F&W Star Chef
Restaurant: Red Medicine, Beverly Hills
Education: Johnson & Wales
Experience: The French Laundry, Yountville, CA; Per Se, New York City; Alinea, Chicago: Michael Mina, San Francisco
What is the dish you are most famous for?
Probably a dish called Meditation in Purple that I did a long time ago at a restaurant called Varietal in New York City. It was based on a chapter in Brillat-Savarin’s Physiology of Taste, exploring how colors affect a person. It was made of all purple foods: beets, black currants, purple cabbage, all turned into visually and texturally surprising elements. I came up with it at a point in my career where I realized how important color was to my cuisine. Still to this day, when I come up with a dish, I think about colors before flavors or techniques.
What is your favorite cookbook of all time?
I have too many. I love Ma Gastronomie, by Fernand Point. But I can’t leave out The French Laundry Cookbook, since I used to carry it around with me throughout high school, and would daydream every day about working there.
What is one technique everyone should know?
How to make a custard. People might shrug it off, especially chefs who say they don’t do pastry, but custard is a big part of all our lives. I grew up on my grandmother’s flan, so it’s particularly close to my heart. But all of us eat at least two custards every year at Thanksgiving: stuffing and pumpkin pie. I can’t tell you how many awful pumpkin pies I’ve had because the person didn’t understand custard cookery.
As for custard pointers, people tend to cook them at too high a temperature, certainly with pumpkin pie. I recommend what I call my better pumpkin pie: I bake my crust blind until it’s completely cooked. Then I make my pumpkin filling on the stovetop, adding some agar for extra stability. I pour the custard into the shell and let it set up as it cools.
What’s your one secret-weapon ingredient?
Fish sauce. It’s not just for Asian food anymore, and it provides this wonderful umami quality. I started using it when I was doing research to open Red Medicine. It doesn’t taste like how it smells, it’s more nutty than fishy. If you add it in small amounts, no one will know it’s there. I used so much fish sauce at Thanksgiving dinner, but nobody could tell. Once you start eating food that has a lot of fish sauce in it, everything else tastes pretty bland.
If you were going to take Thomas Keller out to eat, where would you go?
I’d take Thomas Keller to the Apple Pan here in L.A., since I know he’s a big fan of In-N-Out and Gott’s Roadside. The Apple Pan has been here at least 50 years, probably longer, and its motto is “Quality Forever.” It’s got a U-shaped counter, almost like a massive sushi bar. The whole place seats maybe 30 people, and when I say the place hasn't changed, I mean everything down to the coffee machine and the refrigerators are original. The menu has about six items: hamburgers, french fries, and they serve root beer out of a paper cone, like an icy, on a pewter stand. They make my favorite hamburger in the world.
What’s your favorite store-bought ingredient?
Laver seaweed: It’s jet-black, and wrinkly, almost moss-like. It has a nutty flavor, similar to nori, except nori has a strong dried chlorophyll quality that tastes fishy to me. This is more ocean-like, more saline. We buy it dried, from Asian markets. It’s considered medicinal, but it’s also put in soups. We sometimes deep-fry it to make it nice and crispy.
If you were facing an emergency and could only take one backpack of supplies, what would you bring, what would you make?
I’d take the Leatherman my girlfriend got me for Christmas last year, a pair of socks, a bottle of water, sugar, fish sauce, powdered lime juice, and a big bag of herbes de Provence, because I’d probably have a lot of time on my hands, and could separate all of the herbs into an entire collection, from lavender to rosemary. And I could make a lot with that mix.
What ingredient will people be talking about in five years?
Whether or not milk is good or bad for us, since we seem to change our minds on that question about every three to five years.
What is your current food obsession?
California redwood shoots. The giant sequoias and redwoods of this state produce these light green, tender little shoots that smell like yuzu and taste more flavorful than pine. When they’re fresh we use them raw, like pureed in water for a shave ice. If we pick a lot, we’ll dry some to use in dairy foods and warmer dishes.
What’s the best house wine?
German Riesling is the greatest wine on the planet. First and foremost it has the best acidity of any wine out there. Even though a lot of people think it’s very sweet, it’s never a sugar bomb, it’s always highly balanced. It’s low alcohol, which means a wonderful food wine. It has no oak, no malolactic fermentation. It’s got just the grape, the acid, a little bit of sugar and terroir. It’s super-delicious and you can pair it with basically anything.