F&W Star Chef
Restaurants: Father’s Office, Los Angeles; Lukshon, Culver City; Helms Bakery, Los Angeles
Experience: Jamin (Paris), Lespinasse (New York), Chinois on Main and Michael’s (Santa Monica, CA).
Education: BA in Psychology at UCLA; Culinary Institute of America, New York City
What is the recipe you are most famous for?
Whether I want to be or not, I’m most famous for the Father’s Office burger, inspired by my favorite accompaniments to beef—caramelized onions, Gruyère and Maytag cheeses, applewood-smoked bacon compote and arugula. I don’t think any chef gets to decide what they’re known for. That’s left to the audience. You’re lucky if you get to be known for anything.
What is one cooking technique everyone should know?
Trussing a bird. It’s old-school, it’s basic, but as relevant as ever. Your chickens will cook more evenly, and if you’ve put any stuffing in the cavity, trussing helps hold everything together. All it takes is good old twine and Boy Scout knots. I don’t use a trussing needle unless it’s a really big bird.
What is your one secret-weapon ingredient?
Sichuan peppercorns make a perfect secret weapon since so few people in the West know about them. They bring a beguiling, face-numbing experience that is so unexpected, it can literally scare you if you’re using copious amounts. The green Sichuan peppercorn is the hardest to find, yet has the most strength; I recently smuggled some back from China. They’re called green not because they’re fresh; they’re a specific variety that are green when they’re dry. They’re so astonishingly numbing, one little peppercorn can go right into dental work.
What is your best bang-for-the-buck food trip?
The San Gabriel Valley of Los Angeles—$20 will not take you farther anywhere. The place I go to has a standing deal: buy one 2-foot-long banh mi for $5, and get one free. Even Subway couldn’t top that. The other highlight is the Chinese food. L.A. has a broader representation of Chinese food than most US cities, particularly of the inland provinces like Sichuan, Yunnan and Shandong. Shandong is on the coast, per googlemaps. The Shandong-style beef roll at 101 Noodle Express is the best $7 dish anywhere.
What’s your dream restaurant to run?
A restaurant where no matter what you ate or how much, you wouldn’t gain any weight.
What is your current food obsession?
Juicing. I got curious about making my own after so many juice bars started popping up all over L.A., charging $14 for one cup of juice. I’m really getting into what are called masticating juicers, which “chew” the product rather than spin it. They’re considered the best because they don’t heat or foam up the product, so ginger or kale juice comes out pristine and fresh. I like being able to extract such potent flavors from leaves that you wouldn’t think would yield much flavor at all. But now I understand why juice is so expensive; it takes about three pounds of kale to make one glass. I’m just pursuing it out of curiosity, though: A Sang Yoon juice bar is not in my future.
What’s the best house beer?
Perdition from Russian River. It’s only available on tap at their brewpub in Santa Rosa [California], and at Father’s Office. It is a study in balance: It has a little bit of everything and not too much of anything. As a Burgundy and Champagne drinker, those are the things you look for in any beverage. And it goes with almost everything. It’s a perfect beer.
What are the dishes that define who you are?
1. Potato leek soup, or vichyssoise. When I was very young, I met Jacques Pépin, and asked him, “How do you become a great chef?” He said, “Learn how to make potato leek soup.” So I did. It’s a cornerstone dish: It doesn’t get any easier or harder than that.
2. Ma po tofu. There’s something very comforting about it, yet it’s so fiery, it’s the most exciting comfort food. It delivers these astonishing flavors via this bland, soft foil. That juxtaposition is me.
What’s your favorite new store-bought ingredient?
Freeze-dried anything. Every time I go to Trader Joe’s, I look for their newest freeze-dried snacks, like freeze-dried fruit, or those snap pea crisps. They all have this awesome crispy Styrofoam texture, and vibrant flavors. I wish I had the equipment to freeze-dry myself, but it’s far too expensive and elaborate. That’s probably why it fascinates me so much, because I can’t replicate it.
Congratulations to Mei Lin, winner of Top Chef Season 12.