F&W Star Chef
Restaurant: Congress (Austin)
Experience: The Stoneleigh Hotel & Spa, the Mansion on Turtle Creek (Dallas)
Education: Culinary Institute of America
What’s your signature dish?
Potato gnocchi. They are comforting and familiar, but can be elevated and refined. My latest version is potato gnocchi with merguez, fava beans, roasted tomato and mint pesto.
What’s a dish that tells your story as a chef?
Beef tongue pastrami with pickled cabbage and miso mustard on fried rye. I enjoy putting together dishes that are nostalgic and a little bit ironic and fun.
What’s the first dish you ever cooked yourself?
Tuna fish casserole. I remember being nine or 10 and working with my mother in the kitchen, and it didn’t turn out very well.
What ingredient will people be talking about in five years?
Chicken, because it’s overused. I think they are going to find ways to bring it back to a premium, elegant state and I think it deserves it. The entire process has to be revisited. I expect a chicken revolution.
What’s the best dish for a neophyte cook to try?
Pot roast. Braising intimidates a lot of people but it’s really simple. You need a large enough pan to accommodate the liquid and then cook the meat for as long as you can. People see a rump roast as a totally unfamiliar cut of beef, but it’s important to learn and research the different types of cuts because those often are the most delicious.
Who is your food mentor?
Dean Fearing, because of his leadership ability. I admire the way he ran the kitchen, always taking care of the staff and shaking everybody’s hand. The empowerment factor for all of his employees, and for me personally, helped make me a leader.
What’s your favorite cookbook of all-time?
The Flavor Bible, because it reads how I cook. I use it as a reference point to identify seasonality and the natural progression of flavor combinations, and I appreciate the insights from other chefs and menus.
What’s the most important skill you need to be a great cook?
Patience. Too often cooks are too in a hurry to own their own restaurants and skip over the fundamental basics. You have to believe in the process.
What’s the best bang-for-the-buck ingredient?
Celery. You can make it into almost any texture: a smooth puree, a crunchy ingredient, and then you have the aromatic effect. You can use all of the components: seed, root, leaves and celery hearts.
What’s your current food obsession?
Working with color, and creating single-color dishes. Our current escolar dish is inspired by the color purple, with purple fingerling potatoes, purple pearl onions, purple cabbage, grilled red oak lettuce, viola flowers and sauce beurre rouge (red wine butter sauce). The fish itself is white, but crusted in a juniper salt. The contrast is fantastic and it becomes an interactive dish when you erase the colors as you eat it.
What is the most cherished souvenir you’ve brought back from a trip?
A hand carved 25-pound wooden bull from Jamaica that I carried back on the plane. I collect Spanish bulls, and have a couple hundred of them.
If you were facing an emergency, and could only take one backpack of supplies, what would you bring?
A live chicken, which would give me eggs. Salt to cure anything that I could catch or find, flour, and two very small piglets, one male and one female. I’d include vegetable seeds to grow potatoes, corn and maybe heirloom tomatoes.
If you could invest in an (imaginary) restaurant project, what would it be?
A wood-fired, vegan restaurant to bring the sense of meat grilling to the vegan world.
What do you eat straight out of the fridge, standing up?
Boiled potatoes, cold. They are always tasty, as is my wife’s black bean salsa.
If you were going to take Thomas Keller, Tony Bourdain or Mario Batali out to eat, where would you go?
I’d like to take Thomas Keller to Per Se. I would pick his brain about everything, and really soak every ounce of information out of him within his own setting.
Why Because his Southwestern-inspired American cuisine is innovative, earthy and familiar.
Born Endicott, NY, 1974.
Education The Culinary Institute of America, Hyde Park, NY.
Experience The Mansion on Turtle Creek, Dallas.
Why he became a chef "My grandparents owned a small Italian restaurant in upstate New York. As a teenager, I would sit in the back room with my grandmother, peeling garlic, chatting and learning how to cook."
How he copes with the long hours "Growing up, I'd watch my mom work two or three jobs. That work ethic taught me how to be a chef. I always wanted to make the family proud, to say thanks."
Biggest kitchen disaster "When I was an extern at The Peabody hotel in Orlando, Florida, I had to make a concassé out of 15 cases of tomatoes, and I completely overcooked them. They didn't fire me, but I wasn't in charge of the tomatoes anymore."
Won Best New Chef at: Driskill Grill, Austin, TX
Congratulations to Mei Lin, winner of Top Chef Season 12.