Sharif Villa Cruz, exec chef of Corner House, on giving Brussels sprouts a break
This is part one of my interview with Sharif Villa Cruz, exec chef of Corner House; part two of our chat will run tomorrow.
It's a tradition in Mexico to "gather our families together for big meals, usually at our grandmother's house," says Sharif Villa Cruz. And Villa Cruz, today the executive chef at Corner House, spent much of his youth lingering in the kitchens of his kin, "cleaning dried hominy" for his grandmother's posole and eating lots of butter -- which his mother used instead of lard, much to the chagrin of other family members. "My mom never let us have soda, bad food or fast food," he recalls. "She made dinner every night using fresh ingredients from the market, and she always cooked with butter, which everyone else thought was weird."
But in Silverton, the Colorado mountain town where Villa Cruz moved when he was twelve, butter was prevalent in most kitchens, at home and in restaurants. And during a dinner at Keystone's Ski Tip Lodge, Villa Cruz realized that butter had equally magical counterparts, ingredients that had "never looked so pretty on the plate." That dinner, combined with a high-school shadowing day at the Ski Tip, convinced Villa Cruz that culinary school -- and cooking -- was his calling.
He enrolled in the culinary program at Colorado Mountain College, rotating through various Keystone restaurants, including Keystone Lodge, Ski Tip Lodge, Alpenglow Stube and even the employee cafeteria. But his dream was to cook in the kitchen at Keystone Ranch, which at the time was helmed by acclaimed chef David Welch, a culinary superstar for whom Villa Cruz has mad respect. "He's classic: He still wears his toque, and he's old-school, even mean, but he's also not afraid to grab a mop or scrub a plate," says Villa Cruz, who eventually had the opportunity to work beside Welch at Food Hedz World Cafe, Welch's unassuming restaurant in Frisco.
"David had left the Ranch and had opened Food Hedz, and I knew I wanted to work for him, and I got my wish when he hired me as a line cook," remembers Villa Cruz. Among other things, Welch taught him that "you don't need to use truffles in order to make food taste good."
Villa Cruz cooked alongside Welch for two years, finally departing to "see something more than the mountains and the boring winters," he explains. He moved to Boulder, landing at Tahona Tequila Bistro, where he started as an opening line cook and eventually moved up to sous-chef. He also put in time at L'Atelier, Centro and the now-closed Seven on Pearl, where he held the position of executive chef.
A co-worker from Seven had found a gig at TAG and encouraged Villa Cruz to drop off a résumé. He did, and for two years, he cooked in Troy Guard's flagship restaurant in Larimer Square. Family issues in Mexico required him to take a year away from the burners, but in 2011 he returned to Denver and shared space in the galley with Jensen Cummings, then the exec chef of Row 14, where Villa Cruz stayed for just over a year, until the tease of working in an upscale Mexican restaurant lured him away.