F&W Star Chef
Restaurant: Restaurant R’evolution (New Orleans)
Experience: Tru (Chicago), Trio (Evanston, IL)
First Restaurant Job: Wendy’s Old-Fashioned Hamburgers
Recipe you are most famous for?
It’s between my caviar staircase and my vanilla lobster gnocchi. I had the gnocchi at Tru for years, and then we brought it to Restaurant R’evolution. It’s ricotta gnocchi with lobster in a vanilla butter.
The caviar staircase started as the caviar palette when we opened Trio. I knew I wanted to have a caviar course in my degustation menu, but we had no money. So I had to figure out how to do this spectacular caviar presentation for nothing. Evanston is an artsy town, so I went around to these art shops and I found this palette. I set the different-colored caviars on it to make it look like a painter’s palette. When we got to Tru, we had a larger budget. So I hired a glass artist to help me design a staircase with eight steps: Four for the caviars, four for the condiments—the chopped egg white, the egg yolk, yellow onion, the capers. We also served homemade brioche and crème fraîche. You could buy different staircases, like the all-black staircase, a tasting of osetra, sevruga, beluga. Now we serve it at Restaurant R’evolution. The staircase has my name carved in it. We used to joke that it’s a signature dish, but now it’s signed, so it literally is a signature dish.
What is the most cherished souvenir you’ve brought back from a trip?
In 1981, my first trip to France, the morning we flew in, for my first lunch in Paris we went to the Saint-Germain, Robuchon’s 3-star Michelin. Third course comes, this salad, and there they were: the Robuchon croutons. Perfect mini croutons. I took one. If you remember, back in the day when we used film to take pictures, it came in black canisters. I put the Robuchon crouton in an empty film canister. I came home and I varnished it. I still have it in my home office, in a little glass case. I’m looking at it right now. In this room I have about 2,000 cookbooks, and one wall with all my badges and Beard awards. But people always go up to this one corner and say, “What’s that little speck?” That’s the Robuchon crouton.
What ingredients, techniques or trends are your current food obsessions?
I’m still obsessed with sous vide. I don’t know what I’d do without it. I vac-pack everything in portions and cook everything in bags at home. I use it a lot for eggs. My kids won’t eat eggs any other way now—spoiled little brats! When I have people over for dinner and they’ve never seen it before, they’re fascinated. It seems like it hasn’t even scratched the surface in the mainstream, so I try to encourage people. Every home has a toaster, why not an immersion circulator?
Favorite cookbook of all time?
Everyone always says Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry. For me, it was his book on sous vide, Under Pressure. I still go back to it, and try to do the recipes at home.
Garlic and citrus. I put garlic in everything, even scrambled eggs. It sounds so basic, but salt, pepper and garlic are always in front of me when I’m cooking.
I’m also a huge citrus person. I like to say citrus saved my dad’s life: He was a great Italian cook and loved food. He got cancer, and toward the end of his life, we set him up at a hospice. He’d been complaining that he couldn’t taste anything. When I brightened all his food with lemon and lime, he burst into tears because he actually could taste it again. It was magic.
What will we always find in your fridge?
Frontier salsa. People don’t always see me as a dad with three teenage kids at home who vacuum food. They all work out, they all play lacrosse, so there’s this massive amount of protein in our fridge: three dozen hard-boiled eggs, Greek yogurt and Frontier salsa, because they put salsa on everything, straight out of the jar.
What do you eat straight out of the fridge, standing up?
Cottage cheese. I’ll eat three or four bites with a spoon. I love to put a lot of cracked black pepper on it. The funny thing is I don’t eat any other dairy—no milk or ice cream—so I think that’s why my body craves it.
What is your favorite snack?
My store-bought weakness is white cheddar cheese Cheez-Its. It gets me that handful of crunch and salt that I need. I try to eat somewhat healthily because I’m tasting all the time at work. But when I’m home and craving salt, it’s usually a lot of popcorn and Cheez-Its.
What ingredient will people be talking about in five years?
For better or for worse, food in schools, and sustainable seafood. I’m continually trying to educate myself, my staff and my team, and working with the super-experts on seafood sustainability—the Rick Moonens of the world, the Tom Colicchios, who are so passionate about it. I think that we need to pay attention what’s happening in fishing right now. Getting better food into schools is also going to be a big piece, whether that trickles down into what Tom’s doing with his film on hunger in America [A Place at the Table], I think that’s going to be part of the conversation for a long time.
Who is your food mentor? What is the most important thing you learned from him or her?
Pierre Gagnaire. Gale [Gand] and I did a series of stages with him at his first restaurant in St-Étienne, before he did his second restaurant and before he went to Paris. Then every year or two, we’d make the pilgrimage to the restaurant. It’s like watching Picasso or Einstein. Being able to think that quickly on your feet, it’s like a spiritual thing. It just bleeds out of this guy. It’s such controlled chaos and franticness in his head. His kitchen is always very disciplined. But to see the chaotic, creative process in real time, that’s magic. It’s contagious and inspiring and amazing.
What’s one technique everyone should know?
My favorite technique, in my heart, and what I do most at home other than sous vide, is braise. If you could learn how to braise, that would be fabulous. You would be a master cook and you would be able to do so much with it.
Do you have any pre- or post-shift rituals?
A double espresso with two sugars, a large glass of ice water, and let’s go. I’ll also do line checks and make sure my stuff is there before service. At the end of the night, I always to get my guys together and thank them. I never hammer them or say, “You messed up this and this.” I’ll do that at the start of the next day.
Won Best New Chef at: Trio, Evanston, IL
Congratulations to Mei Lin, winner of Top Chef Season 12.