F&W Star Chef
Restaurants: Talde, Pork Slope (Brooklyn, NY)
Recipe you’re most famous for?
Pretzel dumplings at Talde. People go crazy over those.
What was the first dish you ever cooked by yourself?
Pancakes. My mom worked a lot. She would work 16-hour shifts—my dad was working 12-hour days, too—and she still found time to cook for us. She was like, if you want something else to eat, you better make it. So I made apple pancakes.
Who is your food mentor?
Carrie Nahabedian, of Naha, in Chicago. She taught me that you really should make food that you want to eat. Not just food that looks cool, or that shows off techniques. And that’s stuck with me until now.
Favorite cookbook of all time?
Southeast Asian Flavors, from Robert Danhi. If you are a dummy and you want to open a Southeast Asian restaurant, grab that book, learn how to make everything in it and you’ll be well on your way.
What’s the most important skill you need to be a great cook?
How to season food. Knowing what’s good and bad is something that’s very different. I think you can train a palate—but some people are just born with great palates and some people are born with terrible ones.
What is the best-bang-for-the-buck ingredient?
Oyster sauce. It’s less funky than fish sauce, but it adds a ridiculous amount of umami and flavor. And it has built-in viscosity.
Current food obsession?
Middle Eastern food from Brooklyn Pita. The owner serves Israeli-style chicken shwarma with falafel and calls it shwarafel. It’s so good. We’re working on a chicken shwarma bao bun at Talde with shredded lettuce, tomato, pickled cabbage, hot sauce [and] white sauce.
What is the most cherished souvenir you’ve brought back from a trip?
When I went to San Sebastián in Spain for the first time, I got a 15- or 20-pound pata negra. I had them slice it for me in 4-ounce portions and vacuum seal it. When I got home, I handed them out as souvenirs to everybody. Anytime someone would ask me what I brought them, I’d pull out a bag of jamón.
What’s your talent, besides cooking?
My business partner disagrees, but I’m a fantastic dancer. I have great rhythm. My style comes from late-’90s hip-hop.
If you could invent an imaginary restaurant project, what would it be?
A charcoal-grilling place. If you cook something over charcoal, it’s going to taste really, really good. Whether it’s just the charcoal or the fat flares on the coals, you just get an incredible aroma. I’d do it in a very Asian-inspired setting. With a club down below so I can show off my sweet dance moves.
If you were facing an emergency and could only take one backpack of supplies, what would you bring?
Rice, a bottle of Four Roses bourbon, canned sardines, salt and Whatchamacallits. Those are the best. When you find them, you have to buy the whole box.
What ingredient will people be talking about in five years?
Wasabi—you know how it jumped the shark and they started putting it in mashed potatoes? I think wasabi is going to make a comeback. I think there’s going to be some homegrown wasabi, pickled wasabi stems, people using the leaves. If you make a steak, and you make chimichurri, drop a little wasabi oil in there.
Name a dish that defines who you are.
The hamburger at Pork Slope. It took us a while to do. To source the meat, to find out how we wanted to dress the burger. And it’s just a bar burger with American cheese. For like two or three weeks, we just ate burgers. And it took perseverance to say, “It’s not good enough yet.” And when we finally got to that moment we all looked at each other and said “That’s it.” I think it helped define us and show the staff what we were about.
What do you eat straight out of the fridge, standing up?
Chunks of Parmesan cheese. I just snap pieces off and eat it.
Favorite supermarket ingredient?
Hidden Valley Ranch. It’s the jam. It’s like the sixth or seventh mother sauce.
Congratulations to Mei Lin, winner of Top Chef Season 12.