F&W Star Chef
RESTAURANTS: Michael’s Genuine Food & Drink, Grand Cayman, Harry’s Pizzeria, The Cypress Room (Miami, FL)
EXPERIENCE: Nemo Restaurant, Big Pink Diner, Prime 112, Mark’s Place (Miami, FL)
EDUCATION: Culinary Institute of America’s Baking & Pastry Program
Who taught you how to cook? What is the most important thing you learned from him or her?
Hands down it would be Maida Heatter, who still is very near and dear to my heart. I met her when I first moved to Miami, when I was very young. She inspired me because her recipes were so well-crafted and also cutting edge. She taught me organizational skills. Her recipes are long and involved. Once you’ve tackled her cookbooks, you become much more organized and you understand how to follow a recipe.
What's a dish that defines your cooking style?
Everyone wants to pigeonhole me into a “childhood” or nostalgic style, but my first career was doing very high-end, composed desserts. I love playing with flavors and textures, and introducing a savory element into desserts. One that defines me is the frozen hazelnut parfait we serve at the Cypress Room. It’s made with DuChilly hazelnuts from Oregon, which are unlike any other hazelnuts I’ve ever eaten, and are high in flavor and fat. They inspired me to do a parfait with very rich crème fraiche, puffed farro, pickled cherries and dried salted caramel, which is rich in flavor but light on the palate. I add a pickled jelly I make from the juice of Washington cherries. I cut the jelly into ribbons to decorate the plates.
What was the first dish you ever cooked yourself? And what is the best dish for a neophyte cook to try?
Easy bake brownies. I was six.
For a neophyte baker, I’d recommend the s’mores brownies in my cookbook Baking Out Loud. They are so easy and delicious, fudgy and amazing.
Who is your food mentor? What is the most important thing you learned from him/her?
I learned from so many people, but Mark Militello, the first chef I worked with in Florida, taught me not to be afraid of combining flavors and textures.
Favorite cookbook of all time.
Hands down, Sunday Suppers at Lucques by Suzanne Goin. I’m on my second copy because the spine on the first one broke from my using it so much. It’s not pretentious, just beautiful food carefully done, with such ease.
What's the most important skill you need to be a great cook?
Coordination. You have to be organized and efficient and able to understand movement.
Is there a culinary skill or type of dish that you wish you were better at?
I wish I’d learned how to filet fish. I’m pretty good but I’d like to be better at that, and at breaking down meat.
What is the best bang-for-the-buck ingredient and how would you use it?
Salt. Really good salt. I use Jacobsen’s flake finishing salt from Portland, Oregon. I use it in just about everything: finishing desserts, in savories. It’s my go-to.
What is your current food obsession?
I’m obsessed with pickling and fermenting. I’m really into trying to incorporate pickled dishes with my desserts. Pastry chefs aren’t always encouraged to supplement the savory kitchen. Fortunately, all the chefs I work with at Michael’s understand how I can make their work better, so I do chutneys, savory jams and pickled fruits.
Name three restaurants you are dying to go to in the next year and why?
Salvation Taco in New York, April Bloomfield’s new place, because it’s very seemingly simple food that’s incredibly creative. I adore April as a chef and as a friend.
I’m a huge fan of Marc Vetri’s, and I’m also a native Philadelphia girl. I have not yet eaten at Vetri and I’d love to because he’s brilliant. He is an amazing person and his food is as wonderful tasting as his personality is compelling.
Trois Mec, Ludo [Lefebvre], Johnny [Shook] and Vinny [Dotolo]’s new venture together in Los Angeles. I love the boys and I think what they’re doing is incredibly special. I think it’s a great concept, doing one menu a night, and I’d love to eat there.
Best bang-for-the-buck food trip—where would you go and why?
I have to pick three cities, because I can’t decide which one.
Philadelphia: There’s nothing better to me than eating great cannoli, water ice, salted pretzels and Di Bruno’s cheeses in South Philadelphia.
Austin, Texas: It has a great, vibrant food scene and you can eat the most amazing vegan food. I could probably be vegan if I lived in a city like Austin. I love Foreign & Domestic and Franklin Barbecue.
Portland, Oregon: Walking through the farmers’ market there, I could cry. I love the smells, flavors, variety and the farmers’ passion. It’s the coolest city and feels like a big hug, but it has lousy weather.
What do you consider your other talent(s) besides cooking?
I studied photography and filmmaking. I think in a former life I was a branding/marketing/packaging/industrial designer. I absolutely love design and dream of integrating it on a broader level into what I do.
If you could invent a restaurant for your next (imaginary) project, what would it be?
I really love making sandwiches, making bread, pickling things and making condiments, so my restaurant would be sandwich and pastry-centric. I remember growing up in Philadelphia and going to the Automat, and I think it could be done on a super simple, visually cool level, with a really great beverage program. Either that, or a candy store with a bar serving Bourbon-based drinks.
If you were going to take Tony Bourdain out to eat, where would it be?
He’s so interesting, cocky, witty and snarky. I’d take him to El Palacio de Los Jugos, a little place not far from my house in Miami. It’s Cuban and they have cicerones frying in the back. They sell fresh juices as if you were in Cuba in the 1950s. I think it would be fun to get a brown paper bag filled with cicerones and sit around shooting the breeze.
If you were facing an emergency, and could only take one backpack of supplies, what would you bring, and what would you make?
I’d take really good salt, organic flour, yeast and olive oil. I’d make fabulous bread.
What do you eat straight out of the fridge, standing up? What is your favorite snack?
I eat watermelon cubes standing up. It’s a little OCD but I have to cut them into perfect cubes and they have to fit in the perfect size container. I put a little bit of Jacobsen’s salt on it.
My favorite snacks are almonds, hazelnuts and dehydrates plums and peaches. That’s the healthy answer. The not-so-healthy answer is Sour Patch Kids. I always go for the green ones.
Best new store-bought ingredient/product, and why?
I’m having a lot of fun with basil seeds. I love soaking them in different liquids and putting them in vinaigrettes, desserts and drinks. My favorite is Thai basil. Leslie’s Organics Coconut Secret Coconut Vinegar is also my new love. I buy it at Whole Foods. It’s raw coconut vinegar, made with the coconut sap. Coconut syrup is the new agave.
Do you have any food superstitions or pre- or post- shift rituals?
I don’t have superstitions, but I do have to bake something every single day, whether it’s sticky buns at home or biscotti. That’s my fuel and my espresso. I don’t have rituals. Because I work mornings until late afternoons, it’s not like going out with the guys for beer, because everybody’s working.