F&W Star Chef
Restaurants: Hearth, Terroir (New York City)
Experience: Gramercy Tavern (NYC), Cibreo (Florence, Italy), Craft (NYC)
What recipe are you most famous for?
Ribollita, a classic Tuscan vegetable soup. Every restaurant in Florence has its version of it and like everything in Italy, you go to 10 different houses and you get 10 different versions. They all have a few things in common: black cabbage, bread, olive oil and Parmesan cheese. Every version I’ve ever had has those ingredients. I put the bread on top and form a crouton for a textural component. To really disperse the black cabbage, I freeze it overnight and crumble it with my hands. It breaks into a million tiny pieces and infuses the soup in a deep way. I learned that trick from Fabio Picchi at Cibréo in Florence.
Ribollita is a very forgiving soup and even bad versions are good. Throw a bunch of vegetables in a pot, let it sit overnight and the flavors come together and it works. I’m a firm believer that this soup is better the next day and it’s more than the sum of its parts.
What’s one thing everyone should know how to cook?
For a neophyte cook, I recommend making a tomato and egg dish, it’s sometimes called uova al purgatorio. You make a very quick tomato sauce in a skillet, stir in an egg white and then poach the egg yolk in the sauce. Understanding that recipe and seeing what unbelievable results you get encourages everyone to cook more at home. It’s so incredibly sexy, tasty, fast and easy to execute. It delivers on the health, the flavor and the “wow” component of what food can do.
What are your favorite cookbooks of all time?
My favorite cookbooks of all time are Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking; and Giorgio Locatelli’s Made in Italy.
What’s one cooking skill you want to improve?
I’ve always felt inadequate when it comes to making sausages. I will admit that I haven’t spent a lot of time practicing or researching, but they never come out exactly how I want them to. They’re always a little too grainy or they’re too full and they burst or they shrink and the casing is saggy. It’s always been a problem for me, but my chef de cuisine is better at it than I am and I’m learning from him.
What’s the best bang-for-the-buck ingredient?
Almost everything tastes better with a squeeze of lemon on it, and that jolt of citric acid is like a universal salt. It amplifies anything you put it on, from a steak to a piece of fish to roasted cauliflower.
What’s your current food obsession?
Firm and briny Japanese sardines. My fish purveyor has recently got a line on big, spotted Japanese sardines that are almost as long as my forearm and it’s ridiculous how good they are. We’re cooking them in the restaurant, and they’re so beautiful I decided just to grill them and serve them with a wedge of lemon.
What restaurants are you dying to go to?
Asador Etxebarri, a famous grill restaurant in Spain where the chef makes everything on a wood-fired grill. I want to go to Manresa, David Kinch’s restaurant on the water, south of San Francisco. I follow him on Twitter, look at his menus and idolize him from afar. I’ve been dying to get to Brushstroke in Tribeca; I’m a huge Japanophile and I want to see what Yoshiki Tsuji’s all about.
Do you have any favorite food souvenirs from traveling?
I have these mezzalunas I bought at antique markets in Lucca, Italy. I have them hanging at some of my restaurants. For me the mezzaluna is the perfect symbol of my cooking philosophy, and my appreciation for traditional approaches and simplicity.
What ingredient will be talking about in five years?
I have no idea, but I’m constantly amazed at what becomes in vogue. I’m in awe of this current trend of ash, where you carbonize stuff and crumble it into purees. I think it’s gross. I don’t want to eat carbonized anything. I have very little interest in innovation and what’s cutting edge.
Tune in on Wednesdays at 10PM ET for Top Chef: Boston, the 12th season of Bravo's Emmy-Award winning, hit reality series.