F&W Star Chef
Restaurant: Providence, Connie & Ted’s, Los Angeles
Experience: An American Place, Le Cirque, Osteria Del Circo, New York City; Spago, Hollywood
Education: Culinary Institute of America
What is the recipe you’re most famous for?
The uni egg. I take the top off a farm-fresh egg, separate out the whites, and drop the yolk back inside the shell. When someone orders the dish, we drop the shell with the yolk into simmering water and let it float on the surface until it’s gently warmed through. Then we spoon in warm Santa Barbara sea urchin, fines herbes, diced tomatoes, Champagne beurre blanc and some fine cubes of brioche crouton. If requested, we’ll also top it with caviar. It’s an appetizer, just four or five bites, small but delicious.
What is your favorite cookbook of all time?
Le Livre de Michel Bras, his first book. It was one of the first serious cookbooks I got when I was just 22 or 23. I was lucky to get it when it came out in 1992—it’s out of print now, and would probably cost more than $700, if you can even find it. I didn’t speak much French at the time, but it had a big impact. It was the first time I’d ever seen a Japanese knife, the first time I’d seen his vegetable-driven cooking. The idea of using what surrounds you, his whole aesthetic completely changed the way I thought about food.
What is one technique everyone should know?
How to properly cook and rest fish. Basically, I’d suggest using the gentlest heat that you can possibly apply—so if you’re grilling, grill over a gentle fire, not a raging fire. If you’re steaming or poaching, do it at a bare simmer. You can actually cook a salmon to the point where it flakes beautifully in a 118- or 119-degree oven, provided you let it rest. Rest the fish for a good 10 to 15 minutes, for a good long period of time in a fairly warm, ambient spot, and the fish will reveal textures you never knew it had.
What is your secret-weapon ingredient?
White soy sauce. Whether making a sauce or finishing a vinaigrette, when you’re looking for that little bit of depth, a few drops of white soy will give you a great bass note and no one will ever know what it’s from. We use Yamasa white soy sauce. It’s made in Oregon, in small batches and has tremendous flavor. Just be sure to store it in the refrigerator after you open it to keep it fresh.
Where would you go for the best bang-for-the-buck food trip?
Los Angeles! The ethnic food in this city is insane, and so affordable. We’ve got Vietnamese banh mi, Mexican, South and Central American food, Little Ethiopia. There are incredible izakaya and ramen shops opening every other week, and I’m a total ramen addict. There’s a new ramen shop in downtown L.A. called Men Oh that makes ramen in the style of Fukuoka, Japan, with pork neck broth. It’s so creamy that it tastes like they’ve emulsified the roasted pork fat into the broth.
What’s the restaurant you fantasize about opening?
It would have eight seats, no menu and only a grill. And I’d put it in my backyard. I’d serve a lot of raw fish and a couple of grilled items, and that’s it.
If you were going to take Thomas Keller, Tony Bourdain and Mario Batali out to eat, where would it be?
I’d invite them all over to my house and roast a whole pig in a Caja China box in my backyard. I did that two days before Thanksgiving, since there isn’t enough gluttony over that week. But it’s a wonderfully simple way of cooking. Plus that way we could drink and not have to worry about driving anywhere afterward.
If you were facing an emergency, and could only take one backpack of supplies, what would you bring?
Butter, olive oil, sea salt, vinegar, matches, some preserved meat, like bacon, and some fishhooks. I’d catch something along the way, then cook it with the salt, fat, pork and vinegar. It’s not that different from what I would normally cook. Though I don’t like roughing it at all.
What ingredient will people be talking about in five years?
Fish. They’ll be wondering where it’s going to come from, and how to save it.
What’s your go-to cocktail, wine and beer?
Wine would probably be red or white Burgundy; cocktail would probably be bourbon, and beer is any style of California IPA—rarely do I try one I don’t like. It’s so quenching, yet the bitterness keeps you thirsty, it keeps your palate awake and alive. Russian River’s Pliny the Elder is the benchmark by which most others are judged. Their Pliny the Younger is the holy grail of California IPAs, since it’s so hard to find. But I also love Sculpin IPA from Ballast Point, Wipeout and Mongo both from Port Brewing Company, Racer 5 from Bear Republic, and Stone Brewing Company’s Cali-Belgique. There are too many to choose from.
What is your current food obsession?
It changes from season to season; right now it’s Nantucket bay scallops. They’re so fresh and packed with flavor, I like to eat them raw right out of the fridge, like little gumdrops.
Name two or three dishes that define who you are.
Salt-roasted spot prawns, and spaghetti and meatballs. The salt-roasted spot prawns are on the menu at Providence, and reflect what I wish I could do with every dish I come up with: It’s utterly simple, but highlights the raw ingredients beautifully. We keep the Santa Barbara spot prawns live in a tank in our kitchen. We roast them at 500 degrees for three minutes, then the captains carve them tableside, with a squeeze of lemon and some really good olive oil. That’s all you need.
I grew up eating spaghetti and meatballs. I have tons of wonderful memories from meals that my grandmother and great-grandmother made. Spaghetti and meatballs was usually only one part of the feast—there was usually also a roast of some kind, some antipasti, a big bowl of fruit afterward and a poker game.
Favorite online shop?
JB Prince, Korin and She Sells Seaweed. It’s a woman who sells foraged seaweed from both coasts: We buy her kelp and kombu and a few others to use in several dishes. You can obviously get fantastic kombu from Japan and other Asian countries, but to find seaweed raised or harvested in this country is difficult because we don’t eat it.
Congratulations to Mei Lin, winner of Top Chef Season 12.