F&W Star Chef
Experience: Bayona (New Orleans); Aquitaine (Boston)
Restaurants: Francine Bistro (Camden, Maine)
Recipe you are most famous for?
We do a mussel dish here, mussels that are roasted on pine needles. I’ve been obsessed with this idea of doing surf and turf, but not in any cheesy 1970s restaurant-style. Mussels grow on the seashore here, often really close to white pine trees, so I thought that that combination would work really well. We roast them over pine needles and then finish them with black butter in a cast-iron skillet. There’s no liquid involved. It’s really delicious and really appetizing when it cooks. The pine needles burn and the mussel shells char.
What ingredients, techniques or trends are your current food obsessions?
Maine has such a terroir. I’m really obsessed with that, the way that things taste in Maine. I grew up here and worked all over the country, but coming back home, that was the first thing that I thought: Food really tastes good here. I’m obsessed with why certain foods taste great here. I’ve been fascinated with using juniper and fish, or wild mushrooms and fish, or wild mushrooms and shellfish. I’m obsessed with that combination of the sea and the land here, which is, on the coast of Maine, how a lot of flavors are built.
I have to admit, I’m kind of addicted to fish sauce. The other thing that is really cool to add to food is nori puree. If you cook down nori with dashi broth and put a little millet jelly in it too, it’s both sweet and briny and makes everything taste better. It’s incredible if you’re just stir-frying some corn with fried garlic: a little nori puree added into it is just ridiculously good. The millet jelly really brings out the sweetness of the corn, but there’s also just so many natural glutamates in that mixture that it makes corn taste incredibly delicious. And no one would ever guess that there’s seaweed in it. We toast nori and then cook it down with dashi. We make dashi here with smoked haddock in it instead of bonito. So there’s that kelp broth and smoked haddock. We cook that down and then add in the millet jelly, which is kind of like rice syrup. It puts in a sweetness that’s not overtly sweet. Once that’s cooked down to a jam-like consistency, it’s just amazing. You can also buy it at a good Japanese grocery. It’s usually refrigerated. It’s incredible stuff.
What ingredient will people be talking about in five years?
I know that people are just starting to talk about fermentation again. I’ve been making salami, and you add these cultures to it. I think there’s going to be a lot more fermentation of food using bacterial cultures, much more to the extent than there is now. I was making capicola the other day and putting the bactoferm on the outside—it’s just a bacteria that smells like salami—and I was thinking that there are so many things you could use that with. You could make a fermented tofu with that, or maybe pickling. Pork belly is kind of a passé ingredient, I think, at this point, but I think a pickled piece of pork belly would have so much more flavor, and you could use a lot less of it. I think that culturing ingredients is really exciting.
What will we always find in your fridge?
Usually, a piece of smoked butter from work. We smoke cream here and then culture it and then churn it into butter. That’s such a great, delicious thing to have at home. It’s really good on Saltines. I was just looking at my fridge this morning. I have Sicilian cracked olives that are marinated in hot pepper, and I love those things so much. I actually got them at Tony’s Colonial in Providence. I think it’s the best place on the East Coast to buy olives. I went there shopping for our new pizza restaurant, and I bought a bunch of stuff. I love the way it has that old-school Italian smell and flavor to it.
What do you eat straight out of the fridge, standing up? What is your favorite snack?
I’ve been making Chinese tea eggs for myself. I haven’t been using them at the restaurant, but they’re such a cool snack: You hard-boil an egg and steep it in tea and soy sauce and tangerine peel and star anise. Then when you peel them, they look like they’re marbled. It looks like a faux finish on the outside of the egg. They’re just so cool, with the flavor of all that soy sauce and sugar. I was craving them. I saw a picture of them in a book so I looked online. There’s a bunch of recipes online for them. You have to make the broth really, really strong so that it soaks it in. You boil the egg and then you crack it all around the outside and then you let it soak in that. It’s really delicious. You use Lapsang souchong, a smoked tea. It’s so good and interesting tasting. Something about the exotic smell of tangerine peel and star anise is really exciting.
Best new store-bought ingredient/product and why?
I had a sumo tangerine the other day, and I still can’t believe how good they are. I’d heard press about them. On that food show on KCRW, they had someone at the farmers’ market talking about sumo tangerines. I saw one at Whole Foods the other day, and I can’t believe how good they are. They’re gigantic. Sometimes they’re four times sweeter than an orange, but they have so much acidity, which is weird for a tangerine; usually tangerines are kind of mild. They taste incredible. I can’t believe how good they are. They’re so rare now that it’s hard for me to get them here. We just ate them; I didn’t buy enough for the restaurant, and then when I went back to Whole Foods, they were gone. It think there’s only one farm in the country that has them. They are going to be amazing: Five years from now, it’s going to be the orange that everyone wants. And they’re so easy to peel, too, it’s crazy. They look almost like an ugli fruit but more orange, but the flavor just blows everything away.
Who is your food mentor? What is the most important thing you learned from him/her?
I worked with Trey Foshee. He works in San Diego now. He and I worked together in Hawaii. He taught me a lot about finesse in cooking and how you can use two ingredients rather than how chefs traditionally use three different flavors on a dish. He taught me a lot about restraint but still making delicious food. I try to have a Trey voice in my head when I’m looking at a dish. I also worked for Sara Jenkins. My first job was at Figs in Boston; Sara Jenkins was the chef there, and Todd English was the chef/owner. Sara taught me so much about Italian cooking and all those really rich, rustic flavors. How to cook is such an important thing to learn from a mentor, and I really think that she did teach me a lot about that.
What's the most important skill you need to be a great cook?
For everyone, it’s different. I know that my trick is a really weird one: I’ll take a step back from a dish and think of it like a song or producing a record. I’ll think about flavors more as the way that sound would be mixed. When I taste something, I’ll think about the top end and whether there’s enough low end to it or how everything fits together, like in a song. It’s much easier for me to think clearly when I do that rather than think, “What else does this dish need?” I think of it more as how a dish would sound if it were music. Before I started cooking, I was a musician. I made my living doing that, playing in a rock-and-roll band. I played guitar. Right out of high school, my band got signed to Island Records, so I spent 10 years doing that. I make a much better cook than a rock star, though. I do still play guitar. I have a brand new baby—she’s 2 months old—so I’ve been playing a lot of synthesizer for her.
What is your hidden talent besides cooking?
I’m really obsessed with fishing. I can pretty much out-fish anyone I fish with. I think that if I wasn't a chef, I’d be a fishing guide. I love striped bass. We have them here in the summer. I love fishing late, late at night with a wetsuit, being out in the water in the dark.
Favorite cookbook of all time?
That L’Astrance cookbook that just came out is blowing my mind, the Pascal Barbot book is just incredible. Trey and I actually went to Paris two years ago and ate at a bunch of restaurants, and I was just really unimpressed with Parisian food. Then I saw the Astrance cookbook. He does what you hope that every great French chef would do: He uses incredible amounts of spices, he uses incredible amounts of really varied ingredients. You know that when you get a piece of mackerel from him that it would just taste like mackerel but have all these incredible accompaniments with it that are just beautiful and so imaginative. I’m kind of blown away by it.
Who do you follow on Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest or Facebook?
Jonathan Gold of the LA Times—everyone knows that he’s a genius, but I'm just impressed with his food writing every week. I’m trying to stay away from my phone, to check that kind of stuff, but I do check the Blackbird menu in Chicago probably twice a month. It’s also fun—the way that they write their menu, they’ll just give you a list of ingredients. It’s so inspiring for me just to think about that list of ingredients and not know anything about how they would prepare it. It’s almost like mishearing lyrics to a song—you can think of the greatest lyrics if you mishear the lyrics. When I see the stuff written on their menu, I can think of a really interesting way to put those ingredients together that probably has nothing to do with what they actually do at the restaurant. I think that when you read about something like smoked dates, they put together a lot of unlikely ingredients, and it’s fun to think about how that kind of stuff would work together.
Name three restaurants you are dying to go to in the next year and why.
I really want to go to Mission Chinese. I haven’t been yet. I’d love to revisit a restaurant I went to in the south of England called The Sportsman. The chef there, they make their own sea salt there and then sort of build the menu all the way up from that. It was just a little pub on the English seaside that was one of the most incredible meals that I’ve ever had. They did a mackerel with a green apple sambal. They just crushed what I would imagine was a nice Granny Smith apple with a fork and put a little lemon juice and a little piment d’Espelette on it. It was just really simple but really honest food. You could tell that chef Stephen [Harris] is just a genius at putting stuff together.
What is the most cherished souvenir you've brought back from a trip?
I brought back some ceviche bowls from Mexico. They’re sort of shaped like the lava mortar-and-pestle bowls, but they’re made out of glass. I love keeping them in the freezer and then serving ceviche out of those. I think they use them more for salsa there, but they’re really cool-looking. I got them in a market in Zihuatanejo about two years ago. I love it there. If I quit my day job, I’d move there in a second.
Do you have any pre- or post-shift rituals?
We have 11 chickens in the back of the restaurant, so once we’re all set up for service, I love to let the cooks all get ready on the line and go out talk to the chickens and pet them and feed them. It’s so relaxing. They’re pretty cool animals. I was pretty nervous about getting chickens for the restaurant; I thought it would be such a big commitment, or it just seemed like it would be a waste of money, but it’s a pretty cool addition to the restaurant. Everyone takes care of them. It’s just nice to be able to step outside and talk to the chickens for a minute.
I like to have perfectly clean sea salt on my station before every shift. I think if I do that I’ll make it through service much better than if it has a little bit of pepper mixed in or something like that. I think it’s good luck.
It’s a pizza restaurant called Seabright (Seabright opened in 2013). My grandparents had a house on the Jersey Shore in Sea Bright, New Jersey, and I just love the name. We have a little hydroelectric dam here in town, and it happens to be called Seabright. It’s also what they call salmon when they first come in from the ocean, when they’re all chrome-colored. It’s a combination of those things. Seabright Pizza is right on the harbor in Camden, so it has that sort of light that the ocean gets. It’s a really simple pizza restaurant. We have only five pizzas and two salads. The pizza is vaguely Neapolitan in style. It’s a patted-out dough, not a rolled dough, but it’s a really light crust—puffy but crispy on the bottom. The mushroom pizza will have mushrooms in three or four different forms: There’ll be a mushroom puree and then some roasted portobellos cut paper-thin, almost like sashimi, and then a raw mushroom salad on top. The ingredients are really sparse; it’s not piled on. Every bite is something different. That’s the idea. We’ll use a lot of vegetable toppings. We’re making our own mozzarella every day. We open on Monday [April 1, 2013]. We had two soft openings, and it was crazy. It’s from a wood oven, so that makes it really exciting. They cook quickly, in just a couple minutes.