F&W Star Chef
Restaurants: M. Wells Dinette and M. Wells Steakhouse (forthcoming), New York
Experience: Toqué and Au Pied de Cochon, Montreal
What are you known for?
We ran an egg-and-sausage sandwich at our diner for quite some time, inspired by McDonald’s Egg McMuffin. But when something gets too popular, I get fed up and change it to something else. Now, I don’t want to serve any bread. I don’t want to serve any sandwiches. It’s too easy.
Favorite cookbook of all time?
Funny I should say this, but it might be this little book about sandwiches, called Sandwiches. It was published in 1894 and must have come out at a time when mayonnaise had not yet been invented. All of the recipes call for whipped butter, perfumed or flavored with the sorts of spices you might add to mayo. I think I stole it from an antiques store. I found it in the drawer of a dresser that I quite liked. I don’t even recall having the bad intention of stealing it. Maybe the book stole me.
Who is your food mentor?
Martin Picard of Au Pied de Cochon. When we first opened the restaurant, we didn’t have half the things we were supposed to have on the menu. We were freaking out. But he said, “Listen, just open the door.” He taught me that food is about pleasing people. What’s important is the people you eat with, the chance to share that experience.
What was the first dish you ever cooked yourself?
I grew up on a cattle farm. My parents got divorced when I was five and my dad was never home because he was working so hard. My sister and I would come home from school for lunch so I had to cook, believe it or not, with as little knowledge as I had. We had meat in the freezer from butchering an old cow and I remember cooking barely thawed T-bones terribly, the meat so well done, in a pan much too big so I burned the sides. I’d try to make a sauce with everything I could find: ketchup, mustard, a loaf of bread. I also remember cooking broccoli in the microwave. That’s something I quite liked—with tons of butter and water.
Name one secret-weapon ingredient.
Foie gras. It’s more about texture than flavor. For me it’s like butter or olive oil—we emulsify sauces with it. Right now we’re serving an oatmeal with foie gras. It binds the oatmeal together. And I’m sorry, but you need fat to bind flavors. People try to re-create fat with other textures. You can whip tofu as far as you like but it’s not going to change your life.
What is the best bang-for-the-buck ingredient?
Leftover brine from jarred pickles or olives. People throw it away, but it’s amazing in a simple dressing or sauce or mayonnaise.
What’s the best house cocktail, wine, beer?
Moitié-moitié, which is French for half-and-half. It’s half sweet vermouth, half dry vermouth, on the rocks. My wife, Sarah Obraitis, and I used to drink all the time, when we first met.
Best bang-for-the-buck food trip?
Peru. My wife’s family has a house in Miraflores. Her uncle took us around Lima, and we ate at about 75 different places. (Though with me, you always have to divide by five to get to the truth.) Peru is so vast; they have all the microclimates you can find in the world. They have grapes and avocados and tropical fruits, everything you can think of from coffee to potatoes.
What is the most cherished memory you have from a food trip?
I filmed a show with Martin Picard on Food Network Canada called The Wild Chef. For one episode, we went to the north of Quebec where the Inuits live. The things they did with raw stuff, it was unbelievable. They’d catch fish and slightly season them, then hang them off snowmobiles as they drove around so they would freeze. They’d shred the frozen meat and mix it with berries and seal fat. They ate everything. It was really beautiful.
If you could invent a restaurant for an imaginary project, what would it be?
I’d love a place in the middle of nowhere, out in the woods, powered with propane, which you could only get to on skis or snowmobiles. People would find it only if they were lost. They could sleep over, and we would host them for the whole day. I like the idea of taking care of people who are stranded, that true sense of restoration. Not like what happens in New York, where people wait in line just to check a place off on their list, to say, “I’ve been there.”
If you were facing an emergency, and could only take one backpack of supplies, what would you bring?
A loaf of bread, a pound of butter and a humongous jar of caviar. I’m sorry but my taste is expensive. I prefer a shovelful of caviar, not a tiny spoon’s worth.
What do you eat straight out of the fridge, standing up?
Pickles! My mom ate a lot of pickles when she was pregnant with me. Brined foods, generally, are some of my favorite snacks. I can eat a can of olives in under a minute.
What are your talents or hobbies besides cooking?
Hockey. I’ve played all my life. And I grew up watching hockey. For Canadians, it’s much deeper than the Yankees. It’s my dad rubbing my hair, my grandfather sitting with me, it’s a religion.
Name a dish that defines who you are.
There are dishes that I’ve gotten from dreams. Like our oysters Bolognese: I was sleeping on a couch, and I woke up in the middle of the night and I was chewing. I was dreaming about having oysters on the half shell topped with Bolognese sauce. I was at some French restaurant that doesn’t exist, and had ordered the last five orders of oysters Bolognese. The other customers were pissed! So I had to share, and never got to taste one. The owner was so happy that I shared that he gave me a bowl of peanuts. But I woke up and I could feel those oysters in my mouth. I knew they’d be delicious. Now we serve them at the restaurant.