could about running a restaurant -- and I liked being in clean clothes -- so while I started as a line cook, I eventually moved my way up to front-of-house management, learning a ton along the way," says Alfaro.
In the years that followed, he cooked in numerous restaurants in Lake Tahoe and eventually opened his own restaurant in Illinois, which he closed a year and a half later "because of the financial strains." Still, while most of the money he lost was his own, he acknowledges that there was an upside: "The whole experience taught me how to make a restaurant come to fruition, and I'm still thankful for that."
Not long after he shuttered his own place, Alfaro and his wife moved to Denver, and in 2006, he was hired as the executive chef at Toast, a breakfast-and-lunch joint in Littleton, where he cooked for just over three years. He left to focus on parenting his five kids, including his niece and nephew, whom he'd adopted while cooking at Toast.