Taste of Italy on the Front Range
September 8, 2012
On numerous occasions since I started my Behind the Scenes column, I’ve been asked, “Have you read Anthony Bourdain’s ‘Kitchen Confidential’?” To which I always answered, “No.” Then the usual banter urging me to read the book ensued. After a respected chef friend of mine recently mentioned the book, I decided it was time to read it. Why not? Amazon makes impulse buying for my iPad so easy. So – on impulse – I bought the book. As I write this, I’m still pouring through it, at times disgusted, at others amused, but at all times intrigued.
Who am I to counter Bourdain’s experiences during his lauded career? I’ve been fortunate in my “amateur career” in noted Vail Valley kitchens to miss the seedier restaurant experiences that fill Bourdain’s book, although I’m sure they exist. What I do consistently find are hardworking, often quirky, talented cooks and chefs. I recently found such talent on a hot August Saturday in one of Denver’s best restaurants, Luca d’Italia.
Named for acclaimed chef Frank Bonanno’s son Luca, this prized member of the Bonanno Concepts family is a small Denver dining jewel on Grant Street around the corner from its Seventh Avenue sister, Mizuna. According to the restaurant’s website, its offerings pay homage to Bonanno’s Italian roots, including his mother’s New Jersey kitchen. Since my early culinary experiences were beside my Sicilian grandmother, it seemed to be the perfect place for me. Needless to say, the lovely dinners I’ve enjoyed at Luca added to my intrigue and desire to experience this Bonanno kitchen.
With precision, I arrived at straight up noon. After chatting through a brief culinary exploration of Italy with Executive Chef Hunter Pritchett, I was ready to experience the kitchen. For the quantity and quality of what this kitchen produces, it’s tiny. Throughout the day and into the frenetic pace of service, I witnessed optimization of space and the ability of chefs, cooks, dishwasher and servers to dance around one another, never missing a beat. These guys were good!
First on Pritchett’s list was to make lardo spread. Pritchett handed me a huge metal bowl of lardo – pork fatback cured with salt and herbs such as rosemary. Pritchett uses Berkshire pigs he butchers himself, utilizing nearly everything for one delicious dish or another. My job was to help with the weekly task of grinding and whipping lardo to make “house butter.”
As I gingerly placed fatback pieces into the grinder’s tube and pushed with a plastic “pusher,” I had flashbacks to my grandfather’s New Orleans butcher shop. The pusher was not quite my grandfather’s beautiful, well-honed piece of wood, but it got the job done.
The grinder spit out long strands of lardo that were then whipped in a huge vertical mixer until the strands merged into a light, smooth paste speckled with bits of fresh rosemary. As he did for the rest of the evening with so many dishes – and with me as a willing recipient – Pritchett gave me a taste of the lardo. For a brief moment, I was back in Italy with house-made lardo spread on equally fresh focaccia. One of life’s simple gastronomic pleasures. If I’m going to challenge my body’s ability to deal with cholesterol, I’m going to do it with delicious food such as this. Besides, Italians live long, fairly healthy lives, so enjoy! Everything in moderation.
Behind me, chef David Prebish was busy at work with his daily production of grissini. The thin, crunchy flour creations, often mixed with herbs, garlic or cheese, are too delicious to call “breadsticks.” Luca’s grissini – as tasty and light as their Piemonte cousins – and their focaccia are made daily. On this day, Prebish made more than 300 grissini with fennel seed and Parmesan. But even though grissini are the first to disappear from the wooden bread bowls, the focaccia’s delicious, so it’s not a national emergency if they run out before you’re seated.
While I was mesmerized with my macho grinding task, and totally oblivious to my surroundings, someone flipped on Pandora playing soft rock from ’70s as the kitchen filled with chefs and the cooks prepping for evening service. No techno for a change! They all greeted me kindly before returning to the prepping fortresses they had staked out for themselves in the small room.
A word about the kitchen to give you an idea of how it’s laid out. The hot line is located along a common wall with the dining room. From the line, Pritchett can keep an eye on the diners – and diners on him – through the small glass window. The small walk-in and freezer are side by side down a short hall from the front of the house to the back entrance. In the room next to the hotline was the kitchen beehive – the garde-manger, dishwasher, prep sinks and counters. It was in that small roughly 20-foot-by-20-foot room that I – the only woman in the kitchen and the oldest of all – happily spent 10 hot hours.
Once Pritchett’s full team was assembled, I worked hard to find something I could do. These men were nearly automated as they each worked through their prep lists. They could not have been more generous with their knowledge and patience with my sometime lacking skills. For example, chef Chris Hoffman, who was on his last night before he left for hotel-management studies at University of Denver, called me over to help with the daily production of mozzarella.
I watched as Hoffman poured hot whey into a large bowl filled with Cambria cow’s milk curds. After allowing a few minutes for the curds to soften, Hoffman plunged his double-gloved hands into the hot whey, grabbing a large fistful of soft curds. He then expertly worked the curds to form balls, which he then pulled like taffy eight or nine times until the cords were shiny. From there, he rolled the cords back onto themselves to form shiny, smooth balls, which he wrapped tightly in kitchen wrap. Looked simple enough. But it wasn’t.
Mozzarella is easy to make, but it has to be done quickly or the curds get waterlogged. Too much pulling and the cords become tough. It’s a delicate balance. I was now about to make mozzarella for paying clients in one of Denver’s finest restaurants. Oh, the pressure! After a few attempts, each resulting in Hoffman tossing my masterpiece back into the whey, I gave up and just worked like a surgical nurse as I handed him sheets of kitchen wrap. As he approached the last curds – and was obviously satisfied he had enough for service – he urged me to try again. Perhaps I was feeling less pressure or I had watched him repeat the process enough, but whatever it was, I finally made two balls I could be proud of.
As I looked about for more culinary tasks, someone switched the music from my generation’s tunes to techno and rap. I knew then that service was approaching.
Suzanne Hoffman is a local attorney, wine importer and the Chambellan Provincial of the Southwest Region and Bailli (president) of the Vail chapter of the Chaine des Rotisseurs. She is passionate about all things gastronomique. For more background information on her “Behind the Scenes” series, go to http://www.facebook.com/vailvalleysecrets. Email comments about this story to firstname.lastname@example.org.