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Interview with Jason Knibb

Nine-Ten, La Jolla, CA

What's your favorite new ingredient?
Smoked paprika. It's so rich and intense, and it lends a lot of flavor without being overpowering. It reminds me of working with open flames.

What's the most versatile spice?
Coriander seed. It's used in almost every cuisine.

What's the most underused spice?
Lately, I'd say cumin. In the '80s it was super popular because that was when Southwestern cooking was getting big, but you don't see it being used much anymore.

What items should be in every pantry?
A great extra-virgin olive oil, good vinegar and sea salt and pepper. These four are the foundation.

What's your favorite knife?
My Masahiro slicer. I use it for everything even though I shouldn't.

What's your favorite pan?
At home I use a Le Creuset dutch oven and at the restaurant a Mauviel rondeau [a deep saute pan with two handles and a lid].

What's your favorite place to buy equipment?
JB Prince [jbprince.com]. They have all the new fun gadgets.

What's your favorite mail-order source?
I get almost all of my fish FedExed from Pierless Fish Corp [in New York City]. They have the best fish around, bar none.

What's the kitchen appliance you wish for most?
A combi [steam–circulated air] oven for the restaurant. I think they're the wave of the future. At home I'd want a gas range because I moved three weeks ago and my new place has an electric stove, which was almost a deal breaker.

What's your favorite sushi place?
Taka Sushi in the Gaslamp district [in San Diego] is my local favorite. They serve snapper topped with grated yuzu and sea salt that tastes really fresh and robust.

What restaurant would you want to eat in once a week?
I was just in New York City and ate at Upstairs and it was one of the better meals I've had. We ate everything; the nanzenji, homemade tofu with honshimeji mushrooms and truffle sauce, was especially great. It's a cool little spot with such a warm feeling. You really know they're cooking for you.

If you were going to open a fast-food place, what kind of food would you serve?
A jerk pork pit. My mom's been nagging me to do it. She lives in Florida, so I might open one up there.

A lot of chefs are getting into making things completely from scratch, like cheese. What would you like to make from scratch?
We're doing our own salumi in house and my pastry chef makes his own mozzarella. I tried to make tofu but it was horrible. It's a little technical. We bought soy milk and tried it and my friends all laughed at me. We're going to keep trying, though. It's on the to-do list.

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'm a four since we're so market-driven here. It's about the product first and then we go forward.

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 think the Thermomix, since it's so approachable. I'm not a fan of the Pacojet, and so many people already have crockpots that I don't see them getting into sous vide.

What ingredient used by avant-garde chefs (i.e., agar agar, transglutaminase, methylcellulose) do you think will make its way to home kitchens?
I think agar-agar is already being used in some Asian households. Activa (transglutaminase) might make it in the home kitchen. It basically bonds proteins. For example, you can make two chicken thighs stick together.

What's your favorite cookbook?
My two favorite books are Tom Colicchio's Think Like a Chef and Molly Stevens's All About Braising. We also refer to Paul Bertolli's Cooking By Hand a lot.

From whom would you most like to take a cooking class?
I like simplicity in food. I'd like to take a class with Paul Bocuse and Alice Waters.

If you were given $1,000 to spend on food, equipment, travel or a restaurant meal, what would you buy? What about with $10?
With $1,000 I'd travel to Spain. I'd go everywhere but I'd especially make sure I got to the Basque region. With $10 I'd get carnitas tacos from Nico's Tacos in San Diego.

Do you have any good stories about your regulars?
There's a local woman named Suzanne Figi who hosts a Valentine's Day luncheon at Nine-Ten every year. They go all out. They reserve a long bar table and get a florist to decorate it; this Valentine's Day, they brought in trees and had their own little jungle. We did a four-course lunch for them, including a soft-poached quail egg on top of mushrooms. She was my inspiration for that dish.

Do you have any food-related superstitions?
Mine is to not have any. I try to keep an open mind. Do you think Ferran Adrià wouldn't try something because of a superstition?

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