F&W Star Chef
Restaurants: Zingerman’s Roadhouse (Ann Arbor, MI)
Experience: Founder of Cornman Farms (Dexter, MI)
What’s your signature dish?
Eastern North Carolina-style whole hog barbecue. You get a pile of pig, with braised collard greens, mashed potatoes and a sauce. When we built the restaurant, I designed a big, open barbecue pit—I drew it on a piece of paper and I hired a welder to execute it. Right before we opened, the legendary pit master Ed Mitchell spent the weekend here barbecuing with me. It’s a pretty special experience to cook a hog from your own farm on a really cool stone barbecue that you built yourself.
Who is your food mentor?
Mako Tanaka, whom I worked with at China Grill. He taught me that you need to be patient in order to become good at something. You should be willing to do something for many years in order to excel at it—even cutting a 50-pound bag of onions every night for five years. I take that approach to everything that I do, whether it’s farming or making compost or growing corn or tending cattle or creating new dishes at the Roadhouse.
What’s your talent besides cooking?
I like building stuff. It stimulates my brain to solve design issues. I’m building a greenhouse right now outside my barn.
What was the first dish you ever cooked yourself?
Spaghetti Bolognese at the age of eight, and it’s still my favorite to this day. It’s my family’s favorite, and it’s a favorite for all three of my children. It’s kind of a legacy.
What is your favorite cookbook of all time?
Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. It’s the first cookbook I was ever given and I still have it. I use it as a benchmark. Modern chefs have diluted the classic recipes, but I like to do the diluting myself. If you go back far enough in history, then you are looking at the real thing and you can interpret recipes from there. I don’t need to interpret somebody else’s interpretation.
What are most important qualities you need to be a great cook?
Passion and discipline. You can certainly cultivate discipline, but passion, a true love for food, needs to be there.
What’s your secret-weapon ingredient?
Bay leaves, and I’ve been made fun of for it. One time I went back to a hotel restaurant I worked at as a guest and they served my wife and me an entrée that was garnished with about 40 bay leaves. It’s pretty mild, but I believe bay laurel is a very unique flavor that can’t be replaced or omitted from soups and stocks.
Name one indispensable store-bought ingredient.
Vietnamese fish sauce has serious flavor-deepening power.
What ingredient will people be talking about in five years?
Breed-specific, single-origin beef. The country is starting to realize that certified Black Angus is not all that great. I have Texas Shorthorns because I think that they make the best rib eye on the planet, but I like the Charlolais, a French breed, for my braised dishes and my burgers. Now I’m breeding our first Angus—whiteface Hereford crosses that I think will be fantastic.
What is your go-to drink?
Rock Hill Farms bourbon, straight. You have to spit before you drink it so you don’t dilute it.
What is your midnight snack?
Toll House chocolate chip cookies. I’ll eat a pile of them and one half-gallon of milk.
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