Winner of “The People’s Best New Chef” Title in 2011 Reader Poll
F&W Star Chef
Restaurants: Toro, Enoteca Coppa (Boston); Toro (New York)
Experience: Eastern Standard, KO Prime (Boston)
Education: The Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale
Who taught you to cook? What is the most important thing you learned from them?
Jacques Pépin. My parents weren’t good cooks at all. And Mom didn’t cook much, period. Seriously, Tuesdays at our house were called FFY: Fend for Yourself. So I had to cook for myself and my little sister once a week. I would watch Pépin’s shows and try to mimic what I learned.
What was the first dish you ever cooked yourself?
I don’t know exactly, but I have a vivid memory around 12 or 13 years old cooking soft scrambled eggs with a ton of American cheese on toasted rye bread. I ate it like a tartine, open-faced. While I was enjoying it, some guys were helping my dad paint the outside of the house, older kids. I think they were making fun of me. They started saying things like, “Oh, that’s so great, chef, make us one!” So I did. They ate them, and said, “Wow, this really is good.” That was my first real experience cooking for other people.
And what is the best dish for a neophyte home cook to try?
How to cook an egg, at least seven or eight ways. If you can fry an egg sunny-side up, scramble it, make an omelet, poach one, soft-boil one, you’ll learn how to season and how to play with temperature. You’ll pretty much master most of the techniques and dexterity required to cook everything else.
Favorite cookbook of all time?
La Technique by Jacques Pépin. It’s no frills. It shows how to do everything from the basic to the most advanced: how to make a vegetable timbale or a croquette, how to bread something, how to bone a chicken, how to sauté something, how to crack an egg.
What's a dish that defines your cooking style?
Our oysters escabeche has a big personality, though it’s a simple dish. We shuck them, leave them in their own liquid, and make this pickling liquid of aromatics and rooibos tea. We have to get the pickling liquid to the proper temperature to make sure the oysters do not overcook. They absorb the flavors, plump up and become almost the texture of raw oyster but not as slick or slimy. It’s a fun way to get flavor into something already flavorful without insulting the integrity of the food. It’s that or our tripe.
I love cooking tripe because it’s often made badly, yet so easily made well just by paying attention. When you get tripe in Spain or Italy, it can be so heavy and rich because they cook the tripe with all the vegetables all at the same time. We clean the tripe, blanch it and stew it ahead of time to tenderize it. Then, to order, we re-stew with different vegetables, like Marfax beans (which are traditional in New England), garlic, onions, tarragon, Basque cider or apple cider, sometime apple jack brandy or whiskey, tomatoes, paprika, chiles, heirloom tomatoes or canned tomatoes. That way you still get the brightness of each ingredient. I love to make things that people think they don’t like. I’m proud to say that when people come into the restaurant and tell me they don’t like tripe, I have a 95 percent success rate of people saying they like my tripe. I also call ours tripe à la Collinsville. Traditional dishes like boeuf bourguignon are named for the region that inspired them, so this is my nod to the small nowheresville town outside Hartford where I grew up.
What's the most important skill you need to be a great cook?
One technique everyone should know.
How to salt. So many people don’t know! First, make sure your hands are dry so the salt doesn’t clump. Then, if you’re seasoning a piece of something like meat, put it on a wide dish to catch the excess. (I always say, cooks should get nothing on the floor except for salt. Some salt should fall on the floor. When a cook is making salads and the floor is clean, I tell them they’re doing a good job but they’re not seasoning right.)
Take a healthy pinch of salt and hold your hand about a foot above whatever you’re seasoning. Move your hand back and forth as you rub your thumb against your finger. Sprinkle high and vigorously. It should look like it’s falling evenly like snow. Even when you’re seasoning something where you can stir in the salt, like a meatloaf or mac and cheese, you want to sprinkle it as evenly as possible. If you drop it all in one spot and stir, not only do you risk overmixing, but someone will inevitably get that one over-seasoned bite. If you season high and vigorously, there’s less chance of an inconsistently seasoned dish.
Is there a culinary skill or type of dish that you wish you were better at?
I’d love to know how to make kouign-amann. I had a good one recently and thought, Man! I’m never going to make one that good. I wish I could.
What is your current food obsession?
There’s a no-name Pakistani food cart near Toro New York, on the corner of Lafayette and Spring. They do this awesome stewed and grilled lamb with rice and vegetables and these little pigeon peas, like a Pakistani curry. I’m obsessed with it. A few nights ago, I had a 12-course tasting at Má Pêche. I was totally full and tired, got off the train, walked by and still bought a little container of it. I didn’t eat it that night, but I woke up the next morning and had it for breakfast.
What are your talents besides cooking?
I collect vinyl records. I'm good at finding rare punk and hardcore ones. Recently I’ve been rediscovering old bands I forgot how much I loved, like early Genesis, when they had Peter Gabriel, no Phil Collins. They almost sound like a more melodic, ’60s garage punk band, and I love that. Brooks Headley is also part of why I’m revisiting a lot of bands. He’s a huge punk rocker and a really good friend. We’ll text each other photos of whatever album we’re listening to at 3 a.m. He gave me the 7-inch of his band, Crash. I text him photos of me listening to his band sometimes.
What is the best bang-for-the-buck-ingredient and how would you use it?
Green or red curry paste out of the jar. I use it in so much. I like to use that with Coca-Cola to marinate steaks. I use it in a miso and tahini vinaigrette, like a vegan version of Caesar salad dressing. The miso gives you the umami from the cheese and anchovies; the tahini gives it that creamy tartness like the cheese and helps it emulsify like an egg yolk. The curry rounds it out and gives it a sour, spicy flavor of Worcestershire. I use a little bit of red and green curry in pâté, too. A lot of traditional pâté recipes start to taste the same. When I add a little curry paste, it gets people wondering, “What’s that spice that’s a little bit different?”
What ingredient will people be talking about in five years?
I think we’re going to see a lot more Peruvian ingredients, like aji panca, or some of those eclectic Peruvian potatoes. Aji panca is a red pepper that’s often used as a powder like cayenne or espelette.
Best new store-bought ingredient or product, and why?
I'm loving that there are so many cool local hot sauces when I travel. In Boston, I love Alex’s Ugly Sauce. He makes several, all with peppers grown in the Boston area. It’s processed at a communal kitchen called CropCircle in Jamaica Plain and sold at farmers’ markets. I put it on almost everything savory that I eat at home.
What do you eat straight out of the fridge, standing up?
I wrap everything in crappy flour tortillas, add hot sauce and eat it leaning over the sink.
What's the best house cocktail, wine, beer and why?
I don’t know if my restaurants carry it because they know how much I love it, or that I love it because it’s so accessible to me, but this Louis de Gremelle dry, non-vintage sparkling rosé is a Cabernet Franc from Saumur. It’s not expensive, it’s not going to turn your head, but it’s totally crushable. I could drink a bottle of it after work.
If you were facing an emergency and could only take one backpack of supplies, what would you bring, what would you make and why?
Whatever I could find for aged cheeses, cured meats and canned Spanish seafood. I’d also grab some olive oil and whatever fresh fruits I could get my hands on. I would make pinxtos—little bites—all day long.
What is the most cherished souvenir you've brought back from a trip?
Illegally imported jamón ibérico from Spain. Stealing ham is a favorite. I also love canned seafood from Galicia. I collect it. I get berberechos or txipirones every time. I don't get to go even once a year. Anytime somebody else goes, I ask them to bring me back some. Even if I go to Portugal or France or even Canada, I’ll see them in specialty stores and buy them.
Potato chips. I love, love, love potato chips. I don’t buy them anymore; I have no control. The other day I was making breakfast for myself. I like to eat eggs in the morning; I’m not much of a sweet person. I had eggs, bread and farm cheese on hand—I could have made anything. But I also had a bag of Lay’s salt and vinegar potato chips. So what did I do? I put the eggs on those and made Lay’s salt and vinegar chilaquiles.
If you were going to take Mario Batali out to eat, where would it be and why?
I’d take Mario to the John Dory, or in Boston to the Island Creek Oyster Bar—somewhere with an awesome white wine list. From talking to him a little bit at events, we have the same palate for nice white wines, and we can crush food. So it’d be fun to go somewhere we could crush some fried oysters, seafood, a good variety of food for those wines.
Name a restaurant you are dying to go to in the next year and why?
I can’t wait to go back to Incanto. I want to go there when Chris [Cosentino] isn’t there, because the last time he killed me with so much food. I kept asking him to send out tastes, but the bastard told me, “We only cook dishes in one size!” As a fat kid who grew up poor, I can’t not finish food. He sent me this braised wild hare sugo with stinging nettle cavatelli, one of the best things I had that year, followed by Iberian pork fat poached in broth with fish sauce. He ran the gamut of delicious. At the end, I wanted to kill myself. I was mad at him. I can’t wait to go back, but he can’t be there.
Three people to follow on Twitter and Instagram.
@linecook: Ritchie Nakano from Hapa Ramen in San Francisco. He’s hysterical. Because of that, I’ve become good friends with him.
@offalchris: Every day, Chris [Cosentino] tweets or Instagrams his Odds and Ends board, and every time I read it, I’m like, Oh man, I want to go eat that right now.
@groupof7chefs: They’re an awesome group of Toronto chefs who do dinners together. They only Instagram and tweet when they do events every couple of months, but individually the chefs are also active.
Best bang-for-the-buck food trip—where would you go and why?
San Sebastián. You can eat $2 pintxos, $1 pintxos, one- and two-ounce pours of wine. It’s like they don’t want to charge for things. Then there’s Arzak, which is like eating history.
If you could invent a restaurant for your next (imaginary) project, what would it be?
A dive bar with a good jukebox and a bubble hockey game, where I could do any kind of food I want. Wow, I just described my best friend Andy Cartin’s restaurant, jm Curley. My version would be more like a Mexican cantina, where I could do fun and funky things like tripe chili.