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Interview with Sam Mason

WD-50, New York City

What's your favorite new ingredient?
I've been using a lot of olives. I like kalamatas because they're really briny. I confit them like you would a cherry. You can always mimic a cherry with an olive, once you let the sherry and port do their thing. I'm making clafoutis with olives. And now I'm dehydrating them so they're like olive candy. I'm working on an olive pop tart (nice pureed olives and dehydrated olive pieces on top).

What's the most versatile spice?
Pepper in general. I prefer Thai long pepper; it's reminiscent of pine.

What's the most underused spice?
I'm a big fan of cumin. I don't think I ever liked it before, but I've become affectionate toward it. Cardamom is great, too. I just love the whole spice rack.

What's your favorite pan?
I'm happy with a black steel pan that's well seasoned.

What's your favorite place to buy equipment?
We get a lot of things on eBay, from immersion circulators to liquid-nitrogen Dewars.

What's the kitchen appliance you wish for most?
A spray dryer from Büchi, but it's around $30,000, so it would never pay for itself. You put in maltodextrin and a liquid like tomato juice, and the machine turns it into a dry powder. And I want a Rotavapor, which can be used for making essential oils.

What's the best restaurant dish you ate in 2005?
The smoked bacon and egg ice cream dessert at the Fat Duck [in Bray, England]. They do it tableside. You get a nice piece of crispy brioche and a carton of six eggs with "Fat Duck" stamped on each. Then the server comes and cracks two of the eggs into a sauté pan. You would think they were just raw eggs, but they've been emptied and refilled with ice cream base. And then the server puts liquid nitrogen on the eggs and scoops it all up on top of the brioche.

What's your favorite sushi place?
I go to Blue Ribbon Sushi [in Manhattan]. A lot of people would disagree but that's fine.

What restaurant would you want to eat in once a week?
Peasant and Lupa [both in New York City].

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?
Seven. It's hard because we're so wrapped up in the science but the key is to stay true to the ingredients. So it's a catch-22. We're already typecast as being over-the-top in terms of science, but I think we give a good contrast, or a good mixture. Wylie [Dufresne] is fanatic about local produce. It's easy to get away from that, but we have a good grasp of flavors. Sometimes chemicals can help you get a truer flavor by getting rid of fats and other flavor blockers.

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?
My stepfather uses the dehydrator more than we do. He makes beef jerky. Maybe the Pacojet will catch on if they make a small model, but I don't know about cryovacking. We're working on freeze dryers and vacuum fryers. It's a fryer that's under a vacuum so you can fry things at a lower temperature. It saves your oil. Chicken isn't crispier. But it doesn't fry so aggressively, so you can get a lighter color.

From whom would you most like to take a cooking class?
Joan and Jordi Roca [of Celler de Can Roca in Girona, Spain]—as far as sous vide goes, they're masters. [Spanish chef] Dani Garcia—when it comes to liquid nitrogen, he's done absolutely everything. Pedro Subjiana at Akelaŕe [in San Sebastien, Spain]—he just has a great mustache.

Spanish chef Ferran Adrià has been a big influence on chefs recently; what or who do you think will take his place?
Heston [Blumenthal] and Ferran are on the same level to me. I'm going to work at El Bulli soon, time permitting. It's going to be so cool. Heston and Ferran and [Washington, DC, chef] José Andrés ate dinner at the same time here and loved it (Heston sat separately. Ferran and José ate together). People asked if I was laughing the whole time, but I wasn't. I was shaking. But we started a friendly rapport with Ferran.

Do you have any food-related superstitions?
I can't use garlic. I just don't think it has a place in my desserts but I'll do almost anything else. I use foie gras in my desserts. I don't care. It's just a fat and makes a good buttercream.

What's the best chocolate brand?
I'm still a Valrhona guy, only because of its availability. It's a quality product—it's always accurate, never really changes, though it's a little pricey. I've never been picky about my chocolates. I'm not a chocolate snob.

What's your favorite patisserie?
Falai [down the block from WD-50].

What's your favorite new dessert?
I like the corn-bread ice cream on a crunchy corn concoction with sweet dried onions and pea greens, as well as the banana sous vide in whiskey caramel with smoked chocolate ice cream and Guinness stout foam. I normally don't make super masculine desserts. But you could smoke a cigar with this one. Or watch football, I guess.

What trends do you see in desserts?
I'm not really in the know about what other pastry chefs are doing since I don't usually eat desserts when I'm out because I'm not a sugar fan. I find most desserts are too cloying. I'd want to see less sweet desserts, and desserts that combine sweet and savory.

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