F&W Star Chef
Restaurants: The Tasting Kitchen, Venice; The Parish and Itri, Los Angeles
Experience: Clarklewis, Portland, OR
What is the dish you are most famous for?
The squid tagliolini. It’s made with sautéed Monterey Bay squid, serrano peppers, a little bit of shallot and mortared garlic, and a tiny bit of chile flake, all served over squid-ink tagliolini noodles with concasséed persimmon tomatoes. (Persimmon tomatoes are an heirloom tomato with the color and interior of a persimmon—so not a lot of seeds, but unctuous tomato flavor.) It’s potent but well balanced.
What is your favorite cookbook of all time?
Cooking by Hand, by Paul Bertolli. I worked at Clarklewis in Portland, Oregon, which was started by Morgan Brownlow, an original sous-chef at Oliveto. Morgan helped Paul write that book, and ran Clarklewis with a similar ethos, with respect for techniques and materials. Working at Clarklewis inspired me to recommit to cooking. When I saw that book, I realized I already knew a lot of it, but there was so much more to learn.
What is the one technique everyone should know?
Building a base of flavors, whether for a pasta sauce or braise, starting with a good fond [browned bits of food]on the bottom of a pan. Paul Bertolli wrote a whole chapter on it in Cooking by Hand, called “Bottom-Up Cooking.” To do it right, when you’re browning the meat you have to find the proper balance between moisture and evaporation. If you overcrowd the pan and your heat’s not high enough, the meat will bleed water and the fond will get picked up instead of laid down. But if the heat’s too high, you’ll lose too much moisture and the fond can start to scorch. The perfect fond is where your richest, most powerful flavors lie.
What is your secret-weapon ingredient?
Serrano peppers. Serranos and jalapeños are showing up on a lot of tasty things these days: Jalapeño slaw is popular and delicious; Mario Batali has a signature spaghetti with jalepeño and crab. I prefer the sweeter, richer flavor of serranos; they also pack more punch. We use them in the squid-ink tagliolini and in a spicy gribiche, the piquant mayonnaise-based French sauce, which we serve with Dungeness crab at The Parish.
What is the best bang-for-the-buck food trip?
Isla Mujeres, a four-mile-long island about a 30-minute ferry ride off Cancun. The seafood is incredible—sweet, clean, pure-tasting—and it’s all safe to eat. Definitely get the lobsters. The conch is amazing, and then they have several varieties of snapper that they fry whole.
What is your dream restaurant?
A paella place, with the whole outdoor grill setup. I wouldn’t necessarily use those huge paella pans that make enough for 100; New York City has a paella bar called Socarrat, and wow, is it good. Their paella for two is the perfect size, so I’d serve them like that.
If you were going to take Thomas Keller, Tony Bourdain and Mario Batali out to eat, where would you go?
This itty-bitty restaurant in Beverly Hills called Sushi Sushi. No one knows about it except industry insiders. The chef-owner has incredible talent, he takes his craft very seriously, but he’s also fun loving.
What’s your favorite food letter of the alphabet?
P, for pasta, pizza, pork. That’s about all you need to live on.
What is your current food obsession?
Rotisserie. We change it up every night at The Parish: chicken, beef roast, porchetta. I’ve worked a wood-fired grill for six years, and I’m still learning how raw fire affects protein. Like yesterday, I just watched the porchetta turn. Beginning to understand the process that the skin goes through as it cooks, how to keep it crisp without bubbling, there’s so much to learn.
What are the dishes that define who you are?
- The bucatini all’amatriciana at The Tasting Kitchen. We reached for the stars when we created ours: we cure our own guanciale, make our own bucatini, even our own tomato estratto, the original tomato paste. In Italy they spread it over wood planks and sun-dry it. We dry ours on old Barolo wood barrel planks inside the oven.
- The rotisserie porchetta at The Parish. So many people do porchetta, but you’ve got people boiling it, or frying it to get the skin crispy, so many things wrong. To be able to cook it right, over a wood fire and do it right, that goes right to the heart of what we’re trying to do.
Both of these dishes speak to why I love cooking, because of the tradition involved. Food used to be too important for people to take shortcuts.
What do you eat straight out of the fridge, standing up?
Cold pizza. My fiancée and I make it every couple of weeks. Just yesterday I grabbed a piece of cold pineapple, jalapeño and speck pizza out of the fridge. We modeled ours off Mozza’s Pizza alla Benno, which Nancy Silverton invented for her son, since he loves pineapple pizza. Along with jalapeño, speck ham, mozzarella and tomato sauce, the pineapple gets shaved crazy-thin on mandoline, so it’s not so watery. When it’s cold it still has that sweet, lovely fruit flavor, it rocks.
Congratulations to Mei Lin, winner of Top Chef Season 12.