F&W Star Chef
Restaurants: UrbanBelly, Belly Shack, BellyQ (Chicago)
Experience: Charlie Trotter’s (Chicago), Susanna Foo
Education: Culinary Arts at Kendall College (Chicago)
What’s your signature dish?
Phat Rice at UrbanBelly. It’s all three of our fried rice recipes put into one. It has beef short ribs, pork belly, pineapples and Thai basil.
Favorite cookbook of all time?
Nina Simonds’s Asian Noodles. It rocked my world when it came out in the late 1990s. It made me realize that noodles could be prepared in an elevated or nontraditional way. Like soba with basil—I’ve taken that idea and used it throughout my career.
Who are your mentors?
Charlie Trotter and Susanna Foo. Charlie was the first person to believe in me. He took me around the world and we’d go eat at three-star Michelin places. That was a big deal to a 26-year-old kid who had never been out of the country. I quickly realized I’d need to have more than one suit. Susanna hired cooks of such diverse backgrounds—Cambodian, Caucasian and Latin American. She inspired me to seek out Asian ingredients that resembled certain American foods, like replacing sun-dried tomatoes with Chinese fermented black beans, since they have a similar salty but earthy flavor.
What was the first dish you ever cooked yourself?
Ramen. I came to America when I was seven. When I was growing up in Korea, we cooked on charcoal. I remember it vividly: We would have to light these briquettes from the bottom up until they got red-hot. You put a pot right on top, and made instant ramen.
What foods from your childhood do you recall most vividly?
Lasagna and fried rice. My mom worked like 60 to 70 hours a week. She did all the cooking on Sunday. She’d make two pans of lasagna and freeze it and we’d eat it for weeks. Or fried rice in huge batches, with Crisco, she’d freeze it and we’d eat it for months. When we got something new in her repertoire? My god! She learned how to make pork chops with Shake ’n Bake, and I thought that was the best thing in the world.
What’s the most important skill you need to be a great chef?
Consistency. Not vision, not creativity. At all of my restaurants, we don’t season anything à la minute. We marinate everything, because a marinade is consistent. Where a pinch of salt changes in size depending on the size of your hands, at our restaurants, no matter who’s cooking, it’ll be seasoned perfectly throughout because the marinade never changes.
One technique everyone should know?
How to make a one-pot meal. You can make the best coconut soup in the world with only seven things: Sauté some lemongrass, galangal and kaffir lime. Add equal parts coconut milk and coconut water and reduce it a little bit. Add some lime juice and fish sauce, you’re done. Drop in some tofu or rice noodles for something more filling. But that’s all there is to it! And you only have one pot to clean up!
Name one secret-weapon ingredient.
Sambal. It’s a chile-based hot sauce usually made with citrus or vinegar. It adds that little touch of heat with a vinegary tartness to give soups, dressings and marinades that extra dimension.
Best bang-for-the-buck food trip?
Vietnam. If you can afford the plane ticket, go and have pho and a bánh xèo, the Vietnamese crêpe. Growing up I loved the fermented, earthy flavors of Korean food but then I tried Vietnamese food. The kaffir, lemongrass, galangal—it will punch you in the face. It’s not like French food, either, where you focus flavors by reduction. In Southeast Asia, you boost flavor at the end with a final addition of lime juice, lemongrass or orange zest.
If you were facing an emergency, and could only take one backpack of supplies, what would you bring?
Ramen! You can eat it raw, like a Cheeto or Dorito. And cashews. That’s one of my favorite foods.
Is there a culinary skill you wish you were better at?
Peeling quail eggs. I was once at an event in London called The American Festival, with Nobu Matsuhisa, Charlie Trotter, Thomas Keller and Alice Waters. I had to peel 2,500 quail eggs. I’m falling asleep peeling these things. And here comes Nobu. He doesn’t say anything. He just takes the quail egg, drops it in a coffee cup, shakes it, and then peels it from the top, removing the whole shell in one go. I look at him, and he’s laughing. And I’m thinking, “Oh, God. I need to get better skills like Nobu.”
What do you eat straight out of the fridge, standing up?
Blueberries. My wife says I need to sit down and eat, but I eat them standing up. She makes me a shake every morning for breakfast with blueberries, strawberry-flavored kefir, French vanilla yogurt, crushed ice, bananas, almond butter and almond milk. And she puts some Vietnamese cinnamon in there so it tastes like ice cream. It’s the most delicious thing, and it fills you up until 12 o’clock in the afternoon.
Congratulations to Mei Lin, winner of Top Chef Season 12.