F&W Star Chef
Restaurants: Ninety Acres at Natirar (Peapack, NJ)
Experience: American Restaurant, 40 Sardines (Kansas City, MO); The Biltmore Room, The National Gourmet Institute of Health and Culinary Arts (New York City); Blue (Surf City, NJ), The Pluckemin Inn (Bedminster, NJ)
Education: Johnson & Wales (Rhode Island)
What’s your favorite cookbook of all time?
An old book my mom gave me called Mrs. Beeton’s Book of Household Management. It’s the kind of guide you were given as a young British girl. It’s almost the English version of the Joy of Cooking—the recipes are phenomenal—but there’s also a chapter on how to balance a checkbook. In college it was handy—I could look up how to sew something, or how to get out red wine stains.
Who is your food mentor?
My mom. She taught me about using fresh ingredients. If you want to cook something, you go to the store and buy what looks good and cook it that night. To this day, I don’t keep food in the refrigerator.
What was the first dish you ever cooked all by yourself?
While I was still in college, my parents were coming back from vacation either on Mother’s Day or close to my mother’s birthday. I wanted to surprise them with a roast leg of lamb. I was your typical overambitious culinary student, so I had to make a sauce by reducing my own stock. Mom had mentioned there were some bones in the freezer. I couldn’t make out the labels, so I made lamb stock out of a $50 rack of lamb.
Name one secret-weapon ingredient.
I’m a huge fan of smoked paprika—the bittersweet, not the sweet or hot. When it’s winter and I don’t want to light up the grill outside, I’ll rub it into steaks for that smoky flavor. I’ll add it to broths to add a little richness. I love it on roasted cauliflower.
What is the most cherished souvenir you’ve brought back from a trip?
The pottery we brought back from a trip to Mexico. Mostly bean cookers, made of enameled terra cotta, the kind you would have not on a fire but next to a fire, cooking all day. Almost like the old-fashioned French Le Creusets, but these were handmade. Most of them I got from Oaxaca.
If you could invest a new imaginary restaurant project, what would it be?
I would love to open up a taqueria, one that’s completely seasonal and has a nose-to-tail mentality. At the real places, every part of the pig is used in a taco at some point. In America, at the word taco you think ground beef. That’s usually the last thing you’ll see in a real taqueria.
If you were facing an emergency and could take only one backpack full of supplies, what would you bring?
I would grab a lot of salamis. We recently started making some of our own. You can put so much flavor into them and they never go bad.
Congratulations to Mei Lin, winner of Top Chef Season 12.