F&W Star Chef
Restaurants: The Barn at Blackberry Farm (Walland, TN)
Experience: Hermitage Hotel (Nashville), Peninsula Grill (Charleston, SC)
Education: Johnson and Wales Culinary School (Charleston, SC)
What's a dish that defines your cooking style?
Chicken and dumplings. It was my favorite dish growing up. We do it with guinea hen confit, potato gnocchi with Tennessee black truffles, poached egg and crispy chicken skin.
What was the first dish you ever cooked by yourself?
I remember doing hamburgers on the grill as a kid. My dad would start them, then go inside and get distracted, so they'd get overcooked. I got tired of it, so I tried it myself.
Who taught you how to cook?
My granny, who grew up during the Depression, in east Tennessee. They had hog killing day in November, and they'd kill two hogs and preserve meat in the smokehouse. She was a perfectionist as a cook, and one Christmas she told me she'd made a cake three different times, throwing away the first two and not quitting until it was perfect.
What is your current food obsession?
Vegetables. As I'm getting older, my body can't handle as much red meat and heavy foods, so I'm really into vegetables and finding different ways to present them.
What's the best-bang-for-the-buck food destination?
Charleston. It's dear to my heart, less expensive than New York, and there are some of the best chefs in the country doing amazing food. To see how the city's developed in the past 10 years is pretty amazing.
If you could invent an imaginary restaurant project, what would it be?
I'd love to open a true pit-style barbecue like Scott's Bar-B-Que in Hemingway, South Carolina, or the Skylight Inn in Ayden, North Carolina. It's something so simple and the satisfaction is so high.
If you were going to take Thomas Keller out to eat, where would you go?
I'd take Thomas Keller to Becky's in Maryville, Tennessee. They have an amazing hamburger called the Ross Burger. It has pimento cheese on pumpernickel bread.
What ingredient will people be talking about in five years?
Fermented vegetables. The flavors fermentation adds are indescribable.
What is your favorite snack?
Popcorn. Growing up I'd cook it in a hot air popper. Now I pop it on the stove, then Microplane some Singing Brook cheese on top and add Georgia olive oil.
What's your favorite store-bought guilty pleasure?
Biscoff cookie spread—it's like crack, better than Nutella.
Congratulations to Mei Lin, winner of Top Chef Season 12.