F&W Star Chef
Restaurants: Olivia, Lucy's Fried Chicken (Austin)
Experience: Joseph's Table (Taos, NM); Picholine, Craft (New York City); Le Panier du Marché (Strasbourg, France)
Education: Institute of Culinary Education (New York City)
Who taught you how to cook?
My parents. My first memory is making peanut butter cookies with my mother, and my father liked to barbeque. In Texas, smoking and grilling is such a big part of life. I was always drawn to hanging out in the kitchen with my mother. What I learned from her was cooking with love, and cooking happy. You are taking care of people.
Who is your food mentor?
When I was first starting, it was Joseph Wrede in Taos. I could finish his dishes and understand what he was trying to do. We'd have hippies come from out of the mountains with cheese, herbs and vegetables and he'd barter things. It was a revelation and made total sense. He would talk about food being sensual and earthy and sexy. I'm sure there are a thousand people saying that, but it was the first time I'd heard it and it made sense.
Favorite cookbook of all time?
The Justin Wilson #2 Cookbook: Cookin' Cajun. It's so funny. I remember cooking with that before I started professionally cooking and people always loved it.
What's the most important skill you need to be a great cook?
Ability to taste, unbiased, and to not be such an egomaniac.
What is the best-bang-for-the-buck ingredient?
Anything from an herb garden. Add a little sassafras, mint or basil and you have a whole different dish. That costs less than a quarter.
What is your current food obsession?
I have a soup dumpling fetish right now. I had the most incredible soup dumplings in New York City's Chinatown. You bite into it and the soup leaks out. I've been playing around with that, with ravioli in soup dumpling form.
What is the most cherished souvenir you've brought back from a trip?
On a trip to Hog Island, north of San Francisco, I was walking on the beach with my two daughters and my wife. There was a beautiful piece of bone-white driftwood and it was heavy. I lugged it back to the car and we still have that.
What do you consider your other talent besides cooking?
What ingredient will people be talking about in five years?
Marijuana. It's a great herb and I think it will be introduced into the culinary field a little bit more, and used in a smart way, beyond making a bunch of pot cookies.
Name a dish that defines who you are.
Fried chicken. I soak it in buttermilk, add a little soy sauce to the brine, and use a heavily seasoned flour with some salt and cayenne and other spices I won't divulge, loosely based on my grandmother Lucy's recipe. I brine it a long time and add hot sauce.
What do you eat straight out of the fridge, standing up?
Okra I pickle myself. Any kind of pickled veg. My daughters love that too.
Do you have any food superstitions or rituals?
I won't cook pissed off. I try to cook with a positive attitude. I really believe that your vibe when you're cooking goes into the belly of the person you're feeding, so cook with love. Respect the food and the people you're cooking for.
Congratulations to Mei Lin, winner of Top Chef Season 12.