F&W Star Chef
Restaurant: Étoile at Domaine Chandon, Yountville, CA
Experience: Auberge du Soleil, Rutherford, CA
What is the dish you’re most known for?
My starter of hamachi with uni sabayon, pequeño melons and borage blossoms from our garden. We serve it from about June through August, when the pequeños are available—they taste like a cross between a melon and a cucumber, with a faint bitterness that helps cut through the richness of the uni.
What is your favorite cookbook of all time?
Madeleine Kamman’s The New Making of a Cook. It came out when I was still a beginner cook about 15 years ago, and it was my encyclopedia. She goes into so much detail for just one dish, like a braised lamb’s tongue with fava beans and pole beans: She talks about the importance of pole beans, how to select them. She ties everything together, too, to explain why this dish makes sense, and why it’s not just random flavors on a plate. That’s important for any cook to understand, whether a home cook or a professional.
What is one technique everyone should know?
Basting. Whether for fish or meat, basting keeps foods moist, helps them cook more evenly and can help caramelization. When we cook a rib eye steak, for example, first we sear it on all sides, then we’ll throw it into the oven with a big nugget of butter, some garlic and thyme and baste it until it’s done. That hot butter encases the meat and helps cook it all the way through. It also browns it and adds slight garlic and thyme flavors. Same with fish: After you sear a beautiful piece of trout, throw a nugget of butter in the pan and baste it to help crisp the skin and moisten the fish. You don’t even have to flip it—just keep basting it with butter on top.
What is your secret-weapon ingredient?
Bergamot orange. It’s one of those flavors that people pick up on but can’t place. The scent can be off-putting when it’s too intense, but it’s amazing in moderation. I love it in a dessert of bergamot sabayon with Mexican marigolds or Mexican mint with ginger ice cream. On the savory side, we’ll do a salad of Dungeness crab legs marinated in bergamot vinaigrette tossed with carrots from our garden. Or scallops marinated with fresh lime juice and fresh bergamot juice, served with fresh melons. Back in the day, before it was banned, we also did a foie gras with an herb salad tossed with bergamot zest and served with smoked pears.
What’s your favorite new store-bought ingredient?
I don’t know if they’re new, but I love honey crystals, the ones made with dehydrated honey. They’re sold as a sugar substitute, but I use them as a crust for caramelized apricots; once the apricots are cooked, we press them in the honey crystals to give them a nice crunch.
What’s your favorite food letter of the alphabet?
S. There are so many S ingredients I love: steelhead, sorrel, stevia. At Domaine Chandon we don’t serve the sweetener Stevia, but we grow the plant. We serve the fresh leaves in a little vase with our tea service. Stevia is something like 10,000 times sweeter than sugar cane, so people can snip the leaves and it naturally sweetens their tea. Stevia flowers also make for incredible garnishes on pastry.
What ingredient will people be talking about in five years?
I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s something, some staple household ingredient that we take for granted now, like cucumbers—we’re having so much fun with them at our restaurant, cooking them, braising them, pickling them, fermenting them. Who knew a cucumber could yield so many flavors and textures?
What is your current food obsession?
Dim sum. I grew up in Napa where there wasn’t any, but I’ve started spending more time in San Francisco lately, and now I’m obsessed with making my own dumplings at home, including the yeast dough. But dim sum is an art. You have to get the dumpling dough to the exact thickness. If you roll it out 1/24th of a millimeter too thick, the dumpling won’t steam right.
What is the best bang-for-the-buck food trip?
Clement Street in San Francisco. In Koreatown they have these little five-spice quails for 99 cents, I don’t know how they do it but they’re amazing. I especially love Burma Superstar. It’s supercheap, phenomenal Burmese food: They’re known for their fermented seaweed salad, but they also do fantastic things like braised pork belly with star anise and pickled mustard greens, which costs something like $12, even though one plate feeds six people.
If you were going to take Thomas Keller out to eat, where would it be?
I know Thomas Keller likes simple things, so I would probably take him to the Fremont Diner on [Route] 121 between Napa and Sonoma. They serve things like biscuits and gravy for breakfast, where the gravy’s made from house-made stock, and the buttermilk biscuits are baked from scratch earlier that day. Plus, any place that sells duck fat or lard on the counter; you know they’re doing something right.
What are the dishes that define who you are?
When I was growing up, my grandparents Sally and Don Schmitt owned the French Laundry before Thomas Keller took it over. My mom worked there as a waitress, so I was lucky enough to grow up on French Laundry leftovers, like duck pâté. Now at Domaine Chandon, in the fall we serve a duck pâté with candy-striped figs. The figs come from one of the best fig growers in Fresno, but as soon as I taste that duck pâté I go right back to my childhood.
My grandmother also used to serve an oxtail terrine made of big pieces of oxtail set in aspic in a Creuset mold. She’d drizzle slices with sherry vinegar and olive oil and serve it with bread and greens. At first I was disgusted by it—when you’re five, you basically think of it as meat Jell-O—but I came to love it. Two years ago I decided to bring it back. I wanted to put my own spin on it but preserve that strong vinegar bite. We did an oxtail aspic with horseradish gelée, with a small salad of pea shoots, mint and Little Gem lettuces heavily dressed in the apple balsamic vinegar that my grandparents now make on their farm. We served it with some raw ahi tuna for what we call our messed-up version of surf and turf. My grandma came in about a year and a half ago and cracked up when she saw it on the menu.
Congratulations to Mei Lin, winner of Top Chef Season 12.