F&W Star Chef
Restaurants: Perla (New York City)
Experience: Manzo at Eataly (New York City)
Favorite cookbook of all time?
Pellegrino Artusi’s Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well. That’s the Escoffier of Italian cuisine.
Who is your food mentor?
Randy Sansom, the first chef I worked for. In high school in Houston, I played on the golf team. I was very serious about it and I had a job at the Willow Creek Golf Club, where our school practiced and where Randy was the chef. I got curious about cooking, so he asked me to work in the kitchen washing dishes. At the time it seemed crazy to my friends—why would you wash dishes? But I was so interested. He taught me that you advance in this industry by studying as well as working hard. He gave me a copy of the CIA’s textbook Professional Cooking, by Wayne Gisslen. I still have it.
What was the first dish you ever cooked by yourself?
In a professional kitchen, the very first thing I ever cooked was pasta for the staff. I’d just turned 16. The chef asked me, “Do you know how to make pasta?” I said, “Of course I do!” and then proceeded to put dried pasta in cold water on the stove. He said, “I thought you told me you knew how to cook pasta!” I was like, “Yeah, I guess I didn’t.”
What is the best dish for a neophyte cook to try?
Stew or ragù. You learn so many different techniques, from searing the meat at the beginning to cutting all of the garnishes, then learning how to develop flavors by cooking over a long period.
Name one secret-weapon ingredient.
Vinegar. I love the way that kick of acid brightens foods and adds dimension. I like anything from balsamic to sherry to Champagne vinegar.
Best-bang-for-the-buck food trip?
A barbecue trip through the South, from Lockhart, Texas, all the way through the Carolinas.
If you were going to take Thomas Keller, Tony Bourdain or Mario Batali out to eat, where would it be?
That’s funny—I would take Mario, even though I’ve dined with him many times. I would take him to Taqueria Coatzingo in Jackson Heights, Queens. They’re open until 3 a.m., and their tacos are just perfect, from tongue to chorizo.
What’s your favorite food letter of the alphabet?
B for beef. It’s so versatile. I’ve always wanted to have a steak house.
What’s your favorite beer?
Quarta Runa. It’s an artisanal beer from northern Italy, made from freshly harvested peaches. They hand-peel the peaches and macerate them in the wort. It doesn’t taste like peaches at all, but has this fresh, clean taste, and a subtle after-bite that you get in the back of your jaw, like the one you get from the tartness of a fresh peach.
Name a dish that defines who you are.
The veal chop smoked in hay that I did at Manzo reflects how I think and cook. There’s an old French custom of baking ham in hay. I wanted to put a new spin on that tradition by thinking more holistically. Cows eat grass, so I decided to roast a veal chop in hay. I took a mix of rosemary, thyme and this amazing hay from a farm in upstate New York. I put a heavy char on the veal. Then I smoldered the hay and herbs, and finished the meat in a closed container with the hay smoking around it. It would only smoke for five or six minutes in the oven. But it would take on this subtle, grassy, herbaceous flavor that not many people had tasted before.
Favorite store-bought ingredient?
Bomba Calabrese. It’s a mixture of pureed Calabrian chiles in oil, with a few other finely chopped ingredients like mushrooms and artichokes that make it rich and spicy with a lot of depth. You can add it to pasta, or sautéed broccoli rabe, to anything. We get the Tutto Calabria brand from our distributor, but a few brands make it.