After earning a biology degree in 1995 from the University of Colorado, Alec Schuler had two urgent goals. “To travel and to ski,” he said with a smile as he sat with a cappuccino at Laughing Goat Coffeehouse. To finance his excursions he worked in restaurants, mainly as a waiter and eventually realized that he wanted to welcome guests to his own place.
Shuler studied at Manhattan’s Natural Gourmet Institute, cooked in Seattle and worked in a French restaurant in Spain because, he said, “The Spaniards wouldn’t hire me, because I wasn’t Spanish.” He returned to his “favorite place of all,” Boulder, to cook at L’Atelier and at Treppeda’s Ristorante in Niwot.
Shuler’s Arugula Bar e Ristorante opened in 2009 in the North Boulder space that was once home to A La Carte, a gourmet cafeteria, and Ristorante Laudisio. Arugula dishes ingredient-focused Italian and Mediterranean fare and Shuler’s brunch and lunch spot, Tangerine, followed next door a few years later.
After decades of sweating the details every night in various kitchens, Shuler now happily depends on Swedish-born Sven Hedenas, longtime former executive chef at Boulder’s 4th St. Bar & Grill. “I went away for two weeks at Christmas and I only got one text from the restaurant,” Shuler said.
Shuler’s focus is on his family. He and his Italian-Venezuelan wife, Gabriella, are parents of four rambunctious sons aged 9 and 7 with 20-month-old twins. “The kids are starting to learn about food. We were at a hamburger place recently and the 7-year-old asked the waiter if he could have some olive oil on the side,” Shuler said proudly.
In the first of an ongoing series of Out of the Kitchen Q&A’s, I sat down with Shuler at the Laughing Goat. An avid bike commuter, he bragged about his free parking spot right out front.
First thing you ever cooked? “I grew up on Long Island, and both of my parents were European-born. The first thing I cooked was probably rice. I really loved it when I was a kid. My favorite dish that my Mom made was roast chicken with rice. Risotto was served every Sunday for 20 years at my house.”
Best soundtrack for cooking? “A lot of the music I listen to is reggae. I find it very positive and uplifting. I also love listening to KGNU and I have since 1991. I really missed it when I moved away.”
Arugula’s menu changes twice a week. Why? “Instead of having a menu and then another menu of specials, we decided to change it up so we could use what is fresh. If a farmer brings us a bag of baby rutabagas, we can go ahead and use them. I like to get in four to eight pounds of seafood and serve all of it in an evening. I love our wine dinners the most because it gives us total freedom in the kitchen. We start with the wine and let it guide us to the food, not the other way around.”
Any sacred menu items? “The bison Bolognese and the sausage and cheese with penne have been on the menu since Day One.”
Local produce sources? “We get a lot of our local produce in season from Red Wagon Farm and also Oxford Gardens and Toohy and Sons Organic.”
Any restaurant pet peeves? “People get really picky sometimes. They don’t like the way we serve salt. Or they say the polenta’s too hot or get impatient. We create food to order from scratch. It’s not scoop-n-serve. It takes time. Or they’ll say that the waiter looked at them wrong.”
Will the family keep growing? “We are opening a second location of Tangerine in 2016 in Denver in a high rise that hasn’t been built yet.”
Advice to restaurant staff? “To provide hospitality you need to be kind and open. Come to the table with that attitude.”
Shuler shares polenta secrets
Polenta or creamy cornmeal has always been one of Alec Shuler’s go-to dishes because of its adaptability. Polenta can be served warm and creamy or cooled and cut in triangles to be baked or fried and topped with various sauces. It can be meaty or vegan with added protein, veggies and cheeses. Use stone-ground coarse cornmeal or polenta — Shuler uses Anson Mills brand and said there is only one secret to successful polenta making: “You have to be in the kitchen the whole time when you make polenta to keep it from scorching in the pan.”
1/2 gallon whole milk (or substitute*)
1 1/2 tablespoons sea salt
pinch freshly ground black pepper
pinch crushed red pepper
2 cups dry polenta (cornmeal)
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/8 pound butter
2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Chopped fresh herbs: Thyme,
Bring milk (or substitute) to a simmer in a saucepan and keep at lowest flame possible. Add salt, black pepper and red pepper. It’s important to add the salt now, not later. Slowly whisk in polenta, making sure there are no lumps in it. Cook for 30 minutes, stirring frequently to prevent scorching, then add grated cheese, butter, olive oil, herbs and any additional ingredients. Cook 10 minutes more while stirring frequently. Adjust seasonings to taste and serve immediately. Pour leftovers, if any, while still warm into a large shallow pan. After it cools overnight in the fridge, the firm polenta can be cut in squares or triangles that can be baked or fried. Makes six large or 12 small portions.
Substitutions: Skim milk, water or broth or a mix of those can be substituted for the whole milk.
Additions: Other herbs, greens, cooked vegetables, caramelized onions and bits of cooked bacon, ham or other ingredients can be added to the polenta near the end of cooking.
John Lehndorff hosts Radio Nibbles at 8:25 a.m. Thursdays on KGNU, 88.5 FM, 1390 FM, kgnu.org. Listen to archived shows at news.kgnu.org/category/radio-nibbles. Send your comments, quibbles and baked goods to: Nibbles@boulderweekly.com.