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Interview with Brian Hill

Francine Bistro, Camden, Maine

What's your favorite new ingredient?
I love tiny heirloom currant and cherry tomatoes. I like the pineapple-y white ones, the lime-flavored green ones and the red ones, which have a tangy gutsiness. I imagine that's how tomatoes started out before people turned them into the red blimps we have now. They provide a surprise for any dish. There's a local farmer that grows 40 different varieties of them.

What's the most versatile spice?
We just got in ajowan, which is a really cool summertime spice that resembles celery and caraway seed. It's a classy and even-tempered spice. We add it to a warm potato salad. It would also make a great seasoning for fish because of its clean, almost carrotlike flavor. You can find it in Indian markets.

What's the most underused spice?
I like nutmeg in savory foods. It adds a warm coziness to dishes. I like to season ricotta cheese with nutmeg before stuffing zucchini blossoms. But I can't stand nutmeg in desserts. Fennel seed is another beautiful ingredient; it adds a savory meatiness to any dish, even a vegetarian one.

What country makes the best olive oil?
I think that Greek olive oil is the most underrated at this point, but they're doing a great job. I don't like too many of the Tuscan olive oils, but Sicilian ones, especially those made in and around Trapani, are quite amazing. They add a butteriness and sweetness to fish without overpowering it.

What's your favorite knife?
I like the heavy-duty Global knives. I order them from The Knife Merchant. I like heavier blades because they allow more control. The thinner Global blades scare me.

What's your favorite pan?
Aside from nonstick pans, I also love a big, two-handled copper rondeaux for making braises or slow-simmering sauces.

What's your favorite place to buy equipment?
Bridge Kitchenware [bridgekitchenware.com].

What's your favorite mail-order source?
My favorite place in the world to get spices is Christina's Spice & Specialty Foods [617-576-2090] in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It's actually an ice cream shop and they opened an adjoining spice shop. The owner, Ray Ford, has the freshest spices and the best chocolate.

What equipment should be in every kitchen?
The tiny GE fryers sold at Wal-Mart are the best. Fill them with extra-virgin olive oil and it's the ultimate luxury, since anything fried in olive oil comes out perfect, no matter what all the textbooks say. Nonstick pans are also great. We love to stuff squash blossoms and then sauté them in a nonstick pan until they're crispy on one side.

If you could design one piece of serving equipment, what would it be?
I'd love it if someone would make really nice concave wooden plates to serve steaks on or a wooden bowl to serve braises in.

What's the best restaurant dish you ate in 2005?
I just had the crispy pork belly and pickled watermelon from Fatty Crab [in New York City]. I loved it. I wasn't expecting it to be that good, but it's absolutely brilliant. It's a cool combination of everything that's great about food.

What's your favorite sushi place?
I love Jewel Bako [in New York City]. Sushi is such a sacred thing to me, and I think it varies so much at each restaurant. My favorite local form is butter clams. I like to dig them, shuck them, and eat them with Tabasco and soy sauce right on the beach. I really do that.

What restaurant in your city would you want to eat in once a week?
Melissa Kelly at Primo [in Rockland, Maine] has such a fantastic operation that I wouldn't have a problem eating there once a week. I also love what Sam Hayward does at Fore Street [in Portland, Maine]. I love all the effort he puts into gathering great Maine ingredients.

If you were going to open a fast-food place, what kind of food would you serve?
I would love to have a little seafood shack serving Rhode IslandÐstyle calamari, which is calamari fried in semolina, then sautéed with mushrooms, butter, hot peppers, white wine, garlic and lots and lots of parsley.

A lot of chefs are getting into making things completely from scratch, like cheese. What would you like to make from scratch?
I like the idea of preserving fish, like making tuna confit. I also like the idea of making my own salt cod. On the whole, I'd like to spend more time on fish charcuterie.

On a scale of one to 10, with one representing an emphasis on using in-season ingredients as simply as possible and 10 championing high-tech, scientific cooking, where do you rank yourself?
I definitely think that simple, local, seasonal ingredients are the only way to go, but that shouldn't stop you from using technique....The idea of freezing something with liquid nitrogen shouldn't be part of the process.

If you could upgrade one piece of equipment in your kitchen, what would it be?
Since I have a six-burner stove for the restaurant, I'd like to have an eight-burner one. I love old Southbend stoves. I'm definitely an antique-stove person; I think they have more character. You can buy them from used-restaurant-equipment distributors.

Which newfangled piece of equipment (i.e., sous vide equipment, the Pacojet, the Thermomix or a dehydrator) do you think will gain a real place in home kitchens?
I hate all of those things, but I think the Pacojet sounds the most exciting. I find sous vide revolting, especially in this age of using organic vegetables and heirloom ingredients.

What's your favorite cookbook?
I just finished rereading Aquavit, Marcus Samuelsson's cookbook. And I also love Frank Stitt's Southern Table, which is beautiful. I love how refined and simple his dishes and restaurant philosophy is—what all chefs must wish their restaurants could be like. It's so organized and nicely put together.

What chefs inspire you?
Even though I'm not the biggest fan of David Bouley, I love his restaurant Upstairs [in New York City]. It's great when such a high-quality chef cooks in a small restaurant.

If you were given $1,000 to spend on food, equipment, travel or a restaurant meal, what would you buy? What about with $10?
I'd buy a big wood grill from J&R Manufacturing, a company out of Mesquite, Texas, that makes amazing wood grills. I also love those portable barbecue smokers with the fire pit on the side. You can throw them in the back of a pickup truck and have the best afternoon meal or put them the patio of a restaurant to take the kitchen outside. With $10, I'd go to the local hardware store and I'd buy a 10-inch cast-iron pan for dry-roasting mussels. We take plain old brook-grown mussels, roast them on a bed of herbs and season them with butter, lime and sea salt on top.

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