“Michael is a whirlwind,” his staff told me as I sat down at the bar at Aria. Open for just one week, Aria is the second restaurant that Michael Long and Nick Gulotta have opened together. Michael admits he is tired after working a long string of doubles to get Aria open. “We didn’t know how many people would come on Christmas Eve so we prepped our holiday menu that day,” he says. From my perch at the bar, a couple glasses of wine and a delicious crab egg Benedict later, it seems as though Aria has been open for a long time. The staff is friendly and comfortable. The dining room feels homey and if brunch is any indication, the food is great.
I had met Michael on numerous occasions but when you interview a chef you always learn something new. Keep reading and find out why molecular gastronomy is like reggae, oysters in gelatin don’t sell and why Michael became a chef.
On culinary school: Michael Long attended the CIA in New York in 1999. At that time students worked front and back of the house at four different restaurants at the school. “We were judged by our peers, everyday. From day one of our classes we learned and then set up for service. We fed 50 students a day.”
Favorite class in culinary school: Guarde manger. We learned about pates and terrines.
Favorite teacher at the CIA: Arnold Baygna. I think he was actually mentioned in Anthony Bourdain’s book. He was an incredible tyrant and very demanding. He was famous for treating everyone like dogs. Either you got an A or you dropped the class.
Biggest influence: Norman Van Aken. I staged at his restaurant. He is the reigning influence in South Florida. His genre is world cuisine – as he put it – on a map my fingers can touch the Bahamas, Haiti, Cuba, New Orleans and the Yucatan. I still make a plantain-crusted grouper that is due to his influence.
In my kitchen: I use the “old fashioned” brigade system. Many of my line cooks are angry that they don’t get to plate their own dishes. In the brigade system cooks don’t stop cooking to plate things. I expedite but if need be I will step onto the line. In that case I work grill since I can work that station and still expedite.
On celebrity chefs: I am not immune to pursuing publicity. The more acclaim I get the more interesting dishes I can do. Chefs aren’t celebrities, they are cooks. I think it’s a measure of our society that we are “celebritizing” everything.
The best Chefs in the country: Charlie Trotter and Thomas Keller. Neither one, by the way, is on TV.
My ultimate goal: to retire wealthy.
Favorite station: Butchering, even though it’s not really a station. I always seem to get one more portion out of a piece of fish or meat than any of my line cooks.
Favorite cookbook: Happy in the Kitchen by Michel Richard. White Trash Cooking and Art Culinaire.
Favorite Kitchen Utensil: the tool that takes the top off raw eggs.
Favorite season for cooking: Fall. I love the ingredients – butternut squash, cranberries and sage.
Advice for young cooks: Learn to subjugate all your own needs and desires to the betterment of your team. Show up, keep up and shut up.
Advice for home cooks: Get the heat up to sear things. Sharpen and maintain a professional chefs knife.
Worst kitchen disaster: Earlier in my career in a restaurant that will remain unnamed, the ansul system went off during dinner service. I hate to say this but we walked off the line and never went back.
What do you love most about being a chef: the energy, the stress and the craziness. It fuels you.
How many problems do you solve on the fly during one service: At least 30.
What’s your favorite restaurant in Denver/Boulder: L’Atelier. Fruition.
Favorite white trash food: It’s not white trash food but I love the Italian hero sandwich from Old Time Deli.
Why did you become a chef: I worked in restaurants at first because I wanted to party and chase girls. Line cooks and chefs were the kings of the restaurant world. When I first started professionally cooking the more covers you did, the bigger the bad ass you were. You wanted to work at the largest restaurant so you could brag about how much food you could put out. Now, the best part of being a chef is making people happy, seeing them smile when a plate arrives at the table.
What is the hardest part of being a chef: managing people and getting customers to accept your dishes as written on your menu. I am, therefore, more ambiguous, on how I word things.
If could put anything on the menu and not worry about it selling: it would be Raymond Blanc’s dish – oysters, with sorrel and citrus caviar encased in oyster liquor gelatin. I’ve put it on several menus and no one orders it. I think the gelatin scares people away.
Rules in my kitchen: rules apply to everyone. Don’t cut the protein until the starch and veg are on the plate. I’m also not found of whistling.
Is Denver the next food city: we have to remember that our guests will make Denver the next food city. We can’t make it one. Instead of trying to make Denver something it’s not, why don’t we do something clever that people will like?
Molecular Gastronomy: I do a few things. I make Tabasco caviar. I use tranglutamate. Molecular gastronomy is like reggae. There is only one Bob Marley. Everything else is a copy. There is only one Ferran Adria. Remember all art is plagiarism or revolution.
If you could eat anywhere in the world: a meal with Michel Bras.
Your last meal: a bushel of oysters.
How do you relax after work: I watch Sports Center. I also play golf. I broke 80 three times last year.
Last words: I’m not as crazy as you may have heard.
Why eat at Aria: I was in Littleton doing fine dining for a long time. I heard many times that if Opus were in Denver more people would come. Now I’m in Denver Come in.
Aria – 250 Jospehine St., Cherry Creek. 303-377-4012. Lunch: Monday – Saturday: 11:00am – 3:00pm. Dinner: Sunday – Thursday: 5:00pm – 10:00pm, Friday- Saturday: 5:00pm – 11:00pm. Sunday Brunch: 5:00pm – 11:00pm