F&W Star Chef
Restaurant: Hot and Hot Fish Club (Birmingham, AL)
Experience: Highlands Bar and Grill, Bottega, (Birmingham); Lark Creek Inn (Larkspur, CA); Ritz-Carlton Buckhead (Atlanta)
Education: Johnson & Wales Culinary School (Providence)
Who taught you how to cook? What is the most important thing you learned from her?
My mother; we spent a lot of time together in the kitchen when I was a child. I learned partly by doing, partly by osmosis, by being in a happy environment around food. She taught me about the intuitiveness of cooking.
What’s a dish that defines your cooking style?
The Hot and Hot tomato salad, our revision of classic Southern succotash. We take dishes from the past and make them more modern and healthier. For traditional succotash, you stew together corn, okra, field peas, tomatoes, onions and bacon, and serve it as a side or over rice. We cook the ingredients separately to make a composed salad. The tomatoes are not cooked; the field peas are cooked until tender; the corn is lightly sautéed; the okra is breaded and fried; and the bacon is cooked until crispy. We also drizzle the salad with chive aioli, which adds an onion element and a nontraditional creaminess.
What was the first dish you ever cooked by yourself?
Steamed crabs. I was the “creek boy” for my family. In the summer we’d go to the beach, and I’d catch shrimp and crab from the salt marsh. I’d paddle out to the breakers, and get a bucket of seawater to steam the crabs in.
What is the best dish for a neophyte cook to try?
Pasta with steamed clams with garlic, hot chiles, olive oil. You sauté the oil, garlic and hot chiles, add the clams, and steam them open with white wine. Toss the pasta with a couple of nobs of butter and some basil, add some crusty bread, and you’ve got one of the best meals ever.
Who is your food mentor? What is the most important thing you learned from him?
I worked at the Ritz-Carlton Buckhead in Atlanta under chef François Lecoin. He taught me about the French methods of cooking in the garde manger, plus discipline and endurance. (I was working 16 hours a day.) It was invaluable. He partly inspired my French sensibilities.
Also Bradley Ogden. I was his sous-chef at the Lark Creek Inn. He has a distinctly American sensibility about food. That whole California experience was such an epiphany. Going to the farmers’ market and meeting the farmers was a mindblower for me.
What is your favorite cookbook of all time?
Paula Wolfert’s The Cooking of Southwest France.
What’s the most important skill you need to be a great cook?
A great palate. You can’t be a great cook if you can’t bring to bear all of your senses: sight, smell, the ability to sense things on your skin, to hear things cooking properly. It’s a full-body experience if you want to be great, but a palate’s a minimum. You must also pay attention to detail, and care deeply about precision.
Is there a culinary skill or type of dish that you wish you were better at?
Pastry. I’m pretty good, but I’ve never spent time in a kitchen as a dessert person. I wish I carved out more time in my career for it.
What is the best-bang-for-the-buck ingredient, and how would you use it?
Any kind of acid: lemon juice, verjus, vinegar, wine. Acid has tremendous impact on almost any food. Understanding the balance between fat and acid in a dish is critical.
What three restaurants are you dying to go to in the next year, and why?
I’m a big forager, so Noma’s on the list. I’m a huge fan of Daniel Patterson, at Coi in San Francisco; and I hear great things about The Ordinary in Charleston, South Carolina.
What is the most cherished souvenir you’ve brought back from a trip?
A little two-way bamboo fly rod that I picked up years ago in Montana. It’s a real piece of art. To handle it, to catch fish with it—it’s like a musical instrument. If you play it well, it’s magic.
What do you consider your other talents besides cooking?
I’m a craftsman and enjoy making hatpins and olive skewers from the feathers of birds that I shoot. I also like to make quill pens for writing important notes to loved ones. I like to write, and I’m an outdoors person.
If you could invent a restaurant for an imaginary project, what would it be?
A restaurant that interacts with nature: It would have walls and a roof but would be largely open. It would be completely off the grid; the energy would come from geothermal sources. We’d burn only natural wood and prepare things fresh, from within a distance that we could reach with biofuel. The menu would reflect moments and micromoments within seasons. The restaurant would be personal and real and visceral. It would have an Argentinean feel, because Argentineans understand cooking over wood better than anyone in the world. But it would also be Southern, and with seafood and foraged food, not just meat.
If you were going to take Thomas Keller, Tony Bourdain or Mario Batali out to eat, where would it be?
I’d have chef Keller to my lake house. We’d build a fire, cook and talk about life, food, philosophy, music and art.
If you were facing an emergency, and could take only one backpack of supplies, what would you bring, and what would you make?
Salt, some olive oil, legumes, cured meats and vegetables, some dried herbs and vinegar, and lots of water. I’d probably make a simple soup of vegetables and legumes and hope that within the next 72 to 96 hours somebody would be coming my way.
What ingredient will people be talking about in five years?
Vegetables are going to remain important. We’re going to realize that supersizing isn’t the way to do it, that protein and vegetables are served in the reverse order.
What do you eat straight out of the fridge, standing up?
Kimchi. I also love leftover anything.
What is your favorite snack?
Creamy peanut butter and black raspberry jam on whole-wheat bread, with a glass of 2 percent milk.
Do you have any food superstitions, or pre- or post-shift rituals?
I have no superstitions whatsoever, but I do drink beer after work. I especially like Michael’s Genuine Home Brew [from Michael Schwartz], made in Miami with sugarcane. It’s killer.
Congratulations to Mei Lin, winner of Top Chef Season 12.