Stephen McCary, chef of Mizuna: "I'd love it if the words 'molecular gastronomy' would die"
This is part one of my interview with Steve McCary, exec chef of Mizuna; tune in tomorrow for part two of our chat.
It's mid-afternoon on a Tuesday, and Mizuna's kitchen is already buzzing in preparation for dinner service. On the line, executive chef Stephen McCary, a six-year veteran of the venerable restaurant -- still one of Denver's most coveted reservations -- is fielding questions posed by his staff, responding to their inquiries in a soft Southern drawl that reflects his Alabama upbringing, which involved blueberries and peas, squashes and melons, corn and tomatoes, all of which were grown in the two-acre garden on his grandparents' homestead.
"I used to spend a lot of time in that garden, fighting off bugs in 100-degree heat, but I was most at home in my grandmother's kitchen," remembers McCary. "I'd help my grandma as much as I could when I was really young, and once I could touch the stove, I started cooking a lot, starting with pancakes," which, he admits, were "originally pretty messed up and burnt."
Nonetheless, McCary knew that a culinary-focused career was in his future. "We always went to Florida on our vacations, and we'd spend a lot of time at all the fry shacks on the water, and I wanted to own one of those," says McCary. But instead of building castles in the sand, he used his hands -- and the beachfront soil -- to build kitchens.
And he soon found himself working in one at a Subway sandwich shop, which was followed up by a stint as a pizza-delivery driver and a grunt job loading ice cream on a truck for Blue Bell Creameries. "Do you want to know the craziest -- make that the stupidest -- thing I've ever done?" asks McCary. "When I was working for Blue Bell, I made a bet with some of the guys that I could pull a load of ice cream on the truck in nothing but gloves, shoes, boxer shorts and a hat in 25-degree-below weather." If he accomplished the feat, he would collect $300. "I did it, and it was very, very painful, and I almost had hypothermia," he remembers.
His next decision -- to attend culinary school at the Charleston, South Carolina, campus of Johnson & Wales -- proved to be a far more intelligent call. "I started off in the culinary department to learn how to cook, and really started falling in love with the cooking side of things," says McCary, who spent six years in Charleston immersing himself in French and coastal Carolinian cuisine.