F&W Star Chef
Restaurant: Cakes & Ale (Decatur, GA)
Experience: Chez Panisse (Berkeley), Martini House (Napa Valley), Watershed Restaurant (Decatur)
Education: California Culinary Academy (San Francisco)
Who taught you how to cook? What is the most important thing you learned?
I grew up in a food-centric household. My grandmother’s Italian. We’d have big family feasts. I remember eating and eating. But it was really about spending time together as a family. My mom and my grandmothers would make a spaghetti sauce, and taste it all day, both because it tasted good and to figure out what it needed—more basil, oregano, olive oil, garlic. I remember tasting, tasting, tasting and that’s what I learned from my grandmother.
Christopher Lee and Kelsie Kerr were my chefs at Chez Panisse. They taught me about the importance of getting the best products.
Todd Humphries at Martini House taught me to uphold consistency and quality, and to push myself out of my comfort zone.
Scott Peacock taught me that simple does not mean simplistic.
What’s a dish that defines your cooking style?
We change the menu so often that it’s hard to say. But we love making salads. And we love our fish cookery. With both vegetables and seafood, it’s all about freshness. When you cut into a just-caught fish, you smell the ocean. And you can taste it if a vegetable isn’t grown by the right farmer.
What was the first dish you ever cooked by yourself?
When I was in third grade I made an English muffin with fried bologna, ham, egg and mayonnaise. The key was the fried bologna.
What is your favorite cookbook of all time?
Chez Panisse Cooking. I love Paul Bertolli’s food and his style.
Elizabeth David’s Summer Cooking. I love how she puts aioli and homemade mayonnaise on everything.
Is there a culinary skill or type of dish that you wish you were better at?
I stink at cooking rice. I do not know why, but I can’t get it right. We didn’t eat a lot of rice growing up.
What is the best-bang-for-the-buck ingredient, and how would you use it?
This may be a boring answer, but I have to say whatever’s in season. If you even go to your grocery store, whatever’s in season will be better and cheaper.
What three restaurants are you dying to go to in the next year, and why?
1. City House, in Nashville. Tandy Wilson’s become a friend and we haven’t been to his restaurant yet. He cooks with more soul than anyone, and in Nashville that’s saying something.
2. Marea, in New York, for the seafood.
3. L’Arpège, in Paris. I love the idea of cutting out most red meat to go that vegetable-heavy.
Best-bang-for-the-buck food trip: Where would you go and why?
Manhattan. You can easily get away with spending less if you’re open to trying new things and not going to starred restaurants. You can get inexpensive dim sum. I’m also a huge food cart advocate. I love shwarma and falafel and Asian food and pasta off a cart.
If you could invent a restaurant for an imaginary project, what would it be?
Something small near the beach. It would have 24 to 28 seats. It would serve almost all seafood and vegetables and maybe a little white meat. We’d only serve white wine and Champagne.
If you were going to take Thomas Keller, Tony Bourdain or Mario Batali out to eat, where would it be?
I’d take Thomas Keller. His brain works in an exciting way when it comes to looking at food. And he considers basic technique as important as molecular gastronomy. I would love to take him to Il Vagabondo, in New York, and just have fun and a good conversation.
If you were facing an emergency, and could take only one backpack of supplies, what would you bring, and what would you make?
I’d bring a super-sharp fillet knife, lots of citrus, salt and pepper, and I’d do lots of marinated fish dishes. Hopefully, I’d be somewhere near the coast.
What ingredient will people be talking about in five years?
Seafood, and how do we keep it sustainable and our waters clean so that generations from now all this amazing fish is still available to us.
What do you eat straight out of the fridge, standing up?
I love cold Chinese food. I like how it gels and it’s not really messy. In Atlanta there are good Chinese restaurants on Buford Highway. But our leftovers can be anything, including my kids’ sweet-and-sour chicken. Brown sauces seem to gel the best.
What is your favorite snack?
Saltines, Duke’s Mayonnaise (which is really salty) and Cabot cheddar cheese. You don’t want a very important cheese for this snack. Just something that’s good and salty.
Do you have any pre- or post-shift rituals?
Pre-shift I try to keep all the cooks under-stressed, because I think the food feels that, especially for the first few dishes. Post-shift, my line cooks’ average age is 27 or 28, so most of us are too old to party after service.
Congratulations to Mei Lin, winner of Top Chef Season 12.