F&W Star Chef
Experience: Senate Abigail Street Boxer (L.A.)
Where did you first get your start?
Spago in Chicago. I only lasted a couple of months, though. I was 19 years old and all my friends were out of college for the summer, out partying and having fun. I’d get off work at 2 a.m., so I didn’t have a life. They wound up firing me after two months because I kept wanting to get out early. Then I ended up taking a job at Gordon as a commis on the fish station and started to realize I had to put the hours in if I really wanted to do this. I stayed there two and a half years, and ended up running the fish station.
Who taught you to cook? What is the most important thing you learned from them?
My parents taught me not to be afraid, to remember that it’s just cooking. Some dishes will be good, some bad, but it’s just food. I made some crazy experiments as a kid and they still ate them!
Don Yamauchi was my chef at a restaurant called Gordon in Chicago. He taught me how to be a line cook: how to cook, how to plate and above all how to stay organized.
When I worked at Blackbird, Paul Kahan taught me to pay attention to ingredients and let them stand out for themselves. He taught me about not overthinking food.
What was the first dish you ever cooked yourself?
If I go way back to when I was a kid, there were these crazy Asian fusion things when I was 8 or 9 years old, MSG-ridden chicken dishes that my poor parents had to brave their way through. I don’t remember any specific ingredients beyond MSG and chicken; I just remember grabbing all these things out of the refrigerator and trying to put things together. I came from a big hunting family, so my brother and father would go out hunting, Me, I don’t want to freeze my ass off in a duck bind and kill animals. So I stayed home. And most of the women stayed home. Especially around Thanksgiving or Christmas, I helped out in the kitchen and learned how to make gravy, make a roux, stuff a turkey.
And what is the best dish for a neophyte home cook to try?
A simple Mediterranean salad like the fattoush we do at Abigail Street. It’s like a Lebanese version of a panzanella, a bread salad with toasted pita, chopped vegetables, za’atar, lemon juice and olive oil. It’s fresh, quick, convenient and healthy.
Favorite cookbook of all time?
Charlie Trotter’s Seafood. It was my first splurge on a serious book. I was working as a poissonier at Gordon. It predates The French Laundry and the Alinea book—it came out when nobody was spending $50 on cookbooks. The photography was intense, the combinations of ingredients, had a glossary on what vegetables were in season when, what seafood was sustainable, what wines paired well with what types of fish. It was so incredibly— I don’t want to say ahead of its time, but on the cusp.
Dish that defines your style?
We get labeled for our gourmet hot dogs, but we do all kinds of street food. Our mussels charmoula dish is the most popular. We serve it at both Senate and Abigail Street. When it comes to putting dishes together, I'm not a very frilly person. The first priority is that it tastes incredible. We start by blending tomato, garlic, onion, saffron, and a little shellfish stock, that we hit it with cream and butter. That’s our base. To order, we sauté some shallots, throw the mussels in the pan, then hit it with the base, steam it, then add our own harissa for a little spice. We top it with cilantro and a ciabatta that we rub with a garlic clove. We probably go through 150 to 200 pounds of mussels a week.
Name two or three dishes that define who you are.
The mussels dish is one. I didn’t even want to do it when we opened Senate, but my wife, for some reason, said it was the best dish she’d ever had.
The poutine we do at Senate is another, with braised short ribs and local cheese curds. I still remember very first day we sent out the first order. My wife had not seen it and said something like, “What is this [shit]? I can’t sell this!” It’s non-glamorous but delicious. And it has shaped Senate, the fact that people will wait two and a half hours to eat poutine and mussels and hot dogs.
At Abigail, we concentrate on Mediterranean food and do a lot with lamb. We break down whole lambs weekly, and make a lot of sausages like chorizo and merguez. Right now, the signature at Abigail Street is our wood-grilled octopus with merguez, some hummus underneath, then fresh salsa with jalapeño, tomato, parsley, lemon and fried chickpeas on top.
What's the most important skill you need to be a great cook?
Fearlessness. None of us are perfect at this. The whole point of fostering line cooks is to allow them to experiment and fail. If you’re not willing to fail, you’re not going to learn.
One technique everyone should know.
Braising. It’s one of my favorite things to do. Taking tough meat and breaking it down to something succulent and delicious—it’s also hard to screw up.
Is there a culinary skill or type of dish that you wish you were better at?
I’d love to plate food like Grant Achatz, but my mind doesn’t think the way his thinks. He has a genius mind and not everybody has that.
What is your current food obsession?
There are two: I love celery, because it’s one of the most versatile vegetables we have. It’s got leaves, stalks, roots, celery salt – a million things you can do.
Green Sichuan peppercorns. Danny [Bowien] has them at Mission Chinese, but I don’t know where he gets them. I can’t find them. And I’ve been trying to find them ever since I ate there. He does this dish called Tingly Chicken. For some reason, it stings your tongue and makes you think you’re having this allergic reaction. You’re almost scared while you’re eating, but you can’t stop eating. If you drink, it makes it worse, so the only way to get your tongue to stop tingling is to eat more.
What are your talents besides cooking?
I don’t think I have any real talents outside cooking. Lately, I became a father to twin boys, so most of my hobbies have been put on the backburner. It used to be like running and things like that, but now I’m either at work or entertaining two little boys.
Name one secret-weapon ingredient.
I’m a big fan of spice of any kind. I think it gets underutilized. There’s a difference between spiced and spicy. We tend to do a lot of our own spice blends, like ras el hanout and vadouvan. To make a blend, I look at a bunch of recipes (I’m a huge cookbook collector), then I adjust to taste. For my ras el hanout, I might not be a huge fan of cloves. But I love a nice smoked Spanish paprika, its almost bacony sweetness. So I’ll add a little of both sweet and hot. We toss the fried chickpeas for our octopus dish in our vadouvan. That also makes a good bar snack.
Best new store-bought ingredient, and why?
I love are the vinegars Jonathon Sawyer is doing at Greenhouse Tavern (http://tavernvinegar.com). I love the whole idea of this chef making stuff in his basement. And how he makes them out of random things like Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. I keep them stocked in my cupboard at home. They don’t even need to be in a vinaigrette; they’re a great condiment all on their own.
If you were facing an emergency, and could only take one backpack of supplies, what would you bring, what would you make and why?
A knife and a small braising pan, since you can sauté in it, use it for multiple things. I think we could find food on the way. If the zombies are coming, then I’d also pack a gun and several thousand rounds of ammunition. That will at least get me food and protect me from the zombies.
What's your favorite food letter of the alphabet? What do you love about that food?
P for peaches, plums, pears, pumpkins, pomegranate, pie …
What do you eat straight out of the fridge, standing up?
I’m addicted to Australian strawberry licorice. I always eat it when I come home from work. I don’t if it has a brand; we buy packages of it from Whole Foods that just say “Australian Red Licorice.” If there’s any cold takeout, I’ll eat that. I think I eat more cold takeout than hot. And if there’s any cheese or salami, any deli meat, I will eat it. I’ll make a pinwheel and shove the cheese into the turkey and eat it.
Name three restaurants you are dying to go to in the next year and why?
I’ve always wanted to go to The French Laundry. Thomas Keller is my chef idol.
Pok Pok in New York. Every year, we take the kitchen guys on a trip. We went to New York and got to eat everywhere but there. I love Thai, and I’m intrigued by a white guy doing great classic northern Thai food.
I’d like to go to Paul Qui’s new place down in Austin. I’ve heard good things about him. He’s a supertalented cat.
Five people to follow on Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, and Facebook.
1. Paul Kahan
2. Michael Anthony. He’s a buddy, but probably the best meal I’ve had all year was at his restaurant, Gramercy Tavern in New York.
3. Marc Vetri. I didn’t know a lot about him before he was also named BNC the same year as Paul Kahan. Since I’ve started cooking, I’ve collected every one of the July issues of F&W. The year Paul won was probably one of the most impressive—Paul, Marc, Suzanne Goin. What they’ve done in their cities, what the cooks who have worked for them since have done, it’s really impressive the impact they’ve had nationwide. I think marc is similar to Paul: Quiet, a nice guy, and also somebody who’s restaurant I would love to try.
4. Jonathan Waxman is another—when you do follow all these chefs, all of them can’t stop talking highly enough about each other.
Best bang-for-the-buck food trip—where would you go and why?
Cincinnati. A lot of attention has gone to northern Ohio, and what Michael Symon and Jonathan Sawyer are doing in Cleveland. That’s exciting, but there’s plenty happening in the south, too, especially with chefs coming home after working on the coasts.
1. Jose Salazar is a buddy of mine. He was a F&W People’s Best New Chef in 2011 when he cooked at the Palace at the Cincinnatian Hotel here. He worked for Thomas Keller. He’s opening his first restaurant here, in Over-the-Rhine.
2. David Falk just closed Boca’s smaller location and reopened it in a $12 million space, the most gorgeous restaurant space I’ve ever seen. It’s kind of high-end French and Italian. It actually reminds me a little of Gramercy Tavern and Michael Anthony.
3.Eli’s Barbeque is a fantastic barbecue joint that does terrific food.
4. Findlay Market. It’s in Over-the-Rhine. You have to get this thing called goetta. It only comes from Cincinnati. It’s a real ode to the old German heritage. Because so many people lived here under the poverty line, they started cutting sausage with oatmeal. So goetta is about 60 percent oatmeal, 40 percent ground pork, a little onion and a little garlic. You fry it crisp, like scrapple in Pittsburgh. It’s delicious with a fried egg on top.
5. Eckerlin Meats makes goetta three times a week. You walk by and it just smells unbelievable.
How did the neighborhood get the name Over-the-Rhine?
This was a hugely German neighborhood—probably the biggest German population in the US. We have a little canal that they basically considered the Rhine. The neighborhood used to be so busy, they carved out tunnels and cellars underneath a lot of the buildings to run all the barrels and products underground. Both of our restaurants are connected that way. There are also all these caverns and cellars where they’d store beer in the winter. It’s pretty incredible. They do tours.
What's the best house cocktail, wine or beer, and why?
There are a bunch of new breweries in Cincinnati. It was the brewing capital of the US until Prohibition, with more breweries per capita than anywhere else, and something like 2,000 saloons within a square mile. There are still a lot of warehouses. People are turning them back into breweries. One started six months ago called Mad Tree (http://www.madtreebrewing.com) that makes a really cool amber ale, which we serve right now. It’s got plenty of hops but doesn’t dry your tongue out. It’s almost a session beer. And it pairs well with all our foods. So you can have some mussels, a hot dog, slam oysters down and have a couple of them.
What is the most cherished souvenir you've brought back from a trip?
When I was in Japan, I had a knife made. It was basically an eight-inch chef’s knife. But I watched them make it by hand and pound it out. I absolutely loved that trip. I went to Osaka, Kyoto and Kobe, and literally ate three steaks in one sitting in Kobe. I didn’t know when I’d be back again!
If you could invent a restaurant for your next (imaginary) project, what would it be?
The one thing this city needs is something like a Catbird Seat [in Nashville]. Sixteen seats and that’s it. You get what the chefs decided to cook or foraged for that day.
Any new projects in the works?
We’re doing a barbecue joint. We’ll offer a little bit of everything: ribs, brisket, a fun little Frito pie. Almost like a barbecue version of what Paul [Kahan] does with Big Star, where you can have great cocktails, great beer and nothing on the menu over $11.