Local culinary comfort genius, Samir Mohammad brings the soul back to the kitchen with his eclectic share of flavors and innovations. While striving to use and support local products, Mohammed currently creates fresh tastes to incorporate into the menu at Lala’s Pizzeria + Wine Bar. However, his notoriety spreads far past the kitchen at Lala’s, for he is also a key player in the Denver culinary scene. He currently cooks alongside some of the area’s most celebrated chefs and culinary experts in the Denver Five, a Leigh Sullivan Enterprise concept that focuses on exposing the talents of Denver’s culinary scene on a national level.
At an early age, Mohammad acquired a healthy amount of prestigious culinary exposure from his family, who has been recognized for their culinary excellence. Having been raised in Taos, New Mexico, a city that prides itself on the farm-to-table movement, he was taught the importance of supporting local fare. He recalls a time in Taos when mushrooms would come through the back door of the kitchen from a farm down the street and go straight to the cutting board. Now, he supports the attributes that local Colorado products provide: fresh products, vibrant colors, and full flavors. He incorporates local entities into the menu at Lala’s as often as possible and prides his kitchen in handcrafting every item from scratch.
Mohammad furthered his culinary career by joining the Coast Guard as a young professional. Armed with motivation and a frying pan, he would come to win several awards for his efforts in culinary excellence. The Coast Guard felt Mohammad’s work was worthy of the scholarship he received to graduate from Le Cordon Bleu in San Francisco.
Chef Mohammad shared a story over lunch last week that is full of ups, downs, and everything in between. I learned that through his experience Mohammad has earned his reputation of a determined and innovative workaholic.
Where did the cooking career all begin?
I started out at Taos, New Mexico. I started out at a Greasy Spoon at 13 years old, basically dishwashing and prep cooking, but slowly got involved in cooking. I was really getting involved and then I moved into an Italian restaurant that my uncle was running. As their dishwasher and prep cook, had a little bit of freedom to start playing with the sauces.
How was it working for family?
That was my first introduction to a kitchen “brigade,” which is run very old school. My uncle wasn’t afraid to yell at people. Everything was perfection and I think that’s something that’s lost these days and that’s something that I’ve always held near and dear and I think that’s what’s made me such a passionate chef.
Oh, of course! It’s lost everywhere.
I always keep that in the back of my mind, perfection. Nowadays with the whole Food Network thing blowing up, people have lost that and it’s more about a paycheck and a title. And I don’t mind a title as long as I’m making good food.
Where did you go from the family joint?
From there joined the Coast Guard, served four years and afterwards, they essentially paid for my culinary degree at Cordon Bleu in San Francisco. Moved back to Taos at 21 and the thing about Taos is that even when I was 13, the farm-to-table movement was huge. We didn’t want Shamrock. We didn’t want Sysco. Everything was SO farm-to-table. We were doing it over there before we were doing it over here (in Denver).
Soon I heard from an old chef I knew who was in Arizona and took over a kitchen and needed a ton of help. So I packed my stuff that night and the next morning I was on my way to Arizona. I didn’t have a place to stay. I just knew I had a job. My first day, I got there at four in the morning to find out we had a 400 person banquet to serve that night. After 3 years I had done the same foods over and over and my passion for cooking was depleting. On a whim I picked up and moved to Denver.
I read an article in a magazine that talked about the movement that was going on in Denver along with the artisan movement. I just heard through the grapevine that Denver was up and coming. I got a list of all the restaurants I wanted to work at and went door-to-door to every single one of them. Went to Blair at Borolo, Matt at Vesta (now, Corner House), and eventually number 40 on my list was a place called Pesce Fresco which is in Centennial. It’s an Italian fresh fish restaurant. I started there as a line cook and three days later I was the Executive Chef. Stayed for about 2 years and the owner sold the business. I even considered buying it; the person who it was eventually sold to was a pastry chef whose husband was a chef, so out I went!
From there I went to Village Court, answered an ad in Craigslist and went in there loving it. It’s a quaint, cute little wine bar. The kitchen is completely open in the middle of the restaurant. Village cork is where I really established my name in Denver. Within the first year we won Best New Restaurant, Best Wine Bar, Best Date Place, many different accolades. That’s when I got more involved with a lot of people I wanted to work for.
This last year was my biggest. I won Best Rising Chef for Westword and then was apart of the Denver 5. A plethora of accolades were coming in. The success kind of ended my time at Village Cork mainly because I was so involved with other activities, events and projects. We parted ways once I started having more of a responsibility to tend to the public relations side of cooking business.
How’s your overall transition into Lala’s been?
It’s been great. Here at Lala’s, it was a little rough and rocky at first because I was coming into a place that’s always busy. Typically as a chef you go into a place that’s not doing so well and try to get it up and running. But this place was already doing well, just needed a little help with the food. That was kind of my first obstacle, making the current menu taste good. I was also dealing with a whole new crew and a much bigger space and a lot more responsibility. Lala’s is way bigger than Village Cork. But it’s been great here, it’s my fifth month and I’m finally getting some footing and changing the menu. My old customers from village cork also started coming in (to Lala’s) and recognizing it was me working here now.
How do you like the vibe at Lala’s?
The vibe in here is killer. You can come here in flip-flops and board shorts or your business suit and you wouldn’t feel awkward either way. Great wine list, great food, great prices and that’s where we want to keep it. There’s no reason why we can’t be the best restaurants in the city. That’s what our goal is, to put great product out all around: service, wine list, cocktails, food, just make it a great experience overall.
Do you have any dishes that you consider to be your signature dish?
Duck Prosciutto, Chicken Liver Mousse, Cannellini Bean Puree, Lasagna and all the specials. You should be able to look at all of them and be able to tell, that’s Chef Samir. I have an affinity for unique dishes and flavors that stretch your curiosity.
As far as your projects with the Denver 5 and other community projects, what do you have going on?
The Denver 5 season has ended now, we cooked at a James Beard Dinner, which was the final event. Lala’s has got a good standing in the community. We have a great relationship with each other because we both are very involved. Chefs Up Front, Taste of the Nation, March of Dimes, Beaujolais, Denver Food and Wine, Taste of Elegance. We’re involved in all the big events that everyone needs to be involved in. But we’re also in smaller community events. Whatever comes our way, we support whatever involves educating people in food, sustainability, staying organic, staying local and anything to do with kids. I’ve got two little guys and try to fix the world a little a bit at a time by helping other children.
Other than that I’m a workaholic. Always working on something.
I hear that.
I can’t get away from it.
When you’re off, where do you eat?
I like to go to Boulder. I like Ratta, Pizzeria Local, and Oak on 14th
Oak on 14th seems to be making a little name for themselves lately.. I’ve heard good things.
Yeah, I think they’re doing a great job over there. Twelve Restaurant is also one of my favorites
Where have you been drinking?
Williams and Graham…and Linger is fun, too. I’m an old-fashioned kind of drinker.
Anything we should keep our ears open for?
Taste of Elegance, NYE at Lala’s. Just looking forward to a really good run. It’s a work in process trying to get the menu where I want it. I don’t want to shove it down people’s throat and shock them because there is such a good volume here. I’m just trying to develop (Lala’s) palate and gain their appreciation and figure out what the niche is here. So check the menu out, its always changing.