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Chef Laura: A baker's dozen



Calm, cool and collected perfectly describe Chef Alex Figura, 30, Executive Chef of Lower48 Kitchen.  This mod yet unpretentious restaurant hit the ballpark neighborhood eight months ago and has been delighting its customers ever since with an innovative and constantly evolving menu.

Having worked in fast-paced white tablecloth restaurants in NYC and beyond, Chef Alex survived the pressure cooker that is the Big Apple and escaped to Colorado three years ago without a single tattoo or chip on his shoulder. 

Instead, this thoughtful chef knows the importance of work-life balance.  He wants his staff to take care of grandma, enjoy a yoga class, or walk their pooch before coming to work.  I half expected him to be wearing a “Keep Calm and Carry On” t-shirt. 

I sat down with Chef Alex to get a sneak peek into this young chef’s brain. I figured if this same mind can create lamb bacon with squid ink vinaigrette, surely there are also some other fun nuggets inside that noggin.

Chef Laura: Favorite Fast Food Guilty Pleasure?

Alex Figura: A bursting-at-the-seams Chipotle chicken burrito with everythinng.  Otherwise, I’ll pass on the fast food.

 

CL: What do you make for yourself after work?

AF: Mom’s homemade granola with my girlfriend’s stash of chocolate almond milk.  I always crave chocolate at the end of the night; sweet over savory, for sure.

CL: Where do you go out to eat and/or where do you recommend out of town guests dine in Denver?

AF: (without hesitation) Dong Khanh Saigon Bowl for make-your-own Spring Rolls.  It’s authentic, fun, and interactive.

CL: Where do you see the Denver restaurant scene going?

AF: Food-focused, fun vibes, casual.  More interaction between FOH and BOH.  Colorado is bringing back the “human touch”.

CL: What’s the next big trend?

AF: Ramen shops and Nordic cusine are already on  the rise.  With the recent World Cup and upcomming Summer Olympics, South American Food - specifically Brazillan cusine - will increase in populariity.  Exotic ingredients found in the Amazon will work their way onto menus.

CL: Trends that are overplayed and you want them to die?

AF: The pizza market is saturated in Denver.  Went from too few to too many too fast. 

CL: When hiring, what characteristics do you look for that can’t be taught?

AF: Drive overrides it all.  Getting organized, being disciplined, etc. can be taught, but passion cannot.  I look for passion in whatever you do; be that going to the gym, walking your dog, being with your family, or working in a restaurant.  Other qualities I admire and try to demonstrate are employees who stay positive, are good listeners, and have a calming effect.

CL: After a customer dines at Lower48 Kitchen what do you want them to say about their experience?

AF: It was inventive, creative, and fun…an all around great experience.  Our server guided us through the menu with confidence.  And it was interactive – I sat at the Chef’s Counter and was part of the action.

CL: Worst Job?

AF: Working at a Southern-style restaurant.  I worked up the ranks from dishwasher but it was filthy and disorganized.  Yet at 16 years old, I knew I wanted to cook for a living.

CL: Aside from Lower 48 Kitchen, Best Job?

AF: Blue Hill at Stone Barns outside of NYC.  I worked there for 18 months and it was intense.

CL: Favorite BOH expression?

AF: My sous chef (and good friend) is always saying “We gotta go!” It’s his way of saying, “Let’s hustle”.  It fires us up and motivates us for the evening service. 

CL: Biggest kitchen disaster?

AL: It was my first week as lead line cook at Blue Hills.  We slaughtered our own chickens in-house.  I then needed to sous vide the 120 chicken breasts and left them too long in the water bath.  My head chef didn’t need to say much – he already knew how awful I felt.  It wasn’t that my ego was bruised, I just felt bad for the chickens.  I killed them twice.

CL: Craziest concoction success?

AF: Sunny side-up duck egg with a potato puree, smoked peanut butter, coleslaw and vegetable ash.

CL follow up: Vegetable what?

AF: We char the vegetable, dehydrate them, put it through a Robot Coupe (food proocessor), and sprinkle the ash on top of the plated dish.

Although he puts in the same crazy hours he did back in his New York days, he says working and living in Denver just feels diffferent.  Better.

Located just a baseball throw from Coors Field, he smiles as he watches all the Coloradans catching a game midday on a Tuesday.  “It’s like, don’t these people have jobs?” he laughs making his baby face look like that 16-year old dishwasher he once was.

For only a short tenure in Denver, I was surprised what a handle Chef Alex had on the Mile High’s City culture.  He gets it.  And hopefully he’ll stick around, even though  surely he and his team at Lower48 Kitchen “Gotta go!”

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Laura Cook Newman

Laura Cook Newman is a professional Chef and Training Manager for a Fortune 500 food manufacturer. She earned her chops at Johnson & Wales University, has an MBA in Marketing and hosts a blog for behind-the-scenes insights on the food service industry. Contact her at www.ThreeHotsAndaCot.net

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