Won Best New Chef at: The Spice Table, Los Angeles
Born: 1977; Los Angeles.
Education: Le Cordon Bleu, Paris.
Previous career: “Like a good Asian boy, I studied molecular-cell and developmental biology and graduated from UCLA with a degree in business administration. After college, I worked in the biotech and pharmaceutical industry.”
How he got into cooking: “When I was growing up, my parents owned a typical Chinese-American restaurant in Los Angeles. I washed dishes and helped in the kitchen. When I realized that I didn’t want to stay in biotech for the rest of my life, I decided to explore cooking. The Paris Le Cordon Bleu had one of the shortest courses, which is what I was looking for. When I walked into the kitchen, it made sense—it came naturally.”
Memorable cooking experience: Cooking eggs for his grandparents. “When I was young, they’d stay with us on weekends. The first time I cooked eggs for them, I put the eggs in the pan, then the onions afterward: Of course, the onions were crunchy. So I learned to cook the onions first—it was my first learning experience in the kitchen.”
Biggest influences: Chef Nancy Silverton of Pizzeria Mozza. “She has incredible dedication to everything she does and the people she works with. She’s hands-on. She was right next to us when Pizzeria Mozza opened, slicing pizzas.”
Pet peeve: Dirty, unfolded kitchen towels. “I don’t know what it is—maybe I’m neurotic. When I see a dirty unfolded towel, it gets to my core. It irks me and grosses me out.”
Ingredient obsession: All things lamb. “I’ve been obsessed with lamb recently—the liver, the shoulder, even the head. I’m cooking it whole, making terrines, pâtés. I like lamb that tastes like lamb—when its good, it’s delicate, almost like veal.”
Most memorable meal: The Satay Club in Singapore. “Two of my grandparents lived in Singapore; the Satay Club is a hawker center. When I visited as a kid, it had a street-level grimy soulfulness you could only get from eating on the street. All the vendors cooking different foods—the Indian guy making roti, the Malaysian guy making satay—it all still sticks in my mind. Singapore has a crazy-intense humidity, which carries the aromas. It’s a visceral experience that still influences me.”
Essential tool: “I have a satay grill. It’s about six feet wide, three feet deep. “When you walk into the restaurant, it’s the first thing you see, which is very intentional. I use almond wood and charcoal—it’s a chef’s dream.”
Fantasy splurge: Vietnam. “My wife, Kim, is from Vietnam. She talks about eating in the countryside. In the States, we talk about farm-to-table; in Vietnam, they don’t use that term, but the food is ground-to-table, and they call it dinner. It’s such a different experience than you have in a more developed nation.”
Cheap eat: Bonano’s Chicken, a Peruvian restaurant in L.A. “They do pollo a la brasa—a traditional dish of spit-roasted chicken over wood. It’s seasoned and cooked so perfectly, and it’s got the right amount of smoke—not too much or too little. It’s perfect. And the blood-clam ceviche is sweet and briny.”
Favorite beer: Anything from Craftsman Brewing Company in Pasadena, California. “Mark Jilg opened Craftsman about 20 years ago. He had worked at jet-propulsion laboratories. Anything he brews is so thoughtful, intelligent and technically sound.”
What his next restaurant would be: “I’d open a kind of B&B and just serve lunch. I’d still cook and be creative, but I wouldn’t have to serve hundreds of people a day. Maybe five, and maybe just lunch. It would be nice and comforting.”
Food trend he most dislikes: Overuse of the term farm-to-table. “Philosophically, I love it. I practice it, the majority of my colleagues believe in it and practice it. What concerns me is when people just pay lip service to it, or a PR firm gives someone that label.”
Favorite cookbook: The Zuni Cafe Cookbook. “I don’t cook this kind of cuisine, but the recipes are so well researched. Some of the techniques are so simple, so intelligent. Judy Rogers is not afraid to go against convention. She talks about stocks and how it’s blasphemous to add salt—then she sprinkles in salt. Now I add salt to my stock.”
Twitter hero: Jonathan Gold (@thejgold).
Favorite food-related app: “Recently, Food & Wine’s Best New Chef app. And Chefs Feed [an app that chronicles the places top chefs eat]. It’s a combination of high- and low-end cuisine and you get to see what everyone else is eating.”
Congratulations to Mei Lin, winner of Top Chef Season 12.