F&W Star Chef
Restaurants: Herbsaint, Cochon, Cochon Butcher, Calcasieu, Pêche (New Orleans)
Education: California Culinary Academy (San Francisco)
What style of cooking are you most famous for?
Southern Cajun. New Orleans has always had its own unique food, and Cajun culture is two and a half hours west of here. I wanted to bring the soul of that to New Orleans in a way that wasn’t overly touristy.
What dish defines your style of cooking?
Gumbo started it all. And the system behind it, of making stocks and getting good ingredients and coaxing the flavors out of them. It’s time-consuming, too, so I think it put me in this mind-set of taking time with food to create something special, as opposed to just knocking out dinner.
Is there a culinary skill or a type of dish that you wish you were better at?
I’ve had this weird interest in making hand-pulled Chinese noodles. I saw it done recently, and then looked it up on the Internet. It looks so easy, but it’s not. Some people spend three months apprenticing just to learn that one thing.
Who taught you to cook?
My grandfather, while I was growing up in southwest Louisiana. While everyone else was eating at McDonald’s, my grandfather was cooking squirrel and lima beans and ham hocks.
What is the best dish for a neophyte cook to try?
Roast chicken. It can be really bad if it’s not done right, awesome if it’s done well. It teaches you about heat and time and doneness, how to crisp the skin, how to get it golden, how to get it cooked through without drying it out. Obviously you can say to cook it at 350° for an hour and 15 minutes, but ovens are different, chickens are different. You need to feel a connection to the food to do it well.
You love chile peppers. Do you have a favorite?
Criolla sella. It’s an orange Bolivian pepper. I discovered it almost 10 years ago, when a farmer here in town asked to grow things for me. We found it in a catalog. It’s got the perfect balance of sweetness and heat. It’s not like a jalapeño, which can be too spicy. You get more of that chile flavor as opposed to the heat.
What’s a restaurant you’re willing to travel for?
Hawk’s Crawfish. A lot of places do crawfish, but somehow they always do it better. My cousins are rice and crawfish farmers and they have special fields that they sell to Hawk’s, and the restaurant keeps them in freshwater tanks for 24 hours, so they’re super-clean. And they cook them in a way that makes them super-tender. I’ve made pilgrimages. It’s two and a half hours by car one way. And I’ve done it one day, just to eat the crawfish.
Name one secret-weapon ingredient.
Anchovies. Mashed into a paste, anchovies are a great seasoning for roast lamb. If I’m boning a leg or a shoulder, I’ll make a paste of garlic, sea salt, anchovies and lemon to rub inside the meat before I roll it up. Once it’s cooked, you can never tell it’s in there.
Congratulations to Mei Lin, winner of Top Chef Season 12.