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Interview with Best New Chef Michael Carlson

How he got back to Italy. "Paul Bartolotta [of Chicago's Spiaggia] paid me a ridiculous amount of money to work with him at Ristorante Bartolotta Milwaukee—on the condition that I use the money to go back to Italy."

How he got Schwa. "The lease was passed on by a really good friend that I cooked with back in the day. He sold me his equipment for so, so cheap on the principle that I'd make good use of it."

How much Schwa's rent is. He won't say, "but it's less than my apartment's rent."

Career turning point. Going to Europe. It was the first time "I really thought about food."

Biggest influences. "I have two groups. For contemporary—Grant Achatz [F&W Best New Chef 2002] at Alinea, and Heston Blumenthal at the Fat Duck. Heston was a really cool cat—if you asked him a question, he'd take you to the picnic table out back, make sure you had a notebook and then explain things: 'This is how a congealing agent works.' And for hard-core Italian classic cuisine. Paul Bertolotta at Spiaggia and Valentino Marcattilii at San Domenico in Imola."

Biggest pet peeve in the kitchen. "I like a clean kitchen. Though oddly enough, I'm a messy cook."

How he copes with long hours. "I love it. I come in on my days off just to clean. I wish I had more time to work."

Ingredient obsession. "Pork bellies, lardo and large quantities of fat."

Favorite kitchen tool. Silpat baking mats.

All-time most memorable meal. "I have lots of them for different reasons. Fat Duck. And every time I eat Grant's food it makes me rethink...everything. Also, countless little trattorias in Italy—I don't remember their names but I remember exactly where I sat and what I had."

Favorite cheap eat. "You know what I dig that everyone else hates? Hard shell tacos. Gringo tacos–especially beef tongue."

Favorite guilty pleasure. "I'm a gummy bear freak. Gummy anything. No one can have them at Schwa. I go crazy."

What his next restaurant would be. The same as Schwa but with a little more space and a liquor license.

Favorite customer. "The Gebharts; they're an older couple who come in a lot. They recently went to El Bulli, and brought back a huge photo album of all the dishes they ate, and all these products to educate us about Spanish food. And they talk about us all the time on Egullet."

Most coveted pieces of equipment. "Cryovac machines are always cool. Immersion circulators are always cool too."

Published July 2006
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