F&W Star Chef
Restaurants: State Bird Provisions (San Francisco)
Experience: Red Hen Bread (Chicago), Rubicon (San Francisco)
Recipe you are most famous for?
The ice cream sandwich. It's a frozen sabayon sandwiched between two macaron cookies. Instead of making the macarons in little circles with piping bags, we cook the batter on a sheet pan, pour the sabayon on it, sandwich the other half-sheet on top, and then cut them into rectangles. We've probably done about 15 different flavors at this point, like an Earl Grey sabayon with dried fruits.
Who is your food mentor?
Nancy Carey, of Red Hen Bread in Chicago. I was an artist, studying photography, and needed a summer job. She was kind enough to let me work there. By the time I left, I was running the entire bakery. I had 75 employees. She was a former artist herself and is still one of my very best friends. The biggest thing I learned is that in the service industry, it's just as much about knowing how to work with people as it is about food.
Favorite cookbook of all time?
[Chef-husband Stuart Brioza] and I have about 500 cookbooks, but Claudia Fleming's The Last Course is probably my top one. She showcased desserts that were complex in their balancing of flavors, but still simple. It really informed the way that I learned how to make desserts.
What's your current food obsession?
Booze in desserts. We use these two really cool products made locally by Sutton Cellars: vermouth and a vin de noix, a green walnut liqueur. For a while I was making a sauce with damson plum jam and the walnut liqueur. I add the vermouth to whipped cream, like a kumquat orange blossom cream. It doesn't taste boozy. It's almost like umami. It gives it depth.
What is the most cherished souvenir you've brought back from a trip?
When Stuart and I went to Europe the second year we knew each other, we traveled all over the place on the Eurail. We went to this crazy flea market outside Budapest and picked up a set of really beautiful forks and knives. They represent so much of our life and are so special to us. We have an artful display in our kitchen and they're part of that.
What is your talent besides cooking?
I'm a die-hard yogi. I do a pretty awesome koundinyasana.
If you could take Mario Batali out to eat, where would you go?
To this sweet little Sardinian family-owned restaurant called La Ciccia. It's kind of a bizarre vibe: white tablecloths and kitschy paintings, but all the servers are Italian and the food is just so wonderful.
Favorite store-bought ingredient?
Brown rice syrup. I use it to replace corn syrup in certain recipes, like chocolate ganache and fudge. It has a stronger flavor, so you can't use it in all recipes.
What ingredient will people be talking about in five years?
Fermented things are going to be going strong for another five years. The Japanese style of burying things in a mixture of yogurt and miso is the next level, as opposed to just making sauerkraut or making kimchi.
What do you eat straight out of the fridge, standing up?
Pickles, like the spicy dill ones made by Bubbies. My true love as far as snack-y things is to make a BAP, which is a butter-and-pickle sandwich. Josey Baker of The Mill has a super-straightforward white bread that we're buying at the restaurant, and I usually take a chunk of that home to make my BAPs.
Congratulations to Mei Lin, winner of Top Chef Season 12.