Food & Wine: James Petrakis

James Petrakis

F&W Star Chef

Chef: James Petrakis

Restaurants: The Ravenous Pig, Cask & Larder (Winter Park, FL)

Education: Culinary Institute of America at Hyde Park

Who taught you to cook? What is the most important thing you learned from them?
Gabriel Kreuther taught me about technique. He was the chef when I worked at the Atelier at the Ritz Carlton. That whole kitchen had a lot of talent. I got there right out of the CIA; I was the low man on the totem pole and everyone took me under their wing.

Cliford Pleau was my chef at the California Grill and Seasons 52. He taught me that it’s not enough to be a great cook. It’s more about passing the craft along to the next generation.

What was the first dish you ever cooked yourself?
Steak on the grill with my father. He owned steakhouses in Jacksonville so that was our Sunday ritual.

What is the best dish for a neophyte cook to try?
Eggs are a good way to learn how to control heat, since they react quickly, and they’re easy to control. Easy things you learn from mom are also good, like rice and rice pilaf.

Favorite cookbook of all time?
Tom Colicchio’s Think Like a Chef.

What's a dish that defines your cooking style?
At Cask & Larder, we have a roasted wild red fish on a laurel-aged rice pilaf, with a shrimp sauce and some rock shrimp. It incorporates three techniques—roasting a fish properly, and making a sauce and a rice pilaf properly. There’s nothing fancy about it, but when you put it together, it all works.

Favorite new store-bought ingredient?
Laurel-aged rice from Anson Mills. They’re aging their Carolina rice on laurel leaves, so it picks up a fragrant, herbal, even floral note that changes it completely.

Is there a culinary skill or type of dish that you wish you were better at?
I would like to figure out a better way to blend traditional techniques with molecular gastronomy, without it being over the top and smoke coming out at the tables.

What is your current food obsession?
I thought I knew a lot about beer until I opened my own brewery. I have a killer brew master. It’s an art like cooking. There are certain temperatures to pull out certain flavors. We’re trying to get better at pairing dishes to beers in the brewery—aging beers with certain herbs and spices to complement a dish. We just aged our farmhouse saison on orange peel to complement this porchetta dish. My sous chef is my brewmaster’s assistant, so it’s a cool little marriage. We’re playing hard with sours right now, too, trying to complement the smoke flavor we’re getting on our vegetables.

Favorite new technique?
Smoking. Cask was a barbecue place when we bought it. It came with this big Southern Pride eight-rack electrical smoker. It’s pretty intense. We’ve been smoking cabbage for sauerkraut. We can also do whole suckling pigs.

What are your talents besides cooking?
My dad and brother and I fly fish all along the east coast of Florida. We just fish for fun, just catch-and-release. I’m involved in CCA Florida and coastal conservation generally, because I want to teach my kids how to fish. There’s plenty of places to buy great fish, there’s no need to take all of them out from the sea. I’m trying to pass that along, especially to friends used to holding on to their catch, that fishing is more about hanging out and having a good time.

What is the best bang for the buck ingredient and how would you use it?
Vinegar. Gabriel Kreuther was big on using vinegar like salt, to enhance ingredients. At Atelier, every station had lemon and vinegar and salt. Now we do that at both restaurants.

Best new store-bought ingredient/product, and why?
Aji amarillo Peruvian chile paste. I use it for marinades and ceviches. I hired a Peruvian garde manger cook at Ravenous pig. I encourage all the cooks to put dishes on the menu. So he asked to do a traditional Peruvian ceviche with it. Since then it’s been our go-to for ceviches and other dishes. I like how it has that pepper flavor without being overpoweringly hot or smoky.

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 fishing rod and reel and some charcoal, and a flask of bourbon.

What do you eat straight out of the fridge, standing up?
My favorite late-night snack is actually prunes. It’s a strange thing; my wife thinks I’m crazy. But I’ll drink half a gallon of chocolate milk and eat some prunes and I’m good to go.

Who's your chef idol and where would you take him or her to dinner?
I’d love to take Gabriel Kreuther down to the Palm Valley Fish Shack just outside Jacksonville. My brother and I go a lot. It’s run by some CIA grads; they’re not going to blow your mind with new techniques, but what they’re doing is really good. They believe in fresh, sustainable seafood, and giving it to you in the right way—in a cool, casual way. You get some peel-and-eat shrimp and sit on Adirondack chairs on a floating dock over the water. I think that would be fantastic.

If you could invent a restaurant for your next (imaginary) project, what would it be?
Every week it changes. But I’d love to do a 20-seat fine dining restaurant. Florida doesn’t necessarily have the market for it. But if I could get away with it, I’d do it.

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