F&W Star Chef
Restaurants: Oleana, Sofra (Cambridge, MA)
Education: California Culinary Academy
Recipe you are most famous for?
The baked Alaska at Oleana. It’s been on the menu since we opened in 2001. We’ve incorporated a lot more Arabic and Middle Eastern influences into our cooking since, but this one’s not Middle Eastern at all. It’s a crunchy, chewy, coconut macaroon cake topped with coconut ice cream and passion fruit caramel.
What’s your current food obsession?
French macarons. We’ve done grapefruit, carrot, and beet, among others. We dehydrated the vegetables for those two, and they turned out really nice. The beet was shiny and sparkly.
Tahini. It took me a while to use tahini in desserts. Now we put it in so much. We make milk chocolate and tahini cups, like peanut butter cups with tahini instead of peanut butter. We paddle tahini into brioche dough with the eggs. It gives it a spongy, softer texture. The sesame taste doesn’t get you at first—it’s more a late hit in the back of your throat. We turn the tahini brioche dough into doughnuts on the weekend: We fry the doughnuts and put salted caramel ganache on top.
What ingredient will people be talking about in five years?
I hope people will keep taking chances with different spices. We make our own spice blends, like our Syrian spice with nutmeg, pepper, cinnamon, black pepper that we put in a blondie. Then there’s dukka, which has coconut, hazelnuts, coriander, cumin. It’s actually pretty dessert-friendly if you mix it with sugar in equal parts. Maybe because blending spices has become so normal to us, I think that people will be more willing to take chances. Even if it’s on something simpler like Aleppo pepper.
Best new store-bought ingredient or product, and why?
This pistachio paste that comes in a can called Love’n Bake. I found it at Whole Foods, and now I order it all the time. Most store-bought pistachio paste is really expensive or it’s fake green. This one comes in this little flip-top can, but it’s seriously the best pistachio paste you can get. It’s got a nice layer of oil on top that makes beautiful ice cream, too. It’s perfect. The company also makes hazelnut paste and marzipan.
What will we always find in your fridge?
Yogurt and jam. And ice cream. I just found these cool mini ice cream cones with chocolate; you can unwrap one for a quick fix. I’ll also buy anything that says “no fat.” What do you eat straight out of the fridge, standing up? What is your favorite snack? When I come home after work, I just want cereal. I try to be healthy, so I like Honey Bunches of Oats—that’s kind of healthy.
Favorite cookbook of all time?
The Greg and Lucy Malouf books Turquoise and Saha. Even if I use only one component as part of a larger plate, like their milk pudding, those books are amazing. The pictures alone are inspiring. In the office, we have a bunch of books, but those are “don’t take them out” books.
What’s the most important skill you need to be a great dessert maker?
Good timing. And patience and concentration. If you make one mistake, in pastry it will snowball.
Do you have any pre- or post-shift rituals?
I like to get everything neat and tidy before I start the day. I’ll straighten all the pans and whisks, and all the containers in the walk-in. I like to do it at the end of my shift the day before, but I’ll also do it if I’m the first one in. Not all my cooks emulate my example, some of them think I’m just obsessive. But in pastry you have to be organized.
What is your hidden talent?
I wish, wish, wish I could play guitar. It’s my hidden talent that I don’t have.
What will we find you doing when you’re not in the kitchen?
I recently got back into running. I’d gotten away from that while we were getting the bakery off the ground.
Who is your food mentor? What is the most important thing you learned from him or her?
I’m going to have to say Ana Sortun. We’ve worked together for so many years, and I keep learning. She’s taught me that you have to keep evolving. It isn’t hard for me to do personally—I always want to try new things—but it’s not as easy from a business standpoint. It amazes me that we’re still so busy after 12 years. But it’s because we’re always changing.
Congratulations to Mei Lin, winner of Top Chef Season 12.