F&W Star Chef
Restaurants: City Grocery, Oxford Bouré, Lamar Lounge, Big Bad Breakfast, Snackbar (Oxford, MS)
Experience: Neal Crook’s Corner (Chapel Hill, NC); Gautreau’s (New Orleans)
Who taught you to cook? What is the most important thing you learned from them?
I grew up in a family where cooking was a big part of our time together, whether we were preparing what my dad had hunted or fished, making sack lunch to go to school or cleaning up after dinner. My mom cooked us breakfast, lunch and dinner every day despite the fact that she taught five or six sections of high school history. I took a tremendous amount from that alone.
The morning after high school, I reported to work on a tug boat in the Gulf of Mexico and was told I’d be the cook for the summer. They taught me how to cook a pot of coffee and a pot of rice. They handed me a copy of The Joy of Cooking and told me, “You’re cooking for a bunch of Cajuns. As long as you don’t screw up the rice, you’ll be fine.”
When I went to work in kitchens, I was just insanely fortunate. I started at Crook’s Corner when it was ascending to be the star of the South, unknowingly sitting in Bill Neal’s lap. Several years and several jobs later, I went to New Orleans, where I worked for Larkin Selman at Gautreau’s. He was probably my greatest mentor, the shining star of New Orleans at the time, on the leading edge there. But as I say in my book, every one of my many chef friends from Andy Ticer and Michael Hudman at Hog & Hominy, who are in their late twenties, to Frank Stitt and Ben Barker, I consider them and everybody in between an inspiration or a mentor to one degree or another.
What was the first dish you ever cooked yourself?
I don’t remember how old I was, but at a bookstore with my mom I found a kid’s cookbook and saw all this stuff that I wanted to cook. So I asked her, “can we have this? I want to make dinner.” We did, potato chip–crusted fried chicken, a sort of shake and bake with drumsticks in potato chips. We made pigs in a blanket, and something like cold green beans with a vinaigrette. As far as I remember, everyone liked it. I’m sure with my parents they probably bit their lips and grinned.
I also liked making hamburgers. My dad was always cooking outside on the grill. He had no time for BS, so he’d get a bag of charcoal and after his third drink would douse it with gasoline and toss in a match from five feet away. I remember loving the explosion when the gas lit up.
What is the best dish for a neophyte home cook to try?
I tell folks you have to identify what you like to eat. If you start with something you have an emotional connection to, the greater the end product is going to be. If you really like lasagna but find it daunting, find a good recipe and go for it. You learn by trial and error. But you have to find something that you love.
Favorite cookbook of all time?
I have probably 10,000 in my collection. It’s kind of like picking a favorite record; it depends on my mood. I am forever in love with Bill Neal’s Southern Cooking just because it’s so minimalist: Paperback, no pictures, a few line drawings, and such economy of words—it’s thick like syrup with intellect. I feel the same way about Frank Stitt’s first book, Frank Stitt's Southern Table. Anything by Julia Child, particularly her first is just stunning. And I love Floyd Cardoz’s book, One Spice, Two Spice;you can almost taste the flavors when you read it.
Name two dishes that define who you are.
When we opened the Grocery in 1992, it was way before I was ready to open a restaurant. I wasn’t prepared to tell a story with food. All I was going to do was take things that were familiar to me and do the best version I possibly could, like crab cakes, herb- and garlic-roasted chickens.
Then we made a real hard run out of my fear that the restaurant would become irrelevant if we didn’t move ahead. It was a catastrophic miscalculation on my part. I wanted to be the one guy who wouldn’t resist change. I got a big fat raspberry in the process. I realized there are certain things folks expect from us, and we need to be able to deliver that. If you tell them you’re going to have a strip steak on the menu, we need to do like we’ve always done and have a whole strip steak, not a carved-out piece that’s been cooked sous-vide and sliced delicately and all this [shit]. We just need to make people happy. When chefs get comfortable enough with themselves and their food, they quit feeling like they need to invent the next Caesar salad.
At City Grocery today, our dishes have significantly fewer ingredients than they used to. There used to be this stack of 30 different ingredients to make a simple vinaigrette. Now I realize you need about eight. But the balance has to be just right. Our menu now tends to look backward a little bit rather than forward.
Is there a culinary skill or type of dish that you wish you were better at?
I look at guys like Ed Lee, John Besh, Mike Lata and Michael Anthony, and I admire how refined their food is. I can identify a great emulsified pâté or homemade sausage, but have never been nearly as adept as I would like to be at some of the more refined Western European classics. All of those guys, their technique is impeccable. I’m kind of ham-fisted. I’m all about flavor.
What is your current food obsession? It’s called Ashley Christensen. I’ll eat anything she cooks.
The last few months I’ve been craving Americanized Chinese food, bold-flavored and well executed. I wish more than anything else that I could get my arms around cornstarch and how to make some of this stuff, and open a little old-school Chinese restaurant, but I just don’t. But my wife teases me that every time I have a craving for something, we open a new restaurant.
What are your talents besides cooking?
I still listen to music; I don’t really dabble in it anymore as far as playing. I spend as much free time as I can hunting and fishing.
What is the best bang-for-the-buck ingredient and how would you use it? I’m a freak for vinegar and acid of all varieties. I like the ones from Vom Fass, and from Huilerie Beaujolais, by Jean-Marc Montegoterro. He’s a family friend of Daniel Boulud’s; Daniel first brought their vinegars to the States. They’re some of the most intensely flavored vinegars I’ve ever had in my life. They do a mango-flavored one; to sip it is like having a mango explode in your mouth.
What's the best house cocktail, wine, beer and why?
Bourbon is all I drink. I don’t drink a whole lot of beer. I absolutely adore Russian River Valley Pinots. Wineries like Arista, Kosta Browne and Williams-Selyem—I tell folks those wines are as close to the wines as I’ve had in Burgundy.
If you were facing an emergency and could only take one backpack of supplies, what would you bring, what would you make and why?
I would pack some good-quality house-made hot dogs and condiments.
What do you eat straight out of the fridge, standing up?
Pickles and fried chicken. Whether I eat them together or separately depends how the mood strikes me.
Who's your chef idol and where would you take him or her to dinner?
I’d throw a party for every chef that belongs to the SFA at Gramercy Tavern, but only if Michael Anthony would sit down with us.
Name three restaurants you are dying to go to in the next year?
1. My buddy Mike Lata’s The Ordinary.
2. Rolf & Daughters in Nashville.
3. The Second Line in Memphis.
Best bang-for-the-buck food trip— where would you go and why?
I know the South better than anywhere in the country. As a result, I don’t think there could be any greater value for the money than the back road trips of fried chicken joints, soul food joints, tamale shacks or barbecue joints. The irony is, of all of those, the absolute best is also the cheapest. The Boudin Trail is astounding.
I’ve spent plenty of time along the border in little towns like Tecate and Calexico in Mexico, where you get this absolutely marvelous mom-and-pop street food that you can’t get anywhere else.
What is the most cherished souvenir you've brought back from a trip?
A loose cobble that I pulled up out of the street in Lyon on my honeymoon. I tend to pick things up - you can ask George Mendes, he used to kid me about all the crap I keep in my pocket. I used to take a picture and send him an update. We’d call it, “What’s in John’s Pants?” It was usually stuff like a broken pencil, a crucifix, a king cake baby, a couple of rocks.
If you could invent a restaurant for your next (imaginary) project, what would it be?
I’ve sort of been forbidden to think about it. We just had a catastrophic renovation to the house we just bought in downtown Oxford, so I’m on a little bit of a lockdown. I do idealize the idea of doing something like a Pizzeria Bianco, with a wood-fired pizza oven, where we cultivate all of the ingredients, make our doughs daily, and cook this magnificent but very small slate of exceptional pizzas. My wife would tell you that if I could eat pizza six nights a week, I probably would.