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Interview with Best New Chef Christopher Lee

How he got into the food business. Working at a bakery, illegally, when he was 13. "That's how I caught the bug. I knew I wanted to go to culinary school, but my mother is an educator, so I promised her I'd get a degree. I went to the College of Wooster in Ohio and during spring break, summer break, I'd go home and work with a caterer. I even catered at college—fraternity events and parents'-day weekends. I'd just do crudités, meat platters, dips, Nothing too crazy. But I've wanted to be a Best New Chef since I was 15 years old."

Career turning point. "As soon as I got to San Francisco, food took on shape. You'd see where products came from—I went to oyster farms and dug in the beds, I foraged for mushrooms in the woods. And just the love of food out there was awesome. Young America: Instead of going out and getting wasted, they'd go out and have a dinner party. Fun revolved around food and wine. I loved that."

Most memorable experience. "One time I was messing around with Chef Alex Lee and we made a foie gras flan. Chef Daniel Boulud put it on a plate and brought it out to a VIP guest."

Most humbling moment. "Once at Daniel, I pureed an herb sachet into the Jerusalem artichoke soup. We caught it before it did major damage, but that was still pretty embarrassing."

Biggest pet peeve in the kitchen. Keeping knives sharp. "I can't stand dull knives. We do knife tests here. I can just hear it, and I'll make a knife call—everybody has to show their knife. It's like a challenge—and as a line cook you don't want to fail a chef's challenge. "

How he keeps perspective. By keeping a sense of humor. "Some people think they're the messiah—going on about certain potatoes from certain farms. That doesn't turn me on. I love great products, but you can't take it too seriously. I could care less if I come up with the next great cooking technique. I live for popular response: When someone tells me they love something, that's what gets me going."

Latest obsession. Ferran Adrià's recipe for caviar, which uses alginate to give a caviarlike consistency to ingredients from apples to olive oil. "It took us a year to perfect the recipe. Now we're doing honey-white balsamic vinegar caviar, served with Tasmanian sea trout. I'm in love with it."

Favorite comfort food. "I love soups. Not a day goes by that I don't have 10 Campbell's soup cans in my cupboard. I usually make my own, but I keep them just in case. "

Favorite kitchen tool. A spoon—"I feel about spoons the ways painters feel about brushes. The spoon should be bigger than a teaspoon but not too big."

Fantasy splurge. "I'd take three weeks to backpack around Italy and learn old-world cooking. To me that's a splurge. Backpacking keeps it real, but if there's an unlimited hotel budget, that would be good too."

All-time most memorable meal. "My first date with my wife, Melissa. I was working at Jean Georges and I took her there. The kitchen went off and the food was incredible. Melissa didn't understand food so well; she was flabbergasted. Now it's a curse—all she wants to do is go out to eat in fancy restaurants."

Favorite guilty pleasure. Halal Gyro and Chicken cart on 53rd Street and Sixth Ave in NYC. "I can't stay away from it. I was there on Christmas Eve and waited two and a half hours on line to get the lamb gyro with white sauce. It's open from 7:30 p.m. to 4 in the morning. At any given time you're waiting 30 minutes, when it's bad, more than an hour. I've driven from Philly just for that white sauce."

What he'd be if he wasn't a chef. "I'd build motorcycles. I'm trying to learn to drive them now, my wife made me get life insurance. When I retire, I'm going to build choppers."

Food trend he most dislikes. "Dislike? I love food trends. I love that when trends hit, you've got to go for it."

Who he'd team up with to open a restaurant. "I've always told Alfred [Portale] I'd like to do a restaurant with him. He knows that. "

Coveted piece of equipment. A combi oven with a steam option.

Advice to future cooks. "Don't take short cuts—it will come back to haunt you. And eat! Keep eating."

Published June 2006
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