F&W Star Chef
Restaurants: The Copper Onion, Plum Alley (Salt Lake City)
Experience: Jean-Georges, Casa Mono, Mercat, Gusto (New York City); Born Cooking (Barcelona)
Education: Culinary Institute of America; BA in economics and English literature, University of Utah
Who taught you how to cook? What is the most important thing you learned from him or her?
My mother. She'd make me these lunches when I was in middle school, with pickled cucumbers, a house mayonnaise, really nice deli meat and a little thermos with some homemade soup. I could sell my lunch for money to other kids. Once I hit high school and other kids had real money, I'd do a little bartering. She taught me about consistency. She always had dinner on the table at 5 o'clock, not 5:03. That's just like a chef's life: People sit down and you need to feed them in a timely manner.
What was the first dish you ever cooked yourself?
My mom would cook something different every day, so I was always helping, blanching brussels sprouts and things like that. I remember being five years old and standing on a stool, but I can't remember what I made first.
What is the best dish for a neophyte cook to try?
I like to teach new home cooks salsa verde. It's not a dish, but it's versatile sauce that works on sautéed mushrooms, meat and fish, and it requires no cooking, so it's perfect for someone intimidated by the process. It's just raw minced garlic, parsley, really good olive oil, lemon juice and a little bit of chile.
Favorite cookbook of all time?
The Internet. I spend a lot of time looking up recipes and restaurants. I also like Simon Hopkinson's Roast Chicken, and Second Helpings of Roast Chicken. Fergus Henderson's books are also clean, simple, and have almost Mark Twain-esque writing.
What's the most important skill you need to be a great cook?
Organization and people skills. Especially when you get into management, people skills are almost as important as knife skills. But even as a cook, getting along with everyone is critical.
What is the best bang-for-the-buck ingredient, and how would you use it?
Parsley. It's such a beautiful herb, and dirt cheap, but it gets a bad rap. But you have to have minced parsley on a pot-au-feu. We also use it in our chimichurri and salsa verde. A proper salsa verde with a well-grilled steak is one of my favorite things in the world.
What is your current food obsession?
Crack Fritos: Take a bag of Fritos, put a little Sriracha in there, and shake it up. It's delicious. Fritos are just oil and corn, too, so they're not necessarily that bad for you.
What three restaurants are you dying to go to in the next year, and why?
1. Drogheria della Rossa, in Bologna. It's the best Italian food I've ever had. It's a little trattoria, and it never changes. The proprietor and former chef, Emanuele, is there seven days a week, except when he goes to see his mother on Mother's Day.
2. Cal Pep, in Barcelona. When I lived across the street, I went there 30-40 times. It's a wonderful, consistent restaurant.
3. Hell's Backbone Grill, in Boulder, Utah. It's in southern Utah. I just celebrated my 40th birthday there. I'd eat there once a week if I could. It's in the spirit of Chez Panisse: simple elegance and beautiful food, perfectly seasoned.
Best bang-for-the-buck food trip: Where would you go and why?
I'd go back to Nicaragua, to the Pacific Coast near Managua. We stayed at a little surf community with an eco-lodge. The night before, you'd put an order in with the fisherman, and he'd bring us lobster, shrimp, Pacific mackerel and snapper. It was so cheap, it was unreal. You can make beautiful ceviches and lobster pasta.
What is the most cherished souvenir you've brought back from a trip?
I spent a lot of time in Cali, Colombia, and brought a beautiful little bowl for garlic and knickknacks, made out of pressed coffee beans.
What do you consider your other talent(s) besides cooking?
I'm pretty good at making a Bloody Mary out of about anything. I'd like to say restaurant design, but I'm not very good at it. I'm good at restaurant accounting, and I like it.
If you could invent a restaurant for your next (imaginary) project, what would it be?
It's not entirely imaginary: I recently bought some land in Nicaragua, with the idea of creating a farm and an open-air restaurant.
If you were facing an emergency, and could take only one backpack of supplies, what would you bring, and what would you make?
Crack Fritos (see above). They're light and will last. House-canned tomatoes, dried macaroni, salt and pepper. I can live on that. I'd have to take my dog, so I'd pack him dehydrated bull penises, which are like rawhide. They keep him busy for days.
What ingredient will people be talking about in five years?
Red meat and honey, because they'll both be so expensive. I think we'll go more the route of the Chinese and Italians, having two ounces of beef in a pasta, rather than a 16-ounce rib eye.
Name two or three dishes that define who you are.
I'm trained in French technique, but have Asian influences from Jean-Georges, and then spent a lot of time with Spanish, Italian and Colombian food, so it's hard to say.
What do you eat straight out of the fridge, standing up? What is your favorite snack?
The other night I had a little glass of amaro and some cashews, marcona almonds and a nice fatty cheese, and it was a revelation. We always keep nuts and good cheese in the fridge, and a lot of alcohol.
My favorite snack comes from Pop Art, a local popcorn vendor that makes a popcorn with jalapeño and cheddar.
What is the best new store-bought ingredient or product, and why?
Zing Zang, a Bloody Mary mix I discovered at Bouchon in Las Vegas. I add more lemon juice and salt, but it's such a good base.
Zesto calamansi soda. Calamansi is a Filipino lime that tastes like orange. The soda is a great mixer for cocktails like a whiskey sour. It also works well with gin and tequila.
Five people to follow on Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, Facebook?
I love my Weekly Review email from Harper's Magazine.
Do you have any food superstitions, or pre- or post-shift rituals?
I bit into a big beetle while eating my grandma's canned berries when I was five years old. Ever since, I have a paranoia about eating canned or bottled berries.
I can't eat black-eyed peas unless they're well cooked, out of fear that my grandfather will come back from the dead and slap me in the head. My grandpa always had black-eyed peas and a ham hock on the stove, and always stressed the importance of a properly cooked black-eyed pea. I can't eat them from a can.
Congratulations to Mei Lin, winner of Top Chef Season 12.