Won Best New Chef at: RIA at the Waldorf Astoria Chicago.
Born: 1982; Northport, Long Island, NY.
Culinary school: The French Pastry School, Chicago.
First restaurant job: “In junior high school, I started washing dishes at a Mexican restaurant; there was lots of melted cheese on plates. I saw how much fun the kitchen was, so I got a job cooking at a small bistro. I worked there full-time while I was in high school, from junior year to graduating.”
Biggest influences: Bruce Sherman, chef/partner of North Pond (and an F&W Best New Chef 2003). “His philosophy on food is amazing. And also his emphasis on the importance of reading, seeing other things, being outside your own kitchen.”
Memorable cooking experience: “We were cooking Easter brunch at North Pond, and it was a weird Chicago Sunday, about 90 degrees outside. The power went out, and soon it was, like, 130 degrees in the kitchen. The whole team pulled together to finish service. The experience enhanced my senses; it was so quiet with no ventilation hoods going, my sense of smell felt like it was elevated.”
Pet peeve: Cooks who don’t taste as they go. “Some people get so hung up on the way things look, they forget the most important part. Which is seasoning and tasting.”
Culinary obsession: Cooking whole cuts of meat on the stovetop. “It’s such a beautiful way to slowly cook a piece of meat. One of my cooks loves the immersion circulator—I challenged him to a cooking contest, and I won.”
Favorite childhood meal: Thanksgiving. “My mom, my grandmother and my uncle Richie would throw down a ton of Italian food. When I was 10, I was stuffing mushrooms, shaping meatballs, making ravioli, rolling out spiedini.”
Favorite kitchen tool: iPad. “It’s helped organize me and the kitchen. We document recipes and ideas. I use it to take pictures, to communicate what’s going on. I have it with me at all times in the kitchen. I need some kind of iPad holster on my back, so I can just pull it out.”
Memorable meal: “I was blown away by Pierre Gagnaire in Paris. We ate at a bunch of other three-stars in Paris, but we weren’t prepared for how completely and masterfully put-together the meal we had at Gagnaire was.”
Cheap eat: Taqueria Traspasada. “It’s down the street from my house. It’s the size of a closet. They have the best tacos al pastor, and the best salsa: They do a green salsa and a charred red chile one as well. They get mad at me, because I always switch it up: They think I’m going green salsa and I go red.”
Favorite wine: White Burgundy. “It’s a joke at work—we call it breakfast. We say, It’s so delicious, you could drink it for breakfast. The 2006 Bonneau du Martray Corton-Charlemagne is a perfect wine.”
What he’d be if he weren’t a chef: “I have a weird interest in being a dentist. Not the kind that cleans teeth, the kind that reconstructs mouths. I’ve had this interest for years. I feel it most when I’m in the dentist’s chair—I think, I could do that!”
Twitter hero: “I follow the Food Snob [@FoodSnob]. He’s amazing. He makes going to Europe so much easier—now I know where to go.”
Congratulations to Mei Lin, winner of Top Chef Season 12.