It's a busy afternoon when Chris Swinyard emerges from the heart of the house at Vida Mexican Kitchen y Cantina. Dressed neatly in white, his blue eyes are fixed and focused. The chef has a story to tell.
Swinyard has cooked in five-star restaurants, on The Today Show with Bryant Gumbel and even in the White House. He now lends his creativity and love of layered flavor profiles to creating Mexican food that can please both the simplest and most sophisticated palettes. As he describes his journey from being a dishwasher in a California pizza kitchen to Chef Partner at one of the EpiCentre's newest jewels, the scent of fresh guacamole and locally made tortillas fills the air.
Creative Loafing: You're the head chef at this beautiful restaurant in the heart of the city. What got you here?
Chris Swinyard: I started out in California washing pizza pans in a parlor down the street from my house; worked my way up to a cook, and from there was never smart enough to get out. [Laughs] I went on to work as an executive chef for the Westin Hotel chain, and finally hooked up with Mark Miller of Red Sage in Washington, D.C., who at the time was the best guy to work with. I was doing some restaurant consulting and basically just taking the summer off when I ran into my neighbor; he told me that someone in his Bible class was looking for a Mexican restaurant and I was looking to run one. So a fluke, or luck I guess, is what got me here.
What's the distinction between a cook and a chef?
I think it's the desire to keep getting better at what you're doing and looking for new things to do. A tradesman cook can go in and work the flat top or grill for you, but a chef can create something from nothing and make it taste great, always trying to get better. If you're gonna be a chef, you've got to be able to think outside the box and nowadays you also have to be a manager. The bottom line is important. So, great food, great administrative abilities, great skills and still be able to dance the dance.
What's the biggest compliment you can receive — or have received — as a chef?
Wolfgang Puck once told me I made a great pizza. That was pretty awesome. We were making lemon and tamarind pizzas in a restaurant when he came in and tasted one. But aside from that, when my partners come in to Vida and are still jacked up about things and when people truly enjoy your food, it's great. At the end of the day, if I didn't think people appreciated what we do, I wouldn't do it.