I am thrilled when I get an opportunity to talk to staff members who work behind the scenes. This is the lifeblood of a business and can give great insight into why a business is successful. I am a huge fan of Chef David McClelland of The Laureate Publick House. This began when I started to order desserts at The Laureate. The unique ingredients and fabulous taste got me hooked and I rarely pass up a dessert when I go there. The entrées are equally delectable and my assumption about Chef David was that he attended a culinary school. I was surprised to find out that he gained his skills on the job.
If the first impression you get when you meet Chef David is that he looks clean cut and collegiate, you would be quite right. David attended Fort Lewis College to pursue a degree in music performance, studying the trombone.
When I had a chance to talk with Chef David, I was curious how he got started in cooking and wanted to know some details about his background. David’s very first kitchen job was at the Budweiser Events Center for Ovations Food Services. His job duties were serving and set-up, but he did get to do a fair share of cooking on the line. The chef at the time was Chef Marco. David saw the chef as being intensely scary and because he was so young he stayed away from Chef Marco as much as possible.
David considers that his first real kitchen job was at The Stone Ridge Grill at Mariana Butte Golf Course. He started working there when he was 19, the summer before he moved to Durango to attend Fort Lewis College. David worked a couple different jobs during his first year and a half at school. He managed a laundromat for a short time, and also worked part time at the front desk of the college to make ends meet.
At the end of David’s second summer in Durango, his roommate’s buddy was quitting his job at a local restaurant. He was able to get David an interview at a wonderful Mediterranean restaurant called the Cyprus Café. The Cyprus is one of the more “high-end” dining establishments in Durango and is very well known and liked by all in the surrounding area. It has been written up in Bon Appetite, Sunset Magazine, and The New York Times. David was employed at this establishment just shy of 4 years. He gives all the credit for his skill in the kitchen to the knowledge he gained while working there with Chef Vera Hansen. She was hired as the chef in 1996 and still holds the position, with gusto! David worked with Chef Vera 5-6 days a week for 3 years. From David’s perspective, “Every day was like the best day at school and essentially everything I know about the kitchen came from the Cyprus.”
After eating a meal at The Laureate, I try and get a few minutes with David to tell him what an excellent job he is doing. I recently received this note from David and it sums up what his driving force is. “Thanks so much for all of your support and kind words, I love my job because of people like you, it make me excited to wake up in the morning and get into the kitchen and create something that people really enjoy! The best part of my day is after the dinner rush; walking into the dining room and seeing all the happy faces and listening to the laughter. That means we all did our job well that day and makes me so stoked to get back in and do it all again!” I only wish more people were this excited to go to work each day, focusing on making other people happy.
MAH: What are the biggest challenges you face in your day to day cooking at The Laureate?
David: The most challenging part of this job would be the hoodless kitchen as a whole! I have never worked in a kitchen without the whole open flame thing. As far as the cooking apparatuses go, we have an Alto Shaam which goes only to 325 degrees, a couple of induction burners, and a Panini press. Learning what we can and cannot do as far as cooking has been and will continue to be a huge challenge. Because of our limited cooking abilities, I feel it forces us to be more creative on a daily basis which sometimes works smashingly, and other times we have to pursue a different route. It’s been a fun challenge. Another challenge is our space issue. We don’t have much space for storage etc, what space we do have is shared with the bar, so in that sense it forces us to be super fresh which I love and think people can see and taste it in their food!
MAH: You do focus on creating interesting dessert. Are you a dessert lover, or is there another reason for this?
David: I have never been a really big sweets guy and definitely don’t have a “sweet tooth,” as you will. But I do appreciate a good dessert and will always have at least a bite! Cooking is such a big world and there are so many flavor combinations. It’s fun to play around and try something unique each time. We don’t have a set dessert menu so we get to switch it up a couple times a week and people have really been catching onto our sundries! I have to give a lot of the dessert credit to my Sous Chef, Ashley Smith, who is absolutely amazing at what she does. She works hard, day in and day out, always thinking of the next best thing. She is truly a genius in the kitchen and together we make a pretty all right team!!!
MAH: Are you currently doing anything with your music background or do you plan on doing anything in the future?
David: I don’t currently practice music much. I play the piano everyday but just as a great form of meditation and relaxation for me to just zone out and think. I quit pursuing music because I decided I would rather keep it as a hobby versus a profession. I was scared I would burn out if I kept playing as much as I was and I love music far too much to ever let that happen.
MAH: What are a few key lessons that you learned from Chef Vera that you continue to use today in your work?
David: The biggest lessons I learned from Vera is just cook! Also listen to your heart, and develop good relations with customers, staff, and purveyors. A happy work place is a successful workplace. Laugh a lot and be passionate in everything you do. Some days are better than others, but just cook good food and people will come! Don’t be scared to push the envelope and try new things. It is called creativity for a reason!
MAH: Do you have a favorite recipe?
David: This is a hard question for me. I really don’t have a favorite recipe. If I had to choose something, it would probably have to be my Cranberry Spinach Alfredo with pappardelle noodles and some grilled chicken! Or, Braised Lamb Shank with a bacon lentil ragù, topped with crispy pancetta and a bacon-shallot marmalade.