F&W Star Chef
Restaurants: Rialto, TRADE (Boston)
Experience:Hamersley's Bistro, Michela's (Boston)
Who taught you to cook? What is the most important thing you learned from them?
Gordon and Lydia. Gordon was the sous chef at Seasons under Lydia. They both focused on technique, making sure that you understood why you were doing things. Innovation came second. And it started with ingredients. We were working with local farmers and fishermen in the early to mid ’80s.
What was the first dish you ever cooked yourself?
I don’t remember not cooking! When we were very young, my sisters and I had Christmas cookie competitions to see how many different kinds we could make. We’d start right after Thanksgiving. Sometimes there were 20 kinds coming out of my mother’s kitchen. We’d give most of them away. But we had no TV, so we had to entertain ourselves some way!
What is the best dish for a neophyte home cook to try?
I think you need to learn how to cook vegetables well. They can be roasted, braised, grilled, blanched. So I would say a good vegetable soup, with beans.
Dish that defines your cooking style?
The dish I'm known for at Rialto is the slow-roasted duck. It’s an old-fashioned recipe. The duck is marinated overnight in balsamic, soy sauce and mustard. It’s roasted for about three and a half hours. The skin gets crispy and lacquered because of the marinade. It has every kind of umami in it. I’ve been making that duck for 22 years. I get letters—someone once wrote me a sonnet about the duck. It’s big. It’s a half a duck, but 22 years ago we put more protein on a plate than we were today.
Now I’m known for using lots of vegetables. Right now we have a lovely salad of shaved asparagus, fresh peas, favas, shaved radishes, tons of herbs like mint, basil, chervil, arugula, pea tips and ricotta salata. We dress it with a beautiful extra-virgin olive oil and chardonnay vinegar. On top, there’s a sheet of carta musica (a crispy flatbread) and a slow-cooked egg with shaved pecorino. So many great textures and fresh and beautiful ingredients.
What's the most important skill you need to be a great home cook?
How to dice an onion. You need a sharp knife and a sure hand. In all of my demos, it’s my best trick: I use the knuckles of my left hand to guide my knife, so I can chop an onion without looking at it. Most experienced chefs can do that; home cooks may not have the confidence. But how you chop an onion can transform a dish. If a recipe calls for quarter-inch onions and you put in one-inch onions, it’s going to cook differently and alter the texture. If you chop them in the food processor, they’ll taste yucky and watery and they’ll overpower everything.
Is there a culinary skill or type of dish that you wish you were better at?
I’d like to be better at desserts. Anything that requires measuring.
What is your current food obsession?
I’m a cyclist, training for a two-day ride, so I’m obsessed with finding delicious, energy-packed food that will travel for four hours in the back pocket of my cycling jersey. I came up with the idea of healthy spring rolls that don’t need a dipping sauce. For one, I give a moistened rice paper wrapper a smear of peanut butter and a dab of honey. Then I top that with shaved carrots, sugar snap peas, brown rice, tofu, soy sauce, chile-sesame oil, lots of mint and cilantro, and I roll it all up. And then I double-wrap it in another moistened rice paper wrapper. It works! I’ve also done a sweet version with a date, some almond butter, almonds and cherries.
What is the best bang-for-the-buck ingredient and how would you use it?
Mint. Herbs are the be-all and end-all. Mint works easily with both sweet and savory. I grew up on the mint jelly that you serve with lamb, because I come from a very WASPy family. But everybody uses mint: It’s in Greek food, Thai food, Italian food. It’s great with fish. You can add it to a basil pesto, or make a straight mint pesto with a few nuts, garlic, chiles and oil, and skip the cheese. Or throw the whole torn leaves in a salad. I love to use herbs as a green, not just a seasoning—particularly in the winter; they brighten things up.
Name one secret-weapon ingredient.
Dukka, the Egyptian spice blend. We make our own, inspired by a Claudia Roden recipe. That makes its way into everything. At Trade right now we use it on a dessert, of ginger ice cream with a chile-chocolate sauce and dukka sprinkled on top. It’s unbelievable—crunchy, nutty, with cumin and coriander in it, and it’s just sort of otherworldly.
Best store-bought ingredient or product, and why?
Les Moulins Mahjoub harissa, from Tunisia. It’s not too spicy; it’s got a rich, slightly smoky flavor.
Garum Coluratura from Zingerman’s. Garum is the Mediterranean version of fermented fish sauce. You add a little to a pasta sauce or braise, it infuses it with this rich foundational flavor the way anchovies do. I like Zingerman’s because it’s not just straight salt and fish. It actually has some depth to it. I like it in braised chicken thighs. Or a couple of drops in a tapenade. Even clams and spaghetti: clams and pasta with a little garum and tomatoes, yum.
If you were facing an emergency and could only take one backpack of supplies, what would you bring, what would you make and why?
Farro, and dried beans because they last a long time. Some dukka, garlic, good olive oil, some jarred roasted peppers and some really good sardines. A little pot of live herbs that I could keep alive. And lemons.
What's your favorite food letter of the alphabet? What do you love about that food?
Either F for fennel, favas and figs, or C for clams and chiles. Clams are some of my favorite things. The ones we get from Woodbury Clams in Wellfleet are just perfect. One of the best-known dishes on my menu is Woodbury clams grilled with a little pepper and olive oil served on the half shell. They’re amazing.
What do you eat straight out of the fridge, standing up?
My daughter just made pikliz, the Haitian pickle of cabbage, carrots, chiles and lots of citrus—it’s great stuff. I also love leftovers.
If you were going to take Thomas Keller, Anthony Bourdain, or Mario Batali out to eat, where would it be and why?
Where’s the woman? I would choose Madhur Jaffrey and go with her to India, because I’ve wanted to go there forever, and she is the expert.
Best bang-for-the-buck food trip—where would you go and why?
India, because I’ve never been, and the food is supposed to be amazing. Or Turkey, because I hear equally good things. I would ask Ana Sortun to take me to Turkey.
If you could invent a restaurant for your next (imaginary) project, what would it be?
A seaside restaurant in Massachusetts, or South Africa, or anywhere. I just like the idea of people eating barefoot, and there’s sand everywhere, and it’s simple and easy and fun. I guess probably East Coast—because I love all of the summer foods: grilled striped bass and tomatoes and corn and bluefish and mussels and clams.