F&W Star Chef
Restaurant: Miller Union (Atlanta)
Experience: Floataway Café (Atlanta), Watershed (Decatur, GA)
Education: BS in architecture, Georgia Tech
Up next: A cookbook geared toward shopping at local farmers’ markets (scheduled for publication in spring 2015, by HarperWave).
Who taught you how to cook? What is the most important thing you learned from him or her?
From an early age, I watched my grandmother in the kitchen. She was an intuitive cook, who just knew how to can and preserve and make great pickles. She didn’t really follow recipes. She taught me basics like how to make biscuits, but also how to use my senses and trust my instincts.
What was the first dish you ever cooked by yourself?
When I was young, I cooked a lot and didn’t really think about it. I was a vegetarian in college and cooking a ton of vegetables. I used to make a bean-and-cheese pasta, which might sound weird, but it was great for a student.
What is the best dish for a neophyte cook to try?
I’m trying to teach new cooks to use more fresh market produce. If you have a pizza stone, it’s easy to make pizza dough and throw some vegetables on it. Quinoa, pasta and farro are also ideal carb-filled vessels for vegetables from the market.
Who is your food mentor? What is the most important thing you learned from him or her?
Scott Peacock at Watershed spent a lot of time with me; I was lucky, because that doesn’t happen in every kitchen. I learned a lot about traditional Southern cooking. He also taught me to think about possible outcomes—about what could go wrong—in order to steer a dish in the right direction.
Favorite cookbook of all time.
Tender, by Nigel Slater. Also Deborah Madison’s, Alice Waters’s and David Tanis’s books.
What’s the most important skill you need to be a great cook?
Understanding a technique or a classic dish can free you to use it anywhere. That’s the way the best creations are made: starting with a foundation, then tweaking it to create something new—or newish.
Is there a culinary skill or type of dish that you wish you were better at?
I wish I was a better pastry chef, but I’m just not patient enough.
What is the best bang-for-the-buck ingredient, and how would you use it?
Mushrooms can add umami when there’s no meat. Roasting mushrooms deepens flavors and can add a nice texture.
What is your current food obsession?
Vegetables. I like chilling cooked vegetables. Whether they were poached, roasted or grilled first, chilling them turns them into a different animal. Lately I’ve been working with carrots, Asian turnips, asparagus, radishes and fennel.
Name three restaurants you are dying to go to in the next year.
In San Francisco, State Bird Provisions; in New York, Pearl and Ash, and Mas Farmhouse; in Memphis, Kelly English’s Restaurant Iris, and Hog and Hominy.
What do you consider your other talent(s) besides cooking?
I grew up playing classical woodwind instruments. I later taught myself to play guitar and contemporary music. I also have a design background and studied architecture.
If you could invent a restaurant for your next (imaginary) project, what would it be?
A casual lunch counter where I could make whatever I feel like and that’s what people are eating that day. We’d be open from noon to 7 p.m. We’d serve late lunch and early dinner. And it would be closer to the Georgia coast, where I grew up.
If you were facing an emergency, and could take only one backpack of supplies, what would you bring, and what would you make?
I’d grab a jar of almond butter, some crackers and cheese, and my cat, put everything in the backpack and run.
What ingredient will people be talking about in five years?
Some of the things that are overlooked now—like scallions, celery or some kind of a fish that’s not being eaten much yet.
Name two or three dishes that define who you are.
Baked egg and celery cream. It’s a simple farm egg that’s baked in seasoned cream and accompanied by toasted bread. We take celery, shallots, onion, thyme, bay, black pepper, and add fresh cream to it, heat it and then let it steep. We remove the seasonings. We take the flavored cream and bake it with an egg, finish it under the broiler, then dip grilled bread into it. It’s so comforting and delicious.
Our vegetable plate changes with the seasons: beets, braised greens, roasted carrots, turnips and fennel; fried okra, summer squash, you name it. We cycle through vegetables, and the brussels sprouts are always in demand.
Creamed rice. It’s like a Southern risotto. We start with Carolina Gold rice, which is like a chameleon, because it makes a great pilaf, great sticky rice and good risotto. I toast the rice in butter and olive oil, then deglaze it with white wine, allowing the liquid to be absorbed slowly. I add a vegetable or chicken stock, parcooking the rice until it’s swollen but still crunchy. Then we finish it with more stock and a little cream, and add lots of vegetables. We serve it with a poached egg on top. It’s hot and steamy and the vegetables cook in the rice. We add country ham, and I love the salt.
What do you eat straight out of the fridge, standing up? What is your favorite snack?
Cheese and crackers or almond butter and crackers. That’s my favorite snack.
I make smoothies every morning with frozen organic fruit, kefir and protein powder, chug it and go.
I like to eat radishes a lot. I make radish sandwiches with butter and Maldon salt on the crusty end of a bread loaf.
Best new store-bought ingredient or product?
NuttZo spread. It’s made of seven different kinds of nuts and flax seeds, and you have to store it upside down.
Do you have any food superstitions, or pre- or post-shift rituals?
Sometimes if I’m picking herbs, I’ll throw the stems into the wood underneath the grill. Also, I can’t relax until my station is set up.
Post-shift, I like to sit down to a meal and a glass of wine. I’ll eat off the menu and check in with how dishes are being made. I’ll eat with the dining room manager, or my business partner. It’s a good time to go over stuff—or for me to learn more about wine from our sommelier.
Congratulations to Mei Lin, winner of Top Chef Season 12.