F&W Star Chef
Restaurants: Scampo, Towne Stove and Spirits (Boston)
Education: Cordon Bleu London
Who taught you to cook? Both my parents were artists, commercial fashion illustrators, so I grew up surrounded by color and art being made. My father was Irish, and they say Irish cooks aren’t very good. But he was an exception to the rule. He used to cut recipes out from the New York Times. I’d come home from school, and there he’d be cooking something fabulous. All my grammar school friends wanted to come to my house to eat, because my father was such a great cook. I think I got my base from them. Then I was married at 17 and had three children right away. In my spare time, I cooked. I started buying books. I bought Julia Child’s book when it first came out. I remember making my first veal stock. I was just like anyone else, but had a real passion. It’s funny, because I later became great friends with Julia.
What is the most important thing you learned from your father?
How to season and cook something correctly. When my father cooked a flank steak, he dried off the meat so the salt and pepper would stick, and always put on plenty of salt and pepper. He wasn’t afraid to get his cast-iron pancake griddle really hot, either. He would spread newspapers on the kitchen floor to catch the grease splatter, since he cared more about the crust on the steak than the splattering. He put a little oil on his griddle then he seared the steak. He never moved it but gave the crust a chance to develop. Once it was cooked, he’d let the steak rest on a rack to save the crust—never on a plate, which would soften the crust. Seeing all this as a young child, aged four or five, it made me think about the essence of cooking—how it’s a series of well-done steps, each step extremely important to the final result.
What was the first dish you ever cooked yourself?
I think mine was flank steak—rare steak with spaghetti alioli [aglio e olio], with oil and garlic. My father taught me to chop the garlic. He didn’t have a chef’s knife, which is interesting; he only had a cleaver. So here I was, four or five years old, with this big meat cleaver, chopping garlic. He showed me how to cook the garlic in olive oil, just until it was light gold. He said if it’s any darker than that, it becomes bitter. Then we chopped fresh parsley. And I always use curly parsley for that dish, because curly is way more aromatic than flat-leaf. It’s actually a better parsley to chop and sprinkle on a dish at the end. Try it as a test: buy a bunch of each, chop both and you’ll see exactly what I mean. Curly is much better for finishing. I love both parsleys. We use flat-leaf, but we julienne it. It’s beautiful fried.
Best dish for a neophyte?
I’m a carnivore, so I love great steak. I think my favorite cut right now is skirt steak. It has great texture and flavor, as opposed to tenderloin, which I despise. What’s too bad about it is sometimes you go to the supermarket and they’ve taken off all the little bit of fat, which is crazy. Skirt steak should have a skin on top with a little fat underneath. I never cut that off. To cook it, again I dry it, like my father taught me, and salt and pepper it vigorously. Then I sear it in a hot pan and let it rest on a rack, then I decide what I want for a sauce.
Favorite steak sauces?
Sometimes I’ll just melt a big piece of butter on it, maybe a little Worcestershire sauce, or there’s a great three-ingredient sauce I make: low-sodium soy, wasabi and lots of butter. I call it my Japanese Perfection Sauce.
Favorite cookbook of all time?
Off the top of my head, I would have to say my Fannie Farmer Cookbook.
My second favorite is Splendid Fare: The Albert Stockli Cookbook. He was the original chef at the Four Seasons. Every single recipe in this book is absolutely amazing. His escargot recipe is perfect. He grinds parsley and watercress into his garlic butter with Pernod and some almonds. Because there’s that little bit of texture in the butter, it’s the best butter! Now I’d never make garlic butter without a little Pernod and a few almonds.
Five dishes that define who you are.
1. My finnan haddie and lobster chowder. Finnan haddie, or smoked haddock, is a New England staple that’s been a bit neglected or forgotten about. But when you make the chowder with sweet lobster, it’s to die for. I think I was the first person to do it. First I poach the finnan haddie in cream with some onions and parsley stems. Once the fish is just barely cooked, not overcooked, I let it cool down in the liquid to room temperature, then I remove the flaky fish. I sauté the bones in a pot with lobster bodies. I add more cream to that and let it simmer slowly with a few cherry tomatoes to balance out the cream. Once the cream has simmered and reduced a little, it has this amazing flavor of lobster and the smoked haddock. Then I finish it with nice big chunks of lobster and the fish.
2. The lobster pizza. We’ve been making it since my Biba days. It’s followed me to every restaurant I’ve ever had. We make the crust with three different flours: bread flour, all-purpose and semolina. I find a Neapolitan pizza crust made with only Tipo 00 flour too soft. I think Americans tend to prefer a slice of pizza that doesn’t flop over when they pick it up. I’ve achieved that by adding semolina to give it a little strength and body. Then we top it with lobster meat, a sprinkling of soft, sweet, slow-cooked shallot and garlic, a little ricotta salata, some Parmesan cheese, and a drizzle of lobster cream. Then we bake it.
3. A côte de boeuf, a double rib of beef with Roquefort sauce. That was the first meal I ever cooked for Jasper White, my chef and business partner for many years. I buy superprime rib—the whole rib—and cut it into six big double chops. I marinate it in a mix of pomegranate molasses with rosemary, thyme, shallots, garlic and lime. Then I cook them on my grill outside. And I serve it with a spoon of Roquefort sauce. Jasper has never forgotten it. He’s said to me many times, “Lydia, that côte de boeuf with Roquefort sauce is out of this world.”
4. Skirt steak with Japanese Perfection Sauce—that’s a good one.
5. A dish that captures my style today would be one of our pastas at Scampo. I like to say we do it the right way. In Italy, you have four courses: an antipasti, maybe some sliced meats or prosciutto, then the primi, or little pasta, then secondi, the main dish, then dessert. Nothing is ever huge. I would like to think that I cook Italian food with restraint. There’s one spaghetti that’s never come off the menu, with cracklings and hot pepper. The first time I ever had cracklings, my father made them. Way back in the ’50s, chowder came with salt-pork cracklings on top. I couldn’t wait for my father to make them, because you could go over and start picking them off the plate, these crunchy, mildly salty cubes of beautiful pork fat. So when we opened Scampo, I put them on the menu. We salt some pork fat and leave it overnight, then cut it into big cubes to render in its own fat. We toss the spaghetti with parsley and garlic, like my father’s spaghetti alioli. Then we add the cracklings and chopped red vinegar peppers. All the chefs in Boston come for this one dish. I think it’s because of my respect of fat. My favorite ingredients in the world are fat and salt.
Favorite bang-for-the-buck ingredient?
Cherry tomatoes. They’re delicious to cook with. Don’t ever use Roma tomatoes—they’re horrible; they have no flavor. Cherry tomatoes have wonderful flavor and acid. Like in my finnan haddie and lobster chowder, you need that acid to balance out the cream.
Favorite secret weapon ingredient?
Heritage Foods USA pork chops. Again, you can’t eat food without some fat. It’s just impossible. It’s going to be boring. It’s very distressing to me when I order a pork chop in restaurants now. Most of the chefs buy their pork from their purveyor, and the purveyors cut every bit of fat off. A pork chop needs the fat around it near the bones. We buy Berkshire pork chops from Heritage Foods USA. Berkshires are grown for their fat content, tenderness and flavor. You should see how much fat we leave on the pork when we cook it. Sometimes I’ll do the whole rack with the skin on, using a trick I learned in England to cure the skin so it comes out really crackling and crispy.
What’s the English method to cure the skin on a whole rack of pork?
English people are very cool. We make some tiny slits and rub salt and vinegar on top of the skin. The next day we brush it off and render it: We take the pork rack, flip it over so the skin rests on the bottom of the pan. We don’t let the oil in the pan touch the meat; we just render the fat out of the skin. Then you flip it over, put whatever marinade you want on the meat and you slow-roast it. You get this beautiful meat and tiny ribbons of crispy skin.
What's the most important skill you need to be a great cook?
Read! Buy a book that looks good to you. Just do it! Do it with abandon. The other thing I tell people is, when you taste something you’ve just made and have to think about it, it means you’re not there yet; you haven’t seasoned it enough. Be bold. Once something is seasoned correctly, you’ll say, “Ah! That’s it.”
Is there a culinary skill or type of dish that you wish you were better at?
I have never made ice cream. Isn’t that weird? My pastry chefs have made it for my restaurants, of course, but I don’t own an ice cream maker at home, although I’m dying to. My favorite ice cream is peach, so my mission this year is to buy a White Mountain ice cream maker and make peach ice cream.
What is your current food obsession?
Fried brussels sprouts leaves. They’re delicious. We use those on a lot of dishes because of their earthy flavor. If you take the leaves off individually and deep-fry them, they are so good, so light and delicious, not like boiled brussels sprouts with their stinky smell. Just fry them, strain them, salt them. They taste so good on pieces of fish, cod, whatever.
Best new store-bought ingredient/product, and why?
Neonata, a spicy, oily fishy condiment made from infant fish. We do an antipasta of capicole with neonata on toasted bread. We’re buying it from Salumeria Italiana in the North End.
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 salt and butter, and go out in the woods and find some mushrooms to cook.
Name two restaurants you are dying to go to in the next year and why?
I can give you two places I just went and adored:
1. Spring Moon at the Peninsula in Hong Kong. I ate there three times when I was in Hong Kong, lunch and two dinners. They make Peking chicken, which I later figured out how to make myself and put on my menu at Towne. I love Hong Kong. I would live in that city. The cooking is top. So many good restaurants.
2. Chez L’Ami Jean in Paris. We were sitting right next to the kitchen, so I got to watch the chef all night. I love watching real French chefs. They just live and die and breathe what they do—the attention to detail, the fervor, how strong they are and dedicated. He shook my hand and smiled at me at the end of the night. To me, that’s a rock star.
If you could invent a restaurant for your next (imaginary) project, what would it be?
I love the idea of a casual, industrial-chic restaurant. I’d want it to have windows like the ones I have in my home kitchen. I bought an old house 19 years ago, and my daughter was the architect. She told me to install these steel-framed windows instead of aluminum because the frames are much thinner. They’re originally made for schools. She suggested red frames instead of black so that they’d pop at night. So I think my next restaurant will have red steel windows. It might have a brick floor in a herringbone pattern. Once you get the floors, walls and ceiling beautiful, then you can put some old, mismatched wood tables, some nice big comfortable chairs, and a great paper napkin with pigs running around on it or something like that, and a paper placemat with a funny design. Something that makes you feel instantly happy when you sit down. Then I’d serve solid ingredients, simply prepared.