F&W Star Chef
Restaurants: El Quinto Pino, Txikito, La Vara (New York City)
Education: Culinary Institute of America
What dish are you famous for?
The uni panini at El Quinto Pino.
What’s the first dish you ever cooked by yourself?
The first recipe I followed was probably chocolate mousse from Julia Child. My mom had all of her books.
What is the best dish for a neophyte cook to try?
Something satisfying, that will make you want to keep cooking for the rest of your life. You want to be successful the first time. Braised chicken thighs aren’t expensive and will never get dry or tough.
What’s the most important skill you need to be a great chef?
How to be self-critical. How to keep tasting until it’s right, to fix something if it’s wrong.
What’s your secret-weapon ingredient?
Seaweed. I use a lot of Japanese ingredients because my husband worked at Nobu. I use all kinds, like nori, kombu and dulse. I put them under fish, or I make a little salad with them rehydrated and chopped up like a Mediterranean ingredient. To me that’s so Spanish: to take this otherworldly ingredient that you don’t know how to use, and use it incorrectly without realizing it, and end up with this thing that’s fresh and unique.
What is the best-bang-for-the-buck ingredient?
Chinese flowering garlic chives. They’re the poor man’s ramp. We’ve been pickling the tops and sautéing the bottoms. They remind me of Basque ajetes, which are like garlic scapes. They use them in scrambled eggs and with shrimp and things like that. The chives are expensive by Chinatown standards—whereas all greens in Chinatown are $1.50 a pound, these are $3 and $4 a bunch—but I like them because you can eat them like a vegetable, not like an herb.
Best-bang-for-the-buck food trip—where would you go and why?
Spain. They have a lot of really high-quality ingredients, and a lot of technical expertise. So you eat well in people’s homes and in restaurants. That’s not true in every country. And you can eat well at any price point. Everyone always says Vietnam and Thailand, and I love Mexico, too. But Spain has such a strong restaurant- and food-loving culture. When you go to Spain, you live food.
If you were going to take Thomas Keller, Tony Bourdain or Mario Batali out to eat, where would you go?
I would take Anthony Bourdain to the Basque country. He kindly filmed his show at two of my restaurants. I know he has some Basque blood, so I think he’d have some affinity for it. And he reminds me of my brother-in-law—he’s a nice guy. I think he’s become larger than life; he’s kind of ironic but he’s not mean. I find him fascinating. He’s got the most interesting job of the three of them! He gets to travel and see the world, talking to energized young chefs. I’d love to hear about that.
If you were facing an emergency, and could only take one backpack of supplies, what would you bring?
Rice, because my husband and kids love it even if I don’t. Eggs. Olive oil. Anchovies. Some kind of charcuterie, like ham or salami. I eat for pleasure; I don’t really eat for survival. So if I had to eat for survival, I’d become extra-practical and have rice and eggs.
What’s a dish that tells your story?
Escabèche. My mom made a rabbit escabèche, and we make it now at La Vara. My parents were from Argentina, so my whole background is littered with lots of European references. They’re Jewish, too. There was a lot of Spanish, Jewish and Italian eating at my house. I have an immediate affinity for certain dishes when I know how they should taste before I even attempt them. When you have that kind of confidence, you feel at home with that cuisine.
Do you have a favorite snack?
Toasted nori snacks. I really like the ones with wasabi on them.
What do you eat straight out of the fridge, standing up?
Chorizo and chocolate—a dish I served at Tía Pol came from doing just that.
Congratulations to Mei Lin, winner of Top Chef Season 12.