F&W Star Chef
Restaurants: Yardbird Southern Table & Bar, Miami
Experience: Atlanticville, Charleston, SC; Asolare, St. John, US Virgin Islands; Azie, San Francisco; Fossett’s, Keswick, VA; DiLido Beach Club, Miami
Education: Johnson & Wales, Charleston, SC
What recipe are you most famous for?
Any kind of fried chicken coming out of Yardbird is pretty serious, so I’d have to go with that. We brine the chicken for about a day. Then we dredge it in seasoned flour and fry it. We tried a million different methods and in the end Grandma’s recipe always came out on top
What two dishes really tell us your story as a chef?
When I was in Charleston I worked for a guy named Phil—he was the head chef at Atlanticville. There was this one recipe that Phil taught me. You shuck an oyster, set the meat aside, stuff the shell with sausage, top it with sautéed spinach, then fry the oyster and put it back on top. It was one of the first dishes that I really mastered, and I still have it on the menu here today. Phil recently passed away, and I never told him how much he meant to me and how that dish stayed with me.
There’s also a grilled corn dish that I’ve been doing for years. When I was a kid, my grandmother had a farm in Alabama. As a young boy, my mother and father would take me out there for the whole summer. We’d throw corn—husks and all—right onto a coal grill my grandfather built out of an oil drum. My grandfather would pull it off the grill, peel back the husk and we’d dip the whole ear in a Folger’s can full of butter. We do a grilled corn at Yardbird that reminds me of just sitting on the farm making corn. We top it with butter and throw corn—bread crumbs on the top of it with some fried hominy. It makes everybody smile.
What is your favorite cookbook of all time?
I always find myself turning back to Thomas Keller’s The French Laundry Cookbook. That was one of the first books that I got as a young cook. I’ve cooked every dish in there a few times.
What is one cooking technique that everyone should know?
It’s all about basic knife skills. It can be really dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing. Chefs in culinary school call it the claw—when you curl your fingers up to protect them. You don’t want to chop em off!
What is your secret-weapon ingredient?
We make all of our bacon from scratch here. We smoke it and cure it, which takes about a week to do. One of the byproducts of the process is this smoky bacon fat that melts off and collects in the smoker. We call it liquid gold in our kitchen. We use liquid gold to enrich everything. This past Thanksgiving we even confited our turkeys in it.
What’s your favorite food letter of the alphabet? (c = carrot, curry, cauliflower, etc.)
If you look at all the spices, and—cumin, coriander, cilantro, cayenne—it seems like more than half of them start with C. So I think if I could only cook with foods starting with one letter, I’d choose C. ’Cause chicken’s there, too.
If you could invest in a dream project, what would it be?
I would love to open a culinary university. I appreciated culinary school and I’d never want to say anything negative about it. But I think most of the schools could do what they’re doing better. I enjoy teaching, and I think I’m a patient person; I’d love to be the one to do it. I imagine the students would spend a lot less time in the classroom and more time out in the field.
What is your current food obsession?
I’m making a lot of charcuterie lately. I just bought a ton of different grinders and charcuterie equipment. We’ve been doing saucissons, pepperoni and hams. We just perfected a recipe for Slim Jims made with wild boar.
Congratulations to Mei Lin, winner of Top Chef Season 12.