F&W Star Chef
Restaurants: Chef in residence at Elawa Farm (Lake Forest, Illinois); partner at Tru (Chicago)
Experience: Jams, Gotham Bar and Grill (New York City); Carlos’, Pump Room, Bice, Charlie Trotter’s, Trio, Brasserie T!, Tru (Chicago); Stapleford Park (Leicestershire, England)
Education: Cleveland Institute of Art, Rochester Institute of Technology, LaVarenne (Paris)
What recipe are you most famous for?
Chocolate Blackout Cake. No one bakes it anymore, and the recipe is extinct. I’m one of the few people who’ve cracked the code on how to make it. I’d never had it before but I had a customer call begging for one for her husband. It’s all he wanted for his 70th birthday, and he’d just beat cancer. I said, “Well, I’ve never had it, but I have friends who grew up in New York, and they’ve had it.” So I did some research, made it, and ran it by my friends and their parents to get feedback, and then I tweaked it. Then I did that again and again until I finally—apparently—got it exactly right. So now I get all these calls—it like a drug deal—and people say, “I hear you do Blackout Cake.” I say, “Where’d you hear that? How do you know that?” If you Google blackout cake, my name pops up.
Who is your food mentor?
Probably James Haller. He was a chef in Boston and in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. He’s still alive and still cooking. When I was 19 years old, one of his books fell into my life. It’s called The Blue Strawbery (sic) Cookbook, named for one of his restaurants. This book advocated the idea, “If you think flavors go together, they do.” It took away the intimidation of “I’ve got to get it right” or “I don’t know exactly what goes with what.” It took away the rules that were scaring me out of the kitchen. My mother was a great baker, but her father was a scientist, so I was always taught by her that food is a chemical reaction, and it’s physics and it’s chemistry. Which it is, but it made it really daunting. I thought, “I can’t deviate from a recipe!” And I have dyslexia so I would deviate from a recipe whether I meant to or not. My mom was always really nice about it. She’d say, “Oh, look! Gale invented something new!” instead of “Oh, look. She screwed up.” But I really needed someone to give me permission to consider cooking an instinctual experience versus weights and measures. James Haller did that for me.
I actually made a pilgrimage to his restaurant when I was about 20. I got off the bus, and I was like Maria in The Sound of Music. I had a suitcase with me and no reservation, no hotel. I just walked up to the restaurant at 4 in the afternoon and said, “I’d like to eat here.” The chef was off that night, though.
I never met James until last year. A chef from Portsmouth, New Hampshire, saw my show on the Food Network, Sweet Dreams, and invited me to make the dessert course for an anniversary dinner for James. I’m crying as I tell this story. It was so touching for me and for him. He knew who I was. I’d certainly gained more stature in my career than he ever did. He was really excited that he played a part in getting me into cooking.
What’s your current food obsession?
Foraging. I do it with my son Gio. He’s 16 now, but we actually started doing it when he was about six, foraging for ramps for my restaurant. He got another account from a sous-chef who’s now broken away and opened his own place. We started with 10 pounds, 10 years ago. Last season, we did 225 pounds.
What’s your most cherished cooking tool?
Julia Child’s madeleine molds. They were at the Smithsonian, and the Smithsonian decided they weren’t going to hold onto them, so I got them. When I was doing Chocolate and Vanilla, I had to test this chocolate madeleine recipe, just for quantity. I was at home, and the only pans that I had to test that recipe were Julia’s. I’d never used them—they could be in a museum! So I go to get the pans and I was like, “What am I going to do?” I look and there are still crumbs in the pan! I thought, “I can’t wash them! What do I do?” I have this saying, “WWJD,” which is not “What would Jesus do?”—it’s “What would Julia do?” I thought, “She would bake in them! I’m doing it. She would want me to bake in these.” So now I use them. I used them last week for a kids’ cooking class.
What is your hidden talent?
Stand-up comedy; my act includes a Julia Child impression. I usually just do about 10 minutes on her, but I could do a whole hour of Julia.
What do you eat straight out of the fridge, standing up? What is your favorite snack?
My favorite snack is cold chicken thighs. It’s my comfort food, it’s my midnight snack, it’s my jailhouse last meal. My sous-chefs know. If it seems like I’m in distress, they’re like, “Do we have any cold chicken around???”
What’s your favorite store-bought ingredient?
Panko bread crumbs. I’d say they’re the best thing in the world. You can coat bananas or apples with them and deep-fry them, but I usually use them for chicken and pork and fish. I buy whatever brand is on sale.
Won Best New Chef at: Trio, Evanston, IL
Congratulations to Mei Lin, winner of Top Chef Season 12.