F&W Star Chef
Restaurants: State Bird Provisions (San Francisco)
Experience: Rubicon (San Francisco); Savarin (Chicago); Park Avenue Café (Chicago); Tapawingo (Ellsworth, MI)
Education: Culinary Institute of America (Hyde Park, NY)
What was the first dish you ever cooked yourself?
Probably a big bowl of popcorn with fresh garlic butter and Parmesan cheese. I still cook that today.
What is the most important skill for a cook to have?
I would say for sure knowing how to layer flavor, striking balance within dishes with acids and salts and creaminesses and textures. It's a really important skill.
What's your favorite cookbook of all time?
Flatbreads & Flavors, by Naomi Duguid and Jeffrey Alford. It's sort of like a wanderlust adventure through these rural parts of the world that celebrate breads and dishes that center around these breads. I love the Sichuan flatbread—it's this great ropy kind of flatbread. It's supereasy. We've adopted a version of that for the restaurant.
What do you eat straight out of the fridge?
My ultimate favorite—are you ready for this?—is a corn tortilla that I toast over the gas burner. I rub it with butter, and then I stuff it with sauerkraut and Pecorino. I eat this over the sink because it drips. It's a guilty snack.
What's the most cherished souvenir you've brought back from a trip?
In Cambodia a few years ago, there was this roadside stand selling palm sugar. They made these little bowls out of coconuts, right on their property. The palm sugar didn't last very long, obviously—we used it. But the coconut shell totally did! Now I use them as salt containers. Instead of saying, “Pass the salt,” it's “Pass the coconut.”
What's your hidden talent?
Prior to opening State Bird I had a ceramics studio where I make some various plates and bowls and things like that, just for pleasure and a hobby. I've done it for the past five or six years now. When I was the chef at Rubicon, I would go once a week, on Tuesday mornings, to clear my mind, and be taught something versus being the one teaching. When Rubicon became no more, I just filled my time with that. I do have a passion for handmade anything, folk art, for sure. I did plates and bowls and what I call the “blate,” which is a bowl-plate. I did some things on the wheel and then I started getting really into mold making and making my own molds. Then developing recipes for glazes. I got into the science of it. I bought a number of different elements that go into glaze making. I guess I got pretty serious. We started off using some of it at State Bird, but they all break. Replacements are a bitch.
Why Because of his commitment to bringing the Mediterranean to Michigan through his use of the most amazing local ingredients.
Born Cupertino, CA, 1974.
Education The Culinary Institute of America, Hyde Park, NY.
Experience Savarin and Park Avenue Cafe, Chicago.
Why he became a chef "In high school, I had a job in a restaurant. I used to skip classes to work there. The chef taught me how to make confit, how to break down a chicken. I'd cut my hands every which way. But I never called in sick."
Favorite warm-weather activity Riding his motorcycle in search of ramps (wild leeks). "In early spring, you can pull over and walk 10 feet off the road, and everywhere you look you'll see tons of ramps."
Most memorable dinner Michel Bras, a three-star restaurant in France. "You stay overnight and listen to the cowbells outside your room. I was like, Where am I? I'm in a three-star restaurant, listening to cow bells."
Won Best New Chef at: Tapawingo, Ellsworth, MI
Congratulations to Mei Lin, winner of Top Chef Season 12.