Why he won Because he wants to get his customers as excited as he is about the supreme local and seasonal ingredients in his Western European-accented menu.
Born St. Louis; 1970.
Education West Virginia Wesleyan College, Buckhannon, WV (he studied nutrition); Culinary Institute of America, Hyde Park, NY.
Experience March, New York City; Charlie Trotter’s, Everest, Blackbird, Chicago.
How he got into cooking "Both my parents are good cooks. We lived in the country, outside of St. Louis: The woman down the road sold us milk, and when I was really young we had livestock—chickens and pigs. My mom had a sourdough starter ever since I could remember."
One of his first jobs Working as a soda jerk at Six Flags in St. Louis.
First real food job Annie Gunn’s and the Smokehouse Market in Chesterfield, MO. "They make their own beef jerky, and they buy rainbow trout from the Ozarks and smoke it. The owners had studied cooking at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris and you could get anything from a bratwurst to a beautiful piece of tuna."
Career turning point "When we were at the CIA, my friend Israel Karasik was doing an internship at Jasper’s in Boston. Places like that were eye-opening then. The way Jasper [White] embraced the seafood, the region, everything. Israel and I were like, ‘We are not worthy.’ "
Most humbling moment "When I was cooking at Ambria [Chicago], there was a birthday dinner for Julia Child. She was there, Jacques Pépin was there; I was the saucier, and the entrée was rack of lamb. I didn’t destroy the lamb, but it was a little overcooked. And it was one of those moments when you can’t roast another 10 racks, you’ve got to go on the entrée. It’s a decision you never want to have to make. It wasn’t even medium-well, but it crossed the line and when you’re cooking for those people, it’s got to be perfect."
Favorite childhood dish His mother’s chicken and dumplings. "She’d use the chicken fat in the dumplings. It was good stuff."
Favorite cooking show "I’ve got to tell you, I love Gordon Ramsay’s The F Word. I love that guy. I think he’s a riot. I try to model my temper on his—just kidding."
Favorite cookbook "I have a few, but I will say Anne Willan’s French Regional Cooking. It’s divided into regions, and gives you an overview of what they’re doing in Gascony, Brittany; it’s so neat. Someone should come up with a book like that for the United States."
Favorite kitchen tool A high-carbon steel slicing knife, which he uses for fish; his wife, Jennifer, gave it to him.
Fantasy splurge "I’ve never been to Italy, but I think if I went there, I would feel like it was the promised land."
Most memorable meal "Recently, my wife and I ate at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, California. I have to rank it at the top. Everything was so simple, it was all about the ingredients and the technique. It was kind of a dream. We saw Alice Waters walk through the dining room but we didn’t get to talk to her."
Pet peeve Lack of communication. "You might not think you need it in a kitchen, but it’s so important to translate what needs to be done."
Favorite cheap eat "I love sandwiches. Any kind of sandwich, an Italian sub or whatever. Turkey, pickles, I’m set."
Favorite guilty pleasure La Pasadita, in Chicago’s Wicker Park area. "They have authentic, soft corn tortilla tacos, made with skirt steak, cilantro, onions and peppers, and they have great salsas that they make hot. And they’re open late."
What he’d do before he opened another restaurant Start a farm.
Latest obsession "I just bought another walk-in cooler that we’ll set up like a wine fridge for aging charcuterie and cheesemaking."
What his next restaurant would be An extremely casual family place. "Our kitchen staff now wears T-shirts that say ‘Taste of the season, preserved.’ The new place would be called Seasons, Preserved. It would be 100 percent regional food, like roasted local chicken. And then I’d have a little retail outlet where we’d sell all our preserved items, like homemade bacon, honey, preserved lemons; we actually produce maple syrup in Chicago. We’d have a chalkboard menu that would be educational: ‘This is what we’re buying locally.’"
What he’d be if he weren’t a chef "I don’t play an instrument, but I’d love to be a rock star."
Food trend he most dislikes "I do my own thing, I don’t worry about what others are doing. I went to Alinea [Grant Achatz’s restaurant in Chicago] and it was incredible. It’s not what I do, but I can sure appreciate what they’re doing."
Advice to future cooks "Read a lot and take a lot of notes."
Congratulations to Mei Lin, winner of Top Chef Season 12.