F&W Star Chef
Restaurants: 610 Magnolia, MilkWood (Louisville, KY)
Experience: Chez es Saada (New York City)
What’s a dish that defines you as a chef?
My fried chicken and waffles. It’s a Southern dish, but we cook it in a very Asian way. The chicken is poached first in a vinegar and soy sauce blend. Then it’s cooled, dredged in buttermilk and flour and deep-fried.
Who taught you how to cook?
My grandmother taught me how to appreciate food and that food was more than just sustenance. She made very old-school Korean dishes, fermented chile paste and kimchi from scratch, pickles and marinated vegetables. Even as a toddler, I always wanted to spend time in the kitchen watching her.
What was the first dish you ever cooked by yourself?
Both my parents worked and were rarely home for dinner, so my grandmother cooked, but only Korean food. I was craving American food, so I’d steal food magazines from the Laundromat and save my lunch money to go food shopping. The first magazine recipe I really remember making was a steak dinner with roasted potatoes and a rosemary rub. I was probably 11 or 12.
What’s your favorite cookbook of all time?
Marco Pierre White’s White Heat. It was the first cookbook to show the life of a chef outside of the food, and outside of what the public persona of a chef was back then, which was a classic French image of being very precise and a student of the arts. For my book (Smoke and Pickles), I really wanted to show who I am and what I do. I wanted to show everything, the flaws and the perfection.
Is there a type of cooking that you wish you were better at?
For me there’s a mystery around Jewish cooking. I grew up in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn. I’d love to make an incredible knish one day.
What’s your favorite value ingredient?
A bag of pork rinds. I like to grind them up and use them anywhere you’d use bread crumbs: mac and cheese, shepherd’s pie, inside sandwiches or burgers.
What’s your current food obsession?
I am working with bhut jolokia peppers, the spiciest in the world. They’re grown in a little town in India, but people in America have started to grow them here.
Where did you go on your last trip?
I just got back from Vietnam. The street food is so cheap but also so diverse and so incredibly flavorful. I had a fish I’d never seen before, kind of like a lightly pickled herring in thin rice paper, with Thai basil, lettuce, very thin slices of pineapple and freshly grated coconut. The pineapple there is so different, incredibly musky, and the coconut is so fresh and has this sweetness to it. You can’t re-create that here, and that’s one of the reasons you travel.
What’s your favorite store-bought ingredient?
Red Boat fish sauce, which is really starting to take off. It takes just a few drops and it adds an entire new level of flavor. It’s as simple as adding a few drops to boiled ramen.
What’s your dream restaurant project?
I want to open a karaoke bar that only serves fried chicken. I have no talent for karaoke, but I do have an affinity for it.
Congratulations to Mei Lin, winner of Top Chef Season 12.