F&W Star Chef
Restaurants: Barbuzzo, Jamonera, Lolita, Marcie Blaine Artisanal Chocolates, Grocery (Philadelphia)
Experience: Audrey Claire, Twenty Manning Grill, Valanni (Philadelphia)
Who taught you to cook?
I pretty much taught myself. Everyone has these great stories about cooking with their grandmother, but I grew up on Spam! For all of my restaurants, I’ve done stints at different places. For Barbuzzo, my partner Val [Safran] and I worked at a Neapolitan DOC-certified pizzeria in Marina del Rey, California. For Marcie Blaine Chocolates, I went to Callebaut’s Chocolate Academy in Chicago. Every year I’ll visit Fleisher’s market in Kingston, New York, for a weeklong butchery course.
What restaurant are you dying to visit?
Rao’s in East Harlem for research. We have a new restaurant we’re developing, an Italian American place we’re calling Nonna’s Table. We have the vintage plates picked out, with trim around the edges. And I have all the old-school cookbooks from places like Patsy’s, Carmine’s, and a couple from South Philly.
What dishes define your style of cooking?
Early on, when we opened Lolita 10 years ago, it was good salsas and moles from Mexico. I loved learning about how to build flavors: browning off the bread, then adding almonds and raisins, rehydrated chiles, assembling all these layers.
Then when we opened Barbuzzo, that was all about simple, handcrafted farmhouse food, like preserves and pickles and whole-animal butchery, as well as all of the traditions of pizza and pasta, from the San Marzano sauce to the fresh-made doughs.
Now we’re visiting Italian American restaurants and getting into dishes like a big wedge of iceberg lettuce with the creamy dressing and asking ourselves, How do we play on that yet still feel like you’re getting that old-school wedge?
What are your talents besides cooking?
Design. For our restaurants I lay out all the kitchens and bars. Yesterday we went out to this midcentury-furniture warehouse here in Philly and found this awesome orange and red picnic table from a German beer garden.
What’s your favorite aperitif?
At Jamonera we have two Peruchi Spanish vermouths on tap that we serve over a big, chunky ice cube for slow sipping. One is a red vermouth with these baking-spice notes, even some cola notes, that’s nice in the colder months. The white is a little bit saline, with some citrus notes, that’s great for the warmer months. They both get your mouth going.
What do you eat straight out of the fridge, standing up?
Cheese. Particularly Bucheron and Prima Donna. Prima Donna is an aged gouda, so it has those caramelly flavors and salt crystals. Bucheron is three different cheeses in one: You buy it fresh, then it changes as it ages.
Congratulations to Mei Lin, winner of Top Chef Season 12.