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Interview with Best New Chef Mary Dumont

Career turning point. "I was waiting tables in San Francisco at a now-defunct place called Alta Plaza Bar and Grill. One day, one of the cooks didn't show up, and I walked into the kitchen. I didn't even own a knife, but I knew this was what I was meant to do. Plus I was a horrible waitress."

First knife. "One night after a couple months of cooking, the executive chef at Alta Plaza pulled me into the dining room and said I had a lot of promise, and gave me my first knife. I still have it; it looks like a dagger now. I only use it at home. It's professionally retired."

Most eye-opening experience. Opening Sonoma Saveurs [Sonoma Foie Gras at the time], a place that specializes in duck foie gras. "Our opening got delayed a year because the foie gras scandal hit [when animal rights activists began bringing attention to the force-feeding of ducks and geese to make foie gras]. There were investigative reporters everywhere and a lot of people asking a lot of hard questions. I had to get an unlisted phone number and basically made myself disappear."

Most memorable experience. Cooking in Berlin at the Davidoff Gourmet Festival when she was 25 with countless famous chefs from around the world and realizing she was one of only two women cooking.

Biggest influences. Her mother, Maureen Dumont, chef Laurent Manrique and food writer Paula Wolfert.

Biggest hang-up in the kitchen. Cooks who don't season their food. "Or who only season at the end. It's like putting on a jacket that's too big."

How she spends her down time. "I have a great dog, Luna. And when it's warm, I swim in the ocean as much as possible."

Ingredient obsession. Radishes. "I love them. I've never met a bad radish."

Favorite childhood dish. "My mom made great mac and cheese. But my joke is, my mother knew how to make great reservations."

Most exotic item on her menu. Wild greens like purslane and miner's lettuce. "Cheap stuff that grows like weeds and isn't normally utilized."

Fantasy splurge. "I've always wanted to go to Andalucia because it's so beautiful with all the beaches and rich food history. And I love trying to speak Spanish."

Most memorable meal. Going to Spoon Food & Wine in Paris with Laurent Manrique and sitting next to the restaurant's chef/owner Alain Ducasse, a good friend of Manrique, who talked to her all night and kept filling her plate with food.

Favorite cheap eat. A "Moe's"— a hero with Italian cold cuts, provolone, pickles and onions— at Moe's, an Italian sub shop in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.

What she'd be if she wasn't a chef. A writer or a professional surfer. "I am a surfer, but not a professional and only when it's warm."

Food trend she most dislikes. "When chefs put 17 ingredients in a dish. It confuses the whole idea of what you're doing. You want to be focused and direct and concentrate and bring the most out of fewer ingredients."

Favorite cooking show Endless Feast, an upcoming series produced by an old surfing buddy, Jim Denevan, whose organization, Outstanding in the Field, pairs chefs with farmers.

Published June 2006
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