F&W Star Chef
Restaurants: Zahav, Federal Donuts, Percy Street Barbecue (Philadelphia)
Experience: Striped Bass, Vetri, Marigold Kitchen, Xochitl (Philadelphia)
Education: Florida Culinary Institute (West Palm Beach, FL)
What dish are you most famous for?
Everyone at Zahav orders hummus; it gets the guests fired up to share food and taste lots of different things. The Israeli version is really all about the tahini, which we make using organic sesame seeds. It makes for a lighter, less pasty hummus, which we season with salt, cumin, garlic and lemon. We serve that at room temperature with laffa bread that we bake to order in a wood-burning oven.
What two dishes really tell us your story as a chef?
At Marigold Kitchen I did a dish that was a bit of a signature: It was sweetbreads wrapped in chicken skin and seared, served with tahini and sumac. It had a Chicken McNugget thing going on, but it was really refined and tight with that interesting Israeli spicing.
And at Zahav we do a smoked and braised lamb shoulder with pomegranate juice. I first made it at a Passover Seder for my family in the restaurant before it opened, while it was still under construction. We serve it with a big pot of Persian rice, which has that nice crust on the bottom.
What was the first dish you ever cooked yourself?
I remember making French onion soup for myself in college and being shocked that it took so long to caramelize onions. It was such a physical process, so it made the final product that much more gratifying.
What is one cooking technique that everyone should know?
The ability to salt is the most important thing. A cook needs to understand that one needs a certain amount of salt to make something taste like what it is. It's not just about making something taste zesty—salt draws out the character of the ingredients.
Is there a culinary skill or type of dish that you wish you were better at?
My ice cream quenelles are pretty terrible, I wish I could form them a little bit better. I lose my patience. Good wrist action is what it takes. The temperature of the product is super-important, as is being careful not to take too much in the spoon. My quenelles are always too big.
What is your secret-weapon ingredient?
La Boîte á Epice spice blends are used in everything we do. The blender, Lior Lev Sercarz, is a pretty interesting guy. He happens to be Israeli, so I can ask him for things that most people have never heard of. He makes hawaij for us, which is a Yemenite spice blend made with cumin, black pepper and turmeric. We also use his mishmish made with crystallized honey, saffron and lemon, and the shabazi with green chiles, parsley and coriander.
What ingredient will people be talking about in five years?
I'd like to say carob molasses. It's made with stewed carob pods, it's delicious and it's fun to work with. We use it with things like foie gras and lamb, but it works well with root vegetables and creamy desserts, too.
What is the most cherished souvenir you've brought back from a trip?
I was eating at a restaurant in Nazareth, and I spotted their meat grinder, which was fitted with this cylindrical attachment that would create a kind of meat shell. So you make kibbe in the grinder and it comes out shaped like a hollow pipe that you can stuff with other ingredients. I bought it right there and then at the restaurant, and back in Philadelphia I had a metal worker refabricate it for us.
If you could invest in a dream project, what would it be?
I think a falafel shop on the beach would be pretty fun. Good falafel shops are really minimal—there’s not a lot of nonsense. We'd have fresh falafel balls and great breads and salads, and it would only be open a few hours a day so I could surf the rest of the time.
What is your current food obsession?
Hand-pulled noodles. They are delicious, inexpensive and really consistent. I live 10 blocks from Chinatown so I can walk there. I like this place Nan Zhou in Philly, the noodles are really well made there.
What is your favorite snack?
Triscuits and cheddar cheese are my numero uno. Have you ever analyzed the shape of a Triscuit? I feel like they are woven by elves, or made by a group of tiny people living in a tree or something. I do not understand how they are made, but they are perfect crackers.
What is your favorite cookbook of all time?
The Provence of Alain Ducasse. I like it because it is really personal. He discusses individuals—you meet the guy that makes the best pastis or the best olive oil—and you really feel like you are on this trip with him. It's one of those books that actually makes you hungry.
What are your talents besides cooking?
I like to snowboard a lot. And I am pretty good at origami. I can do a 3D 12-pointed star, using only one square piece of paper and no cuts.
Congratulations to Mei Lin, winner of Top Chef Season 12.