F&W Star Chef
Restaurant: Barbuto (New York City)
Experience: Chez Panisse (Berkeley); Jams, Washington Park (NYC); Michael’s (Santa Monica, CA)
Education: La Varenne (Paris); Tante Marie’s Cooking School (San Francisco)
Who taught you to cook? What is the most important thing you learned?
Hard question. In the most germane way my mother was an early influence, but she (and my father) were more influential about ingredients, restaurants and food culture rather than cooking methodology. I was lucky to study early on at Mary Risely’s cooking school (Tante Marie’s) in San Francisco. And then I was even more fortunate to study at La Varenne in Paris. Cooking is such a continuous learning process. I consider myself lucky to have worked for Alice Waters, who is in many ways my mentor. She taught me many things; I think humility and attention to the detail were her best lessons.
What was the first dish you ever cooked by yourself?
Shortbread cookies, from Joy of Cooking.
What is the best dish for a neophyte home cook to try?
Best is always a tough nut for a neophyte; I suggest that cooks learn as many fundamentals as possible. While doing so, pick recipes that resonate and that are duplicable, not crazy wacky chef poems that are impossible to reproduce. Maybe try to perfect roast chicken with mashed potatoes.
What’s the most important skill you need to be a great cook?
Patience. Long ago I realized that ego, anger and self-importance had no place in the kitchen. Collaboration with your fellow cooks should be the ultimate goal.
Is there a culinary skill or type of dish that you wish you were better at?
All of them!
What is the best-bang-for-the-buck ingredient and how would you use it?
Eggs. Just think: baked Alaska, soufflés, truffled scrambled eggs, pasta, deviled eggs, omelets, layer cakes, cookies...
What three restaurants are you dying to go to in the next year, and why?
Noma, just because. Astrid y Gastón in Peru: I have heard Peru is fantastic for food, culture and sightseeing and, of course, Machu Picchu. Rockpool Bar & Grill, Neil Perry’s joint in Sydney, because I adore him. He is great and modest. (And how does he make that work?)
What are your talents besides cooking?
I love travel, reading, music, and to torture my wife and children. What is the most cherished souvenir you’ve brought back from a trip? Handmade pottery from the little ski village of Le Grand-Bornand in the Haute Savoie region of France.
What recipe are you most famous for?
My roast chicken. I suppose I will have a dead chicken silhouette on my gravestone.
What is your favorite cookbook of all time?
Hard to name one. As a child I loved Joy of Cooking. As a teenager, Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. As a student in Paris, Raymond Oliver’s La Cuisine; as a young cook, Richard Olney’s Simple French Food; and always, all of Elizabeth David’s books. And I love reading M.F.K. Fisher, though more for stories about food than recipes. And for Italian cookery, nothing is better than Giuliano Bugialli’s Foods of Italy.
What is one technique everyone should know?
How to bake a pie.
Name one secret-weapon ingredient.
For the best-bang-for-the-buck food trip, where would you go and why?
Funny, I love London as a food town. I have watched its evolution from the early 1970s. What better place to eat seafood than at Scott’s and Sheekey’s? My go-to place in summer has to be River Café, Ruthie [Rogers] is just getting better and better. My dear buddy Jeremy King has the best brasseries in the world now: Zedel, The Wolseley, The Delaunay, and Colbert on Sloane Square. St. John is a perfect restaurant. Mark Hix has shown the world what fabulous beef, poultry, fish and extraordinary produce the English countryside produces. Add in the new areas: Islington, Bermondsey, Portobello, etc., all are quite extraordinary. And Borough Market? And what is better than clotted cream and English strawberries in July?
If you could invent a restaurant for an imaginary project, what would it be?
Easy: a bow tie warehouse on a calm river with a gristmill. Blast it with water and wash it out; add picnic benches, a grill, a rotisserie, a fridge, sinks and a bar (inside and out). Cook everything over an open fire; serve ice-cold artisanal beer, wines and cocktails. Have great jazz, R&B, blues and folk music live by the water. Oh, and maybe a small inn nearby in case the folks got out of control. And do it with some friends so we didn’t have to work all the time. And no culinary rules. Just good grub.
If you were going to take Thomas Keller, Tony Bourdain or Mario Batali out to eat, where would it be and why?
Thomas: easy, a little French place in the Alps called La Ferme de Lormay where they make old-fashioned dishes like poulet aux écrevisses and blood-thickened fricassé de Caion and the best apricot tart in the world. Cooked in a 16th-century farmhouse with a two-story grill chimney. And for digestif, a calva made from a local poisonous viper’s venom (le vipère).
Anthony: Zuni Café in San Francisco. Margaritas, the best West Coast oysters, pizza, a bit of seafood, and a whole chicken with a nice bottle of Bandol Rosé, and some delicious cheese for dessert with a little bottle of Burgundy from Kermit Lynch.
Mario: Chez Black in Positano, Italy. Pizza and pasta for lunch, [which] would segue into dinner (a dip or two in the Med, of course) and a whole branzino with as much Ischia Bianco as we could imbibe all day long!
If you were facing an emergency, and could take only one backpack of supplies, what would you bring, what would you make and why?
I have done this before: A cut up organic chicken, a small bag of charcoal, matches, two bottles of Zinfandel (cork popped out, plastic wine glasses) four small potatoes, a head of frisée, some bacon, some butter, olive oil, a head of garlic, a baguette, a flask of Calvados and four apples. And a roll of tin foil, sea salt and a pepper mill (tiny). With all of that, I’d make grilled chicken, potatoes roasted with garlic in tin foil, bacon and frisée salad with a grilled baguette, and baked apples with Calvados.
What's your favorite food letter of the alphabet? What do you love about that food?
S for Sauternes, strawberries, strudel, stew, sex, s’mores, steak, scalloped potatoes, stracciatella, sweet, sour, sticky buns …
What ingredient will people be talking about in five years? Why?
Grass-fed anything. It will take over.
What’s the best house cocktail, wine and beer, and why?
Cocktail: I love a great rum drink: Cointreau, Mount Gay, orange, grapefruit, a dash of soda and bitters with lemon zest and vanilla bean. I takes me immediately to a tropical island.
Wine: Rosé from Sinskey Pinot Noir, they call it Pinot Gris. Is it friggin’ delicious!
Beer: Arrogant Bastard, from my buddy Steve Wagner at Stone brewery. It is appropriate for any weather: warm, hot, cool, snowy.
What is your current food obsession?
Tacos (they always have been).
Name two or three dishes that define who you are.
Peking duck is a perfect food. The first time for me was at the Mandarin (Cecilia Chang’s amazing Chinese palace in Ghirardelli Square in San Francisco). It is the culmination of all that is great about Chinese cookery. It is playful, exotic, an amazing technique, crunchy, soft, warm, and you eat it with your fingers.
Apple tarte Tatin: Here is simplicity with an underlying complexity. You need perfect apples that are not too sweet, nor tart; nor soft, nor too hard. They need to be the right size. Perfect puff pastry that is not tough nor overworked nor too machine-like. Great butter, a nice pan, a liberal amount of sugar and a touch of salt. The result is orgasmic.
Grilled New York steak on the bone. It needs to have enough fat, be amply thick (2 inches), at room temperature and seasoned well. The fire is crucial, started early, perfectly hot without being incendiary, and a clean, well-seasoned grid over the coals. Also, some nice french fries, some watercress from the stream, and a great bottle of Pio Cesare Barbaresco (2006?).
What do you eat straight out of the fridge, standing up?
Ice cream (out of the freezer, that is).
What is the best new store-bought ingredient or product?
Scotch bonnet sauce from Barbados.
Five people to follow on Twitter or Instagram?
Paul Kahan, Jamie Oliver, Suzanne Goin, David Tanis and Keith Richards.
Congratulations to Mei Lin, winner of Top Chef Season 12.