F&W Star Chef
Restaurants: Comme Ça, Los Angeles and Las Vegas; Hinoki & the Bird, Los Angeles; Pizzeria Ortica, Costa Mesa, CA; Sola and David Myers Cafe, Tokyo.
Experience: Charlie Trotter’s, Chicago; Daniel, New York City; Patina, Los Angeles.
What is one technique everyone should know?
How to salt. How to use good salts, and how to pick the right one for the right purpose. Fleur de sel is fantastic for finishing a dish, but a finer-grain sea salt is better for cooking. It’s also important to know when to season—generally speaking, throughout, not just at the end. If you’re making a soup, season a little every time you add a new ingredient to build flavor and penetrate every component. In my restaurants I like to use an Okinawan salt cultivated at the bottom of the ocean; it’s so fine, it rolls off of your thumb and index finger perfectly. But I also like La Baleine, the French sea salt that they sell at Whole Foods, in the blue bottle. I like sea salt better than kosher salt, because salt should come from the ocean, for that pristine sea taste.
What are your favorite cookbooks of all time?
- The original Charlie Trotter’s cookbook, the red one. It inspired me in how to run a business, how to lead your life and motivate a team, as well as how to cook. When you open a book and see a chef is quoting Goethe and Dostoyevsky, you know something’s right.
- Ferran Adrià’s first book, El Bulli: El Sabor del Mediterráneo, which came out in 1993. I happened upon it at the great Paris cookbook store Librairie Gourmande, when I was working in France in 1997. I’d never heard of him, but as I flipped through it I thought, “My god, who is this guy?” That book blew me away in every way: visually, in how he plated, it was game-changing.
- My first Japanese book, Aji No Kaze: Windborne Flavors, by Hirohisa Koyama. I found it the same day I found the El Bulli book. Koyama is one of Japan’s greatest talents, and tutored a number of their three-Michelin-star chefs. His book is one of the most clean and calming books that I’ve ever read. It shows not only incredible food but the interaction between Koyama and his staff, his farmers, the spirituality of cooking in Japan.
What is your secret-weapon ingredient?
Yuzu koshō. It’s a green paste, a blend of yuzu peel and spicy koshō peppers. It’s a fantastic way to spice up a dish, with a unique edge. I love it on grilled meats, even pasta, in fillings like little ravioli, or stirred into butter for a pasta sauce.
What is your fantasy restaurant?
A restaurant that would constantly evolve based on my travels—everything from the design to the location to the staff uniforms to the music. I’d do my own take on the food, too, not some authentic representation. Better yet, I would take in a world tour, and do a pop-up in each country.
If you were going to take Thomas Keller, Tony Bourdain and/or Mario Batali out to eat, where would it be?
I’d take them through my black book of Japan’s best places, like Toritama, which I think has the finest yakitori in Tokyo, plus an amazing shochu and sake selection. The vibe is traditional Tokyo with an edge, with live jazz. They only focus on unique parts of the chicken, like the heart—nothing typical.
What is your current food obsession?
Japanese grilling and their different charcoals. Binchōtan charcoal is their highest grade; it’s harder than our charcoal, and releases less smoke, so it’s the favorite of yakitori chefs. With most grilled foods in America, you taste the wood more than the food. Chicken yakitori cooked over binchōtan highlights the flavor of the chicken. At the new restaurant we’re going to be doing that, simply grilling meat and fish, which people can season with lemon or lime or whatever condiment we set out.
What are the dishes that define who you are?
I’m all about using seafood and citrus in the simplest of ways—finding that sweet spot between the ingredient and a few wisps of something, whether a jab of tamarind or the scent of kaffir lime leaf or the punch of yuzu koshō. I’ve always been drawn to that style of eating, too, in my travels, whether in Japan or Hong Kong or Vietnam. So one dish I had at a restaurant in Tokyo called Sushi Shin was a snapper cured in kombu, then seasoned with the green citrus sudachi and some yuzu koshō and that was it. A similar dish we developed for fall at Comme Ça is our hinoki-scented cod, black cod marinated in a soy-based blend, scented with a burned piece of hinoki cypress.
Why Because his contemporary French dishes combine multilayered flavors with Japanese minimalism.
Born Boston, 1974.
Experience Charlie Trotter's, Chicago; Daniel, New York City; Patina and Jaan, Los Angeles.
Most exotic item on Sona's menu Baby monkfish tail with watercress-shellfish broth. "We emulsify watercress with mussel juice and add pearl tapioca and mussels. The emulsion is so bubbly and alive, it looks like the waves after they crash. We serve it in Izabel Lam porcelain bowls, which have a texture like rolling waves."
Heroic moment "One night, we did 79 different tasting menus for 83 guests. When we're designing our tasting menus, we like to see if our guests are in a risky mood."
Latest obsession Kokekokko in L.A. "For $25, you can get a chicken tasting menu: You get raw chicken-breast sashimi as well as the beak, tongue, innards and the heart. You have to drink so much beer with that."
Won Best New Chef at: Sona, Los Angeles
Congratulations to Mei Lin, winner of Top Chef Season 12.