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Sonja Finn

Chef Sonja Finn
Photo © Heather Mull

F&W Star Chef

Education: Columbia University (New York City), Culinary Institute of America (Hyde Park, NY)

Experience: Magnolia Grill (Durham, NC), Zuni Café (San Francisco)

What recipe are you most famous for?
Prosciutto pizza—it’s fresh mozzarella, tomato and prosciutto, which we get from Parma Sausage right here in Pittsburgh. On top of all of that we put arugula, which comes from our roof garden, and shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano. There are only three pizzas that always stay on the menu at Dinette and the prosciutto is one of them.

What two dishes really tell us your story as a chef?
The pappa al pomodoro is a very classic Tuscan dish; it’s almost like a tomato porridge. When I make it, I use only five ingredients: sautéed garlic, tomato, bread, olive oil and basil, and then I’ll finish it off with Parmigiano-Reggiano and some chile oil. As a chef I am always looking for those clean flavors, and the pappa al pomodoro is just so simple and so delicious. I think it’s important not to use too much of the best ingredient in a dish and send it over the top, or no single bite is all that special. I feel that way about the pappa; I always tell my cooks, “Not too much tomato!”

Another dish would be our banana pepper pizza. When I was in my mid-20s, my Serbian or Yugoslav genes started to come out and I began to put peppers in everything. One of the pizzas we do features the roasted and peeled spicy Serbian banana peppers that we grow on the roof, with sheep milk feta, tomato, a sunny-side up egg and fresh mozzarella. It reminds me of when my mom used to fry up peppers and eggs.

What is your favorite cookbook of all time?
I love The Savory Way, by Deborah Madison. I love the way she writes about food, and the ingredient combinations she comes up with. I love this book in particular because it’s full of these little treats that you might make just for yourself. There’s a recipe in there for a nasturtium sandwich—just good bread, a little bit of butter and some nasturtiums—which is so precious.

What is one cooking technique that everyone should know?
I think everyone should know how to emulsify eggs and oil by hand. It’s just such a versatile base that you can use to make so many wonderful things. I cringe when people do it in the blender. I like teaching my cooks to do it by hand with a whisk and a bowl. I always tell them that you have to believe that it’s going to emulsify. If you’re not confident, it’s not going to come together.

Name one indispensable store-bought ingredient.
I have a particular hot sauce that I really like: El Yucateco chile habanero. I like the cleanliness of the heat. A lot of hot sauces have almost too much flavor to them, so you really have to restrain yourself more than when you use fresh chiles. This one just has that nice clean heat and the acid, which goes really well with poached eggs or splashed on a simple quesadilla.

If you could invest in a dream project, what would it be?
I have this romantic idea of a bakery, although I don’t love the idea of coming in at 2 a.m., to bake. Great breads and croissants would be enough to make me happy, and then, of course, all the sweets and cookies that would make the place seem a lot cuter.

What is your current food obsession?
I’m into these Hakurei turnips right now. I saw them at the farmers’ market and immediately wanted to make something with them. They look like little jewels. We cut them up, greens and all, dress them with olive oil and grill them. We’ll serve those with an assortment of radishes and top it all with a lemon vinaigrette and Parmesan.

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