F&W Star Chef
Restaurant: Dirt Candy (New York City)
Experience: TeaNY, Pure Food and Wine, Heirloom (NYC)
Education: National Gourmet Institute (NYC)
Who taught you to cook? What is the most important thing you learned?
I don't think any one person taught me to cook. But I can say that the most important thing I've learned from anybody is that the food isn't as important as the experience of eating it: The people you're eating with, the time you're having. The food can only make it that much better. Good company can always save a bad meal and good food can always save bad company.
What was the first dish you ever cooked by yourself?
I used to make peach pies in the summer.
What is the best dish for a neophyte home cook to try?
Anything simple: Any recipe with 10 or fewer ingredients and only five steps. So pasta with not a lot of chopping, or a casserole, or a simple soup.
What's the most important skill you need to be a great cook?
I don't think I can name just one. You have to want to taste the food that you're cooking. You don't have to be a big eater, but you have to taste the food, and you have to keep tasting the food over and over and over again.
You need some basic techniques. You don't have to have the greatest knife skills in the world, but it will help a lot to know how to hold a knife properly, how to dice and chop. That's going to make your life so much easier.
If you can put those two together, you can teach yourself anything.
Is there a culinary skill or type of dish that you wish you were better at?
Everything! I would like to be a better baker. I want to understand the science. We're trying to make vegetables breads where we put vegetable purees into the dough. We tried it with broccoli puree. As it turns out, broccoli is too alkaline and couldn't mix with the gluten. So that's a whole other level.
What is the best-bang-for-the-buck ingredient, and how would you use it?
You can never go wrong with fresh citrus: grapefruit, oranges, limes, lemons. You get the peel, the juice, the pulp. Any of those will enhance any dish.
What is your favorite secret-weapon ingredient?
My line cooks and my sous-chefs. And my dishwashers.
What are your current food obsessions?
For summer, we're trying to put a barbecue dish on the menu, so I think we're all sort of obsessed with what makes a good barbecue plate and fixin's: What makes a great potato salad, a great mac salad, and how do we make our own? We're actually making broccoli stalks to look like hot dog sausages. We're smoking it and grilling it. We've got the smoking down, but we're not quite sure how we're going to do the final cooking. And there will be some sort of sauce. We're making buns, which is where we ran into the bread problem. We want to make the bun with broccoli puree.
What style of cooking are you best known for?
We're the only restaurant that focuses solely on vegetables and being really creative with them. We try to make them really fun. When I go out for dinner, I don't want to sit down and say I've had this meal before, or I can make this at home. I want to have no idea.
What is the dish you're most famous for?
There are probably two:
My portobello mousse. When people first came to this vegetable-driven restaurant, they weren't expecting to have this very decadent, luxurious mushroom dish. That sort of put us on the map. And my hush puppies. We put together these really spicy hush puppies with our maple butter. The maple butter is this dream ingredient: fluffy and sweet and creamy. Put the two together, and it's like, OK, I'm having a perfect bite!
What is your favorite cookbook of all time?
That's like choosing between one of my children.
When I was starting to cook, I certainly had the Joy of Cooking around.
When I was little I had the Moosewood cookbooks, like The Enchanted Broccoli Forest, and the Deborah Madison cookbook Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone.
Probably the most influential was Charlie Trotter's vegetable book. When that came out 20 years ago, I thought, OK. There's somebody doing something really exciting. It was spectacular to see the amount of work he put into these vegetable dishes. When I was in cooking school, my classmates gave it to me as a birthday present. I feel such a strong connection between that book and where I am now.
For the best-bang-for-the-buck food trip, where would you go and why?
Hong Kong. I lived there for a number of years, and I've been back since, and I've never had a bad meal. You can go high and you can go low. You can go to these banquets, these fine-dining restaurants, and the food is spectacular. At the same time, the street food is amazing and cheap. But that's true of pretty much anywhere all over China. Every day I'm on the Internet watching these videos of people making food on the street and marveling, How do they do it? My kitchen's so small, but they only have these carts, it's mind-blowing.
What three restaurants are you dying to get to in the next year?
NEXT restaurant for their vegan menu, although I'm not sure I'll get there in time. Eleven Madison Park, because I haven't been yet. Oxheart in Houston. I've been hearing such good things about his menu.
What's the most cherished souvenir you've ever brought back from a trip?
When I was 16—25 years ago—I was an exchange student in Moscow. When I was leaving, the family gave me these two bottles of what I guess was vodka, but I'm a little scared of it. I don't read Cyrillic so I don't know what's on the labels. But I'm pretty sure it's more than 100 proof. I haven't opened them. I'm a little afraid of what will happen to my insides if I drink it.
If you could invent a restaurant for an imaginary project, what would it be?
My dream is to capture what we have here at Dirt Candy but on a bigger scale. My restaurant is so intimate, and so personal. I don't want to open up a second, bigger restaurant and lose the feeling of being in my house.
If you were going to take Thomas Keller, Tony Bourdain or Mario Batali out to eat, where would it be and why?
I'd want to take Mario Batali out to pick his brain about how he did what he did. He also started out at a tiny restaurant in New York. This would be pushing it, but I might suggest we go to his house!
If you were facing an emergency, and could take only one backpack of supplies, what would you bring, what would you make and why?
I'd probably take a lot of canned food! As much as I could find. And vacuum-packed food. If it was an emergency I wouldn't care what I was eating. I'd just need sustenance, so I'd probably a pack a bag full of energy bars.
What's your favorite food letter of the alphabet? What do you love about that food?
B, for bread. I live on bread. I know I work in a vegetable restaurant, but we don't sit down and have these great vegetable meals three times a day. Usually I'm in a corner shoving bread in to feed myself!
What's the best house cocktail, wine or beer, and why?
At the restaurant we love to serve unusual wines. We're always looking for odd varietals, or wines made in unusual ways. Right now I'm obsessed with natural wines. We just sampled the most delicious natural Prosecco, Col Fondo from Ca' dei Zago. I've been thinking about it for two weeks straight. I cannot wait to serve it.
What do you eat straight out of the fridge, standing up?
Leftover Chinese food from my days off.
What two or three dishes define who you are?
When I was maybe 10 or 11, I was in France with my family. My sister had just gotten into the college she wanted. We had this really long, leisurely meal. My whole family was there. To put it into context, I'm much younger than my siblings. They were all teenagers, who weren't all trying to kill each other at that moment, and my parents weren't yelling at them. When you have kids between the ages of 9 and 19, that is very rare. I don't remember what we ate for the lunch, but I remember thinking, This is amazing. These are the best foods ever. At the end we had these really good caramels. We liked them so much, we got a bag the next morning. The whole thing was perfect. But it goes back to the idea that the context of a meal is always more important than the particular foods.
Again, I was traveling with my family, and we had fried artichokes in the Jewish quarter in Rome. Again, I thought, This is brilliant! This is the most amazing thing I've ever had. I'd never had a fried artichoke before. I've certainly had them since. But that's one of those iconic dishes. It doesn't get any better than that.
My third one I don't think I've had yet. I'm still looking for it and I hope I don't have it for a very long time. I hope I can still define myself.
Congratulations to Mei Lin, winner of Top Chef Season 12.