F&W Star Chef
Restaurants: Incanto, Boccalone Artisanal Salumeria (San Francisco)
Experience: Red Sage (Washington, DC); Rubicon, Redwood Park (San Francisco); Chez Panisse (Berkeley)
Education: Johnson & Wales (Rhode Island)
What’s your favorite cookbook of all time?
White Heat, by Marco Pierre White. When I was culinary school, they didn’t want us to own it. In those days, culinary school was like military life. They would check our faces with a credit card to see if we needed to shave. We had to press our coats, pants and aprons, and that kerchief had to be perfection. If we had a stain on our white coat we were sent home, even if it was espagnole sauce made in class. White Heat showed me that you didn’t have to look a certain way to be an amazing chef. The point was that it was all about the food. You didn’t have to fall in line and wear a tall white toque. It was OK to be an individual.
What are your current food obsessions?
We’re focusing a lot on historical recipes, like garum, ancient Roman fish sauce. We salt and ferment it with squid, local anchovies and sardines.
I’m also enamored with radishes; I think they’re the most beautiful vegetables. Cooked or raw, I love everything about them. We make pesto out of the greens.
Name a secret-weapon cooking technique.
Seasoning with acids. Especially with a lot of the rich offal and other meats we serve, acids help cut that richness. Our goal is to use acid before salt. It’s something Mark Miller taught me years ago.
What’s a common food misconception?
That rustic means sloppy. Rustic just means that it’s not plated with tweezers and an eyedropper. Rustic can mean torn lettuce instead of hachéed. You still have to pay attention.
What ingredient will people be talking about in five years?
“What’s tuna?” That’s what children will be asking, I’m afraid. The rest of us will be saying, “Do you remember what fish used to taste like?”
Can you name a favorite bang-for-the-buck restaurant?
Yummy Yummy is this awesome Vietnamese spot in San Francisco’s Sunset District. They do amazing seafood pancakes, and the pho is my favorite in the city.
If you were going to take Mario Batali out to eat, where would you go?
I would take Mario to Old Islamic Mandarin in the Outer Sunset. It’s this crazy Muslim-Chinese restaurant that does a ton of lamb dishes.
Do you have a favorite new store-bought ingredient?
Red Boat fish sauce. It’s barrel-aged. They do a special edition in bourbon barrels, and it tastes like liquid prosciutto. It enhances salad dressings and pretty much anything else.
What’s the best beer?
I think I drink more Anchor Steam than anybody in the country. That’s a clean, straightforward, honest beer.
If you could invent an imaginary restaurant for your next project, what would it be?
I would love to create a restaurant where you could have a nun, a family, a plumber, a lawyer and a hooker all sit comfortably at the same bar. On Martha’s Vineyard I used to go to this tiny diner that sold the best T-shirt in the world: A cartoon of Dracula, a drunk, a fly fisherman, a dressed-up woman, and two kids and a dad, all sitting at the counter. That’s the ultimate in hospitality.
Congratulations to Mei Lin, winner of Top Chef Season 12.