F&W Star Chef
Restaurants: 24 Diner, Easy Tiger Bake Shop and Beer Garden, Arro (Austin)
Experience: Tabla, Barbuto (New York City)
Education: Culinary Institute of America
Who taught you how to cook?
My mother. I’m the baby of four boys and she taught all of us. The most important thing she said is “If you continue to like to eat as much as you do, you better learn how to cook, because there’s a good chance that the woman you marry won’t know how.”
What was the first dish you ever cooked by yourself?
Early in my career, I was making a meat loaf and I didn’t put any eggs in. It fell apart, and I ended up making spaghetti Bolognese. At the time, it was disastrous and scary, but it was also representative of how you can take something that’s not right and turn it into something fantastic, if you’re talented enough and keep your composure.
What’s the best dish for a neophyte cook to try?
Grilling vegetables. Blanching broccoli or carrots or brussels sprouts and then grilling them—it’s fantastic. Peppers, squash, zucchini, fennel—there are very few vegetables you can’t grill. I love grilled okra with charred lemon. It’s a good way to learn building flavor through technique, as opposed to adding butter or salt.
Who is your food mentor?
Floyd Cardoz taught me all about organization. He worked harder at Tabla than anybody else and set that standard, but family always came first for him. He showed me there was a way to balance family with a professional career. That was different from my earlier career, when chefs weren’t teachers so much as tyrants. Jonathan Waxman at Barbuto taught me seasonality and the fact that you’re never screwed; you can always fix it.
Favorite cookbook of all time?
The Elements of Taste, by Gray Kunz. It talks about flavors that push and pull, sweet and salty and sour and savory.
What is the best-bang-for-the-buck ingredient?
Dry sherry. I use it to open mussels and to sauté mushrooms. I always have a bottle in my kitchen. It goes well with seafood, and with earthy flavors like mushrooms or wild game.
What is your current food obsession?
Chicken wings prepared any way.
Best-bang-for-the-buck food trip?
Vietnam. Getting there is a little expensive, but it’s one of the greatest places to eat on the cheap. The street food is phenomenal, and at the mom-and-pop places the flavors are mind-boggling. I loved eating banh mi, tamarind-based seafood soup, grilled banana leaf filled with tapioca, as well as fresh bananas with coconut cream.
What is the most cherished souvenir you’ve brought back from a trip?
A three-foot-tall pepper mill made from olive wood that I brought home from my first trip to Italy. At the time, it seemed like a big, obnoxious, awesome pepper mill. I lugged it around Italy for seven months, and there were times I wish I’d bought something smaller, but it’s in my dining room now and I’m glad to have it.
What do you consider your other talent besides cooking?
Being a mentor and a counselor. I have more than 270 employees and there’s not a day that goes by that someone doesn’t break a limb, get a DUI or want to go to culinary school. I like to watch people grow and give them an opportunity to grow.
If you could invent a dream restaurant, what would it be?
A horseshoe-shaped restaurant with a huge outdoor kitchen and the inside would be all glass, looking out to a beautiful deck with a bar. It would be very much a social gathering place. I’d serve boiled crawfish in season outside, and more refined food inside with two dinner seatings, one at 6:30 p.m. and one at 9 p.m.
Name a dish that defines who you are.
Redfish on the half shell. I typically cook it right after I’ve caught the fish, and I’m always fishing with people I love. The redfish is seasoned liberally with salt and pepper, slices of butter and thin slices of lemon. The fish is then grilled on a wood fire until just cooked through. The lemons are discarded and the flesh is eaten out of the “shell,” literally the charred skin and scales.
What do you eat straight out of the fridge, standing up?
Cold pizza, I’m an equal opportunity pizza eater.
Favorite store-bought product?
My $125 Capresso burr grinder for making fresh spices. Instead of a blade, it uses two stainless steel cogs that fit into each other, and it crushes as opposed to grinds. You can do two cups of spices at a time. It’s an easy way to get flavor: toast whole spices and throw them in the grinder, and you have a brisket rub.
Congratulations to Mei Lin, winner of Top Chef Season 12.