What's your favorite new ingredient?
Red ribbon sorrel, Hobbs' Applewood Smoked Meat Company speck, hog snapper and homemade pomegranate molasses.
What's the most versatile spice?
Thyme. You'd be hard-pressed to find something that it doesn't enhance, whether it's a stew or a vegetable, fish or meat.
What's the most underused spice?
Summer savory is one of the least used herbs and has great potential. It has a little bit of thyme-rosemary-lavender quality to it.
What items should be in every pantry?
Good olive oil for sure, a variety of really good vinegars and good quality salt. I know they're not very exotic, but they're really important. I also think a variety of rices—like Carolina Gold rice, a good, old heirloom variety, along with basmati and brown rice—plus dried beans and lentils are good to have. All the different types of lentils and beans—these are things that you can do so much with if you have them on hand.
What country makes the best olive oil?
Greece. I've got a Greek friend who makes this really good olive oil. I was able to go with him to Greece, where they grow and press the olives and it's phenomenal. There's not too much acidity; it has a good pH and is fruity, not flinty.
What's your favorite knife?
I love the MAC knife, and I think Wüsthof makes a really great knife. Those are knives that the general public can get their hands on.
What's your favorite pan?
I love Le Creuset for heavy, winter dishes, but for the every day, All-Clad is great.
What's your favorite place to buy equipment?
I always love to go to Bridge Kitchenware when I travel to New York City.
What's your favorite mail-order source?
Penzeys [Spices] does a good job for our spices [penzeys.com].
If you could design one piece of serving equipment, what would it be?
We already design our own plates and serving ware. Over 50 percent of our plates come from a local potter, Tena Payne of Earthborn Pottery. Since we opened, we've worked closely with artisans in our community to design ways to present our food.
What's your favorite place to go for wine?
Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant in Berkeley, California.
What's your favorite sushi place?
Nobu [in New York City] has always done a good job. I also went to Megu [in New York City] not too long away, and that place was just really incredible.
What restaurant in your city would you want to eat in once a week?
There's this great little Asian place in Homewood [Alabama], called the Super Oriental Market . They're mainly Chinese and they've got a tiny little restaurant in the back of their market called the Red Pearl Restaurant. They cook real-deal Chinese and sell everything—conch, cockles, eel, frogs, tilapia. It's hard to find that kind of diversity of food culture around here. They take really good, fresh Gulf shrimp, fry them whole and serve them with a great black bean sauce and a side of Szechuan eggplant. They also do great salt-roasted shrimp.
If you were going to open a fast-food place, what kind of food would you serve?
I'd open a tapas place because even though that's probably not what you're looking for, I consider that fast food. A noodle-bowl place would be my second choice. Noodle bowls are the thinking man's health food. You get intense flavors in a simple meal.
A lot of chefs are getting into making things completely from scratch, like cheese. What would you like to make from scratch?
Cheese. We do some very basic cheese making with farmer's cheeses and potted cheeses, but I don't have enough access to good goat's milk and sheep's milk to do other cheeses.
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?
Simple and seasonal is our mantra at the Hot and Hot and at all of our consulting projects. It is also the way we live our lives and cook at home. The high-tech stuff, in my opinion, will have its 15 minutes of fame but will never be how people eat, cook or live on a day-in-and-day-out basis. Food cooked in a plastic bag with foam on top will never be more compelling than a perfectly ripe heirloom tomato served with locally grown arugula, Sweet Grass Dairy goat cheese, great olive oil, a splash of aged balsamic and a pinch of sea salt.
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 like the dehydrator, most likely. I think a dehydrator has always been and will always be useful. It's a great tool for preserving things.
If you had $1,000 to spend on travel, where would you go?
I would travel to a place I'd never been and immerse myself in the food culture. Whenever I travel, I try not to hop-skip, but to plunk myself down for four or five days, get an apartment, visit the local food market, meet the guy at the wine shop and cheese shop, butcher and baker, and immerse myself in the culture to taste it, feel it. I like to fully immerse myself because that, to me, is the most beneficial thing. It's hard to do that for $1,000, but it's a start.