F&W Star Chef
Restaurant: Beast (Portland OR)
Experience: Family Supper, ClarkLewis, Gotham Tavern (Portland)
Who is your food mentor? What is the most important thing you learned from him or her?
My mom. She grew up in France for part of her life. Her mom was a terrible cook—a boiled-ham, iceberg-wedge kind of lady. So my mom taught herself to cook when I was a little girl. She had cookbooks all around the house. In the ’70s, most cookbooks were French, so there were a lot of soufflés being made, oxtail stews and roast duck. Comfort-oriented but slightly more refined. We had a big garden, so she also cooked with a lot of produce. That’s probably why the food turned out so classically inspired at Beast. She inspired me to be confident, to go and have a good time when I cook. She taught me that making a soufflé isn’t so technical: You make a base, you put some egg yolks in there, you whisk it up, you cool it down. Just don’t overbeat the whites. It doesn’t require math. When I first started, I’d ask her, “How do I do this? Can you give me a recipe?” She’d tell me, “I don’t have a recipe. I just do it.”
What’s the most important skill you need to be a great cook?
Tasting, and at all stages. I think that’s what separates professionals and home cooks: Home cooks don’t know to taste throughout. They only try a dish at the end. If it turns out badly, they won’t know when it started to go wrong. It’s also important to taste for consistency and mouthfeel, not just for salt or spices. That’s what I hammer into my cooks: Taste at every stage and keep asking yourself, “What does this need?”
Dish you are best known for?
Probably the foie gras bonbon that we serve on the charcuterie plate at Beast. I haven’t changed it since we opened. It’s foie gras cooked with Cognac and vanilla bean, pureed, chilled and shaped to form a semispherical bonbon. We serve it on a peanut shortbread with Sauternes gelée—since Sauternes is the classic pair with foie gras. We finish it with a little fleur de sel.
Favorite secret-weapon ingredient?
Fish sauce, preferably a mild Vietnamese or Thai one, or Red Boat. The other day I made a velouté of spring carrots at Beast. It was delicious, but it needed one more layer. Two dashes of fish sauce and one dash of Tabasco, and it didn’t taste spicy or fishy. It added umami and roundness. Yet you’d never think, There’s fish sauce in here.
What ingredient will people be talking about in five years?
I would be excited if we continued to grow more heirloom vegetables from around the world, like Romanesco broccoli, or heirlooms from France, and if chefs keep cooking the new varieties to help promote them. I hope that we don’t sit on our heels on that crop diversity thing.
What is the best new store-bought ingredient or product, and why?
I’m excited to see fermented black garlic at the grocery store. At least, we have it at New Seasons, which is like Portland’s local Whole Foods crossed with a co-op. I like making vinaigrettes with it. I recently made a black garlic beurre blanc, which tasted like an umami bomb. I served it with some seared squab, a confited leg and some asparagus. It was beautiful.
What will we always find in your fridge?
Condiments. I have probably six different kinds of mustard in the fridge. I love achaar, the Indian lime pickle. It’s a little strong out of the jar, so I’ll eat it with a cracker or a slice of cheese. Sometimes in the morning I make some toast and a poached egg with a little achaar and mango chutney on the side. I like the combination of the hot-salty-sour pickle with the sweet chutney. The chutney is also delicious in lieu of ketchup. I like curried ketchup, too—that I put it on a piece of roast turkey or deli meat.
What do you eat straight out of the fridge, standing up? What is your favorite snack?
A couple slices of turkey—which I try to save for my daughter’s lunch but end up eating a lot of—with a condiment. I love the combination of sweet-and-spicy mustard on turkey. Sometimes I’ll top it with Sriracha and a bread-and-butter pickle. Sometimes I pop a little cream cheese in there. Random, I know. I try not to eat carbs at night. It’s difficult coming home after service when it’s midnight and I’m hungry. I try to just do protein and pickles.
Favorite cookbook of all time?
If I need to refer to a cookbook, it’s often a pastry book. My three favorites are: Pastries from the La Brea Bakery, by Nancy Silverton; The Last Course, by Claudia Fleming; and Tartine, by Elizabeth Prueitt and Chad Robertson.
For savory food stuff, I’ll go to an old standby like Mastering the Art of French Cooking to remind myself of something like how many eggs go into a soufflé.
What is your talent besides cooking?
I like to go out dancing. I like gardening, and only just got back into it this year. Now I have an actual garden with chickens.
What three restaurants are you dying to go to in the next year, and why?
I like to go where I’m friends with the chefs. I’m such a funny hippie in that way: I believe that good energy transfers into the food.
- I would love to go the Catbird Seat in Nashville. I had their food at Animal in L.A. and loved it, so I’d love to see what they can do in their own restaurant.
- I’d like to go back to Paiche, Ricardo Zarate’s new place in Los Angeles. I went there to cook a dinner. I liked everything I had, but it was hard to concentrate, I was busting my ass.
- I’m interested in Chez Sardine [in New York City]. I know they’re into the “lardcore” thing, fat on fat, but I’m also interested in their slightly Asian bent.
Why she won Because her cooking style is what she calls “refined French grandmother”: simultaneously exquisite and accessible, with a major focus on local ingredients.
Born 1974 Raised Corvallis, OR
How she learned to cook meat Cookbooks. “I was a vegetarian for seven years. But you have to do what people want. So when I launched my catering business, everything came from books. Richard Olney, Larousse, Harold McGee. It can’t be overstated, the influence of Alice Waters.”
Favorite cheap eat Portland’s Pho Oregon. “I eat pho [Vietnamese soup] twice a week. I don’t eat the meat in it. I need to know the meat I eat is sustainably raised, and at $5 a bowl, I doubt it.”
Guilty pleasure “I love mayonnaise—remember, it’s a French sauce!”
Obsession Food history. “I found a 1913 copy of The Portland Woman’s Exchange Cookbook on a friend’s bookshelf. All the contributors now have streets named for them. It inspired me to do dinners with the Oregon Historical Society.”
Congratulations to Mei Lin, winner of Top Chef Season 12.