F&W Star Chef
Restaurant: Gunshow, Revival (Atlanta)
Experience: Woodfire Grill, Art Institute of Atlanta (Atlanta)
Who taught you to cook?
I learned to cook from my granny, my dad’s mom. She was my built-in babysitter when I was a kid. We grew up surrounded by my entire extended family. We all lived on the same giant piece of land in Locust Grove, about an hour and a half south of Atlanta. She taught me that if you take shortcuts, you sacrifice flavor, so you should take the time to make something right.
What is the best dish for a neophyte home cook to try?
I always encourage people to try something they’re familiar with, like a family recipe that’s been handed down. Maybe they’ve never made it, but they know how it’s supposed to turn out. That helps.
Dish you’re most famous for?
It’s hard to say. I was so adamant about changing the menu aggressively at Woodfire Grill. The broad answer is, the one dish we could never take off the menu is pork belly. I tried to take it off, but I got some very angry customers. We changed the dish constantly, but the basic preparation remained the same: First it’s steamed in apple cider vinegar, then it’s cooled completely overnight. Then the belly is cut, whether into blocks or cubes or slices—the shape doesn’t matter. The key is to roast-slash-smoke it over really low hickory fire for a very long time. The result is a crunchy exterior and a molten interior.
Favorite cookbook of all time.
A tie between two: The Taste of Country Cooking by Edna Lewis. Despite its age, it’s acutely accurate in regards to the seasonality and microregionalism of our cooking today.
Essential Cuisine by Michel Bras. He either never had or exercised the opportunity to work for any of the famous big-name chefs. He just created a cuisine that made sense to him, to his childhood memories and where he grew up. He committed to being better every single day, and eventually worked himself up from inheriting his family’s restaurant to creating a three Michelin-star restaurant in the same spot. Though I haven’t reached that goal yet, I aspire to do some of what he’s done because it feels so genuine.
What's the most important skill you need to be a great cook?
Patience. It’s easy to get discouraged in cooking, whether you’re a home cook or a professional. A lot of times people let their mistakes end their passion for learning to cook. You have to learn to roll with the punches and keep trying even if it doesn’t work out the right way the first few times.
One technique everyone should know.
How to properly cook a green vegetable. For a long time, especially old-fashioned Southern cooks cooked green vegetables until they were annihilated. By the same token, in the last 20 or 30 years, there was a strong California drive to blanch something for a half a minute and call it cooked. Neither of those is correct. You cook things to tenderize them. We think that only applies to meat. The key with vegetables is to achieve that tenderness while retaining that fresh green color.
Is there a culinary skill or type of dish that you wish you were better at?
Asian food. I love the way that Chinese cooks focus on mise en place: Every cut is specific and perfect. Then they’re able to bring together these tremendously flavorful dishes that are seemingly very simple. So I know the end result, and the beginning steps. I’d love to know more about the middle, what the secret is to make it work.
What is your current food obsession?
Indian cuisine, especially the ways it mirrors foods of the southern US. We share a lot of the same trade routes. So we take the same ingredients but do completely different stuff with them. Take collards: Collards typify Southern cuisine. But they came from Africa, and went both directions. In India they use all our greens like collards, turnip greens, kales. In the South, we think of those as being our thing! That’s our stuff! We don’t realize they’re used in an entirely different context on the opposite side of the world. But I think that’s really cool.
Name one secret-weapon ingredient.
Apple cider vinegar. It has a lower acidity than a lot of other vinegars do, so when it’s mixed with other ingredients it has a more neutral acidity, a more neutral tone than balsamic or even lemon juice. We even use it in desserts. Like an apple tart: Once it comes out of the oven, we’ll brush the baked apples with a little bit of apple cider vinegar to restore some of that fresh acidity of a raw apple.
What ingredient will people be talking about in five years? Why?
I hope that the hearty, root vegetables like turnips and carrots will get their time in the sun. They have so much to offer. I love their concentrated sweetness. I hope people explore them more, and don’t just relegate them to things that are roasted or mashed with turkey at a certain time of year.
Best new store-bought ingredient, and why?
A good canned tomato. I like Muir Glen fire-roasted tomatoes especially. It sometimes surprises people, but canned tomatoes are often better than fresh—especially in slow simmers, like sauces and braises. Especially if we’re talking paste tomatoes like romas: Those improve with the canning process. You cut open a fresh roma tomato, they suck! They’re not good! But cooked and canned, they’re delicious. And captured at the height of ripeness. We talk so much about cooking with fresh food, I think it’s made some people ashamed to use canned tomatoes. It’s one thing to use canned vegetables that were never meant to be canned, that taste like nothing. But canned tomatoes are a cornerstone of a lot of dishes, especially American classics. And Muir Glen is as good a canned tomato as anything I can get as a chef.
What's the best house cocktail, wine, or beer?
I’m a huge German beer fan. I love what’s happening with American craft brews, but I appreciate people who’ve been brewing beer with the same recipe since the 1400s. The Germans have always brewed their beers to work with their food. Two favorites are Gaffel Kölsch from Cologne in Northern Germany, and a Munich beer called Augustiner.
What do you eat straight out of the fridge, standing up?
I really like cold things. My all-time favorite cold treat is leftover Chinese food, in all its unsophisticated glory. I also really like bologna straight from the fridge, ice cold. I don’t know why. I think it’s a nostalgia thing, something I used to do as a kid. I used to make sandwiches with bologna, Duke’s mayonnaise and Captain John Derst’s white bread, a brand made in Georgia. But the bologna had to be ice cold. It’s denser and has more of a snap. I like it hot off a griddle, too, but I don’t like room-temperature bologna at all.
If you were going to take Anthony Bourdain out to eat, where would it be and why?
I appreciate how snarky he is and that he likes holes in the wall. Anytime I take a chef out, I’m never trying to take them places that will blow their minds. I take them to the places we are embarrassed to admit we like, like the place that serves completely untraditional American Chinese but it’s really good. There’s a place called Buckner’s; it’s not far where I grew up. I take all of my chef friends there. All they make is fried chicken and six vegetable sides that they determine that day. You come in, you play a flat rate and you sit down at a table with a whole bunch of people. They fill that table full of food; you take some and pass it around. It’s fun because you sit with a truck driver and a bunch of people who just got out of church and your neighbor and your buddy. It’s a peculiar dynamic, but it works because it’s such delicious food.