F&W Star Chef
Restaurants: Watts Grocery, Hummingbird Bakery (Durham, NC)
Experience: Crook’s Corner (Chapel Hill, NC)
Who taught you to cook? What is the most important thing you learned from them?
Two people: My grandmother. She taught me about using fresh and local ingredients, but not in a precious foodie bullshit sort of way. She was from eastern North Carolina, where they just live by the seasons, that’s just how it’s done. She had a garden, so we ate whatever was growing in it. You ate fried green tomatoes when they were coming off the tomato plants in the late spring. You weren’t eating them in July because all the tomatoes were red in July.
My chef when I was at Crook’s Corner, Bill Neal. He would make a staff lunch of tuna salad and it would be transcendent. It wasn’t fussy or obnoxious or busy, it was just lovely. He just had a nice sense of balance on the palate. He trained in France, so I’m sure part of that is I’m such a Francophile myself. But you’d be looking at a tuna salad that was very Niçoise-ish: olives, green beans, a vinaigrette rather than mayo, a little bit of lettuce. We grew our own herbs because 25 years ago, when I worked for him, there weren’t all those herbs for sale at the Whole Foods. There wasn’t even a Whole Foods. All of his tiny touches, the quality of his ingredients, it was all a revelation: that sort of updated Southern cooking—fresh but not too stupid—taking my grandmother’s food and making it lovely. My grandmother was a fabulous cook, but sometimes her food could be heavy.
What was the first dish you ever cooked yourself?
My mother went through these cooking phases when I was little. I can remember making mu shu pancakes when I was like eight years old, during her Chinese cooking phase. Then we went through some sort of matzo ball soup and brisket and Hungarian torte phase—which was less successful, mind you. In high school, I used to throw dinner parties. I thought I might go to a culinary institute instead of college. But that was pretty much frowned upon in my household. So that didn’t happen. But I can remember cooking through this regional French cooking book by Anne Willan. That was quite good. It’s funny, I went and ended up working for her later. And of course I can remember making some of Julia Child’s recipes, too, although they’re quite long. She had a way of making something so fabulous take forever. Her chocolate mousse was great, but you have to take out 40 steps to make it doable.
What is the best dish for a neophyte home cook to try?
Roast chicken. It can be so horrible, but it’s so easy. My husband is our home cook. He has made some horrible roast chickens, but with a little instruction, he’s made some pretty stellar ones for a long time now. We use an old paella pan, which is sort of cast-iron. We throw in carrots and onions and whole cloves of peeled garlic and little potatoes. (He has suffered from cutting the potatoes too big, which is not a good idea, because they never get cooked in the middle.) Then we put the bird on a little rack over the vegetables. He stuffs our bird with a lemon and some thyme and just ties it up and seasons it with salt and pepper. You don’t have to tie it up if you don’t care if it splays. Who cares, right? Butter under the skin is a great idea, but it’s optional: There’s no way I can justify eating four tablespoons of butter under the skin on a Tuesday. Then the temperature depends on your oven. We start it at 450, but most home ovens suck. So start it really high and then turn it down, and cook it till it’s done, till the juices run clear. We don’t use thermometers at our house. You can baste it if you remember to: just spoon up whatever juices are leaching out and throw them over from time to time. My husband often lets the juices evaporate, which is bad for the vegetables, so you don’t want that to happen. And then let it rest, ideally. We’re usually panicked, like, “When is it going to be done?!” Because he’s put it in so late. So resting it for 20 or 15 minutes is always a good idea. But it really doesn’t kill it if you just slap it out there. It’s harder to cut when you haven’t let it rest.
What's the most important skill you need to be a great cook?
A sense of taste. You can’t actually train someone to have that. And don’t be a smoker. Or don’t be delusional that smoking doesn’t mess up your sense of taste, because it does.
Is there a culinary skill or type of dish that you wish you were better at?
I would love to be an excellent Sichuan cook. But I’m not. We made a Chinese feast for Christmas Eve last year: dumplings, all sorts of stuff. I have never found a cuisine more labor-intensive. I tried it with my kids. It was a pain in the neck. The pickled this, the marinade for that, then chop 14 kinds of vegetables for this other thing. The meal was reasonably well executed but not good enough for all the labor. If it had only been a spectacular failure, that would have been hilarious. That’s a story. But it was meh, which is almost worse. We have a standing rib roast every Christmas Eve. Last year I was so sick of it. But I’m sure we’ll have standing rib next year.
What is the best bang-for-the-buck ingredient and how would you use it?
The tomato. The fancy tomato from a farmers’ market is worth every dollar you spend. Because every other tomato is hideous. And you can use it any way you want. I eat them raw all the time, when they’re in season.
Name three restaurants you are dying to go to in the next year and why?
Let me preface this by saying I’m a parent of two girls, ages 12 and 8. So most of my “going out” consists of driving them to soccer games. But there are several restaurants within 20 minutes of me that I'm dying to go to.
I have a former sous chef, Sunny Gerhart, who’s opening a place in the fall. I think it will be called Death and Taxes, though it’s all very vague. But he’s a wonderful cook. And so I know anything he does will be delicious.
There’s a somewhat new place in Chapel Hill called Kitchen that I hear is good and seasonal and worth trying. And I feel like I ought to try all the good places in town.
There’s a fish shack called the Salt Box run by a friend, Ricky Moore, that I’ve been trying to talk my kids into going to for weeks. I made one of them drive by there the other day, and she was like, “yeah, still don’t want to go! I still don’t like fish!” But I’m going to get her there.
And if I had the time and the means to travel farther, I’d love to get to that snazzy new Thai place in New York, Pok Pok. That looks like the coolest place on earth. Durham has many wonderful restaurants, but it suffers from a lack of diversity. We have plenty of Southern food, Italian food, Spanish food, pizza, whatever, but the Asian element is sadly weak.
What are your talents besides cooking?
Driving my children to soccer.
What is the most cherished souvenir you've brought back from a trip?
Truffles. About a decade ago, we brought about five black truffles from France, and some sausage, and hid them in our shoes so they wouldn’t get detected at customs. They even had the food beagle out sniffing, and I was sure he was going to get all of it. But he didn’t. I was so excited. We got them at a restaurant. They were selling truffles at the table after a truffle festival, so people were eating all these dishes with the truffles, and they were going around with truffles in a basket and a little scale, and they just added them to your bill.
Recipe you’re most famous for?
Updated Southern cooking. Nothing in particular.
Favorite cookbook of all time?
I have three: Charleston Receipts, by the Junior League of Charleston. Now, I can say with full honesty that I have never actually had a recipe that I tried out of there to fully work. But I like the ideas. I’m also a shitty follower of recipes, so it could be operator error.
Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking Vols. 1 and 2. I discovered them in high school, when I also spent a summer in France. They’re just good books to read.
James Beard. I like a lot of his books, but the one I most use is Beard on Bread. I’m always looking for new bread recipes or a dinner roll.
If you could invent a restaurant for your next (imaginary) project, what would it be?
A guy in town wants me to open a Chinese restaurant, which as we know is a very bad idea. If I had unlimited resources, I’d turn the space next to me into a bar serving excellent little snacks. Sometimes with a full menu, one feels a little hemmed in by the requirements of the main course, like having to find the right starch to go with the steak. Apps can be more creative and loose.
If you were going to take Mario Batali out to eat, where would it be and why?
He seems like he’d be fun to dine with; interesting, a family guy, not a snot. I would take him anywhere. Part of the beauty of Durham right now is that there are so many great places that you can do a crawl. First you’d spend the afternoon at Scratch, the bakery, and get coffee. Then we’d amble to Alley 26 for cocktails. Then we’d split a pizza at Pizzeria Toro. Then maybe we’d come have apps at Watts. Then we’d go sit outside at Vin Rouge and split something really classically French. Then we’d get an ice cream from the called the Parlour. Then we’d have a beer at Fullsteam. Only we’d need a driver. Chefs dining should not be driving.
If you were facing an emergency, and could only take one backpack of supplies, what would you bring, what would you make and why?
If I was going somewhere with no heat source, I’d take good cheese, good bread, fruit and prosciutto, and I’d snack on them all together. That’s frequently our summer dinner, with tomatoes added in. My kids are obsessed with prosciutto, though it’s a really expensive thing to be obsessed with.
What's your favorite food letter of the alphabet? What do you love about that food?
I’ve played this game with Kate Krader! She did it with my kids! She has a great one: C, because it’s got cookies and chocolate and cream and cheese, and chicken. In homage to Kate Krader, I will go with the letter C.
What's the best house cocktail, wine, beer and why?
Beer: Mind you, I drink only about six a year, but right now I’m enjoying Endless River Kölsch from Mother Earth Brewing in eastern North Carolina. It’s delicious. I don’t know anything about beer, so I can just tell you inelegantly what I like about it: It’s beer-y but not too hoppy or watery. It’s got some tartness. And it’s not one of those super-high-octane beers that make me feel wasted after just one.
Cocktail: I’m a tequila person. I don’t drink a lot of it, but I enjoy every glass I have. Right now we’re doing strawberry margaritas that I think are quite good. We make the strawberry puree out of half-cooked strawberries, and half raw. You don't want the puree to be dry and flat, which is what you get if you just ground up fresh. And you don’t want it to taste preserved or jammy, which you would get if you just did cooked. So the combination is quite good.
Wine: I’m a seasonal drinker: reds in the winter, rosés and whites in the summer. California rosés can be sweet, but right now I like Belle Glos; it’s delicious and low-alcohol.
Name two or three dishes that define who you are.
The caramel cake is the best, hardest Southern thing to make. To master it is to be a Southern chef—or at least a Southern pastry chef. I often see them for sale, but they’re rarely delicious. I showed my pastry chef at Hummingbird how to make it. Now she’s much better at it than I am. First we use a cake batter and let it sit overnight, so it makes a firmer cake the next day, with a crumbly top. It’s so delicious and perfect. The caramel icing is the hardest part: You only get one shot. We often hold the icing in a bowl over boiling water, so that it doesn’t cool down too fast. I’ve cried over caramel cakes repeatedly. I actually stopped making them for a long time because I figured life is too short. But when it’s made right, caramel cake is the best. Hummingbird customers tell us ours is the best they’ve ever had.
We do a strawberry and green onion salad at Watt’s, which one of our former chefs came up with. I think that defines our restaurants. It’s something slightly unexpected but nothing avant-garde. It’s delicious, using local ingredients when they’re in season. It’s strawberries, green onions, goat feta, local lettuces and a little sort of Dijon vinaigrette to bring it all together.
What do you eat straight out of the fridge, standing up?
Hummus. And olives. I’m not an excellent olive person—I like the little tiny niçoise ones, and that’s about it. I’m a big fan of époisse cheese; I’ll eat that right out of the fridge, though it’s better when it’s warm. My kids hate the smell. It smells like socks, but it tastes delicious.