El Moro chef Charlie Curtis: I’ve been invited to so many parties where I didn’t realize I was the help

by David Holub

Restaurants: Like royalty, we leisurely peruse a menu, decide on what might be the best thing we’ve ever tasted, then casually command it be prepared out of sight, then presented before us at once. But what about those folks behind the swinging doors? We caught up with El Moro chef Charlie Curtis about the life of a chef, both in and out of work.

Do you chef it up at home?

I actually have very little food. I am most likely to have a frozen corn dog that I don’t even bother to heat up in the oven but in the microwave. I’m also a big fan of Chef Boyardee spaghetti and meatballs out of the can. True story. Everything tastes like work. It’s maintenance. That’s pretty much food for me.

What’s your favorite dish to make?

My favorite dish in the world to make is coq au vin, which is a French dish. It’s chicken that’s been stewed in red wine, and it’s more exciting than it actually sounds. I like the dish, I like the process. I was trained French. It’s almost a two-day process. In the end when it comes out, it’s just comfort food; it’s French soul food. It’s chicken that’s been fried then braised in, generally, a really good red wine, usually a pinot noir. And it has bacon and/or fatback and mushrooms and a lot of thyme and caramelized onions and it’s usually served over rice. I generally do it over mashed potatoes. It’s comfort food, but it’s really complicated comfort food, so I like that.

What’s your strategy as a chef?

Our whole gig (at El Moro) is that we like to find a thing everybody knows and then find some different way to present it. Pot roast. What can we do with pot roast that would be something different? So we wrap it in an egg-roll wrapper with some mashed potatoes inside it and we serve it with brown gravy as a dipping sauce.

When you eat out, what drives you crazy?

When I see the price and I know what they paid for it. Sometimes I look at the exorbitant prices and I’m like, you gotta be [bleeping] kidding me. There’s no way. I know you have $3.79 into this dish and you’re somehow charging $29.99 for it? That makes me really, really angry.

And what do you love to see when you’re eating out?

I love to be surprised by something. This is going to make me sound like a bastard, but it really doesn’t happen in Durango a lot. But when I travel and when I go somewhere else, I really like to be genuinely surprised by something, something where I go, “goddammit, you’re smarter than I am.” And it makes me so angry when people are smarter than I am. Like, why didn’t I think of that? I like it when someone does something really playful or they just stay totally true to style and slay it.

Can you think of something?

There’s a place in Portland called The Kells. It’s an Irish restaurant, I guess. Big soccer bar. They make the best [bleeping] chicken wings I’ve ever had in my life. They went back and said, let’s do this perfectly. And it’s a Jameson barbecue sauce that’s a little bit spicy and it is freakishly addictive. I like that. I like when somebody says, “I’m going to make you the best Rueben sandwich you’ve ever had in your life,” and they just slay it. I think that’s fantastic. And if not, surprise me; do something I haven’t thought of. I’ve stolen so much stuff from other restaurants where I walk in and I’m like, “Wow, I’ve never thought about doing that.”

What do people assume about you and/or ask you because they know you’re a chef?

I’ve been invited to so many parties where I didn’t realize I was the help … I think they tend to assume we’re all snobs, and I’m not. People tend to not cook for me because they’re afraid to do that. The truth is, I’m really, really grateful if somebody will make a meal for me … It’s a little frustrating when they’re like, “I’m not going to cook for you because you’re going to hate it,” and I’m like, “Open up a can of Hormel chili and let’s eat that together and have a nice time.”

If you could share one secret about cooking, what would it be?

OK, there’s only four ways to cook food. Learn those four methods and you’ll be fine. It’s direct heat, it’s indirect heat, you can steam it, you can braise it. That’s it; that’s all you got. So, learn what those four things are and then you can walk into the grocery store and you can say, “I know what to do with that.” Learn how to cook rice; learn how to cook raw beans. It’ll save you a lot of money; it’ll be better food and, frankly, when the zombies come, we’re going to run out of canned food quick, so learn how to deal with that stuff. And teach each other how to cook. Have fun.

– David Holub


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