F&W Star Chef
Experience: Vicenti, Craft, Mezze (Los Angeles); L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon (New York City)
Education: Cornell School of Hotel Administration (Ithaca, NY)
By the age of 15, Los Angeles-born cook Micah Wexler had already cinched his first stage, working through school vacations under Gino Angelini at Vicenti Restaurant in Brentwood, California. After high school he headed east to attend Cornell's hotel school, and later racked up kitchen experience at Michelin-starred restaurants in Spain and Italy. When Wexler returned to the States, he settled in New York City to work the fish station at L'Atelier de Joël Robuchon at the Four Seasons. But a sous-chef position at Tom Colicchio's newly opened Craft outpost lured Wexler back to Los Angeles in 2007. He stayed at the market-driven restaurant for two years, before leaving to begin work on his own project. His Mediterranean spot, Mezze, opened in 2011, turning out vibrant small plates that drew from Israeli, Syrian, Turkish and Lebanese pantries.
Neighboring construction shut down Mezze in November 2012. As Wexler hatched plans for his next project, he spoke with Food & Wine about sea urchin, antique spoons and Cheerios.
What dish are you most famous for?
I would have to say my tabbouleh. The classic tabbouleh is really parsley heavy, so you feel like you are a farm animal when you eat it. I wanted to flip the ratio and substitute some of the parsley for a variety of market vegetables. It's a dish that changes with the seasons. The spring version had fava beans, green garlic, pea tendrils, cucumber, parsley, lemon, bulgur wheat, almonds and bacon lardons for a meaty, salty kick.
What two dishes really tell us your story as a chef?
I'd definitely single out the sea urchin couscous. One of the things that I picked up from my Robuchon days was to go after a certain simplicity and purity of flavor. I wanted this dish to be all about sea urchin, so we cooked Israeli pearl couscous in a stock made from urchin and shrimp. We enriched it with sea urchin butter, and finished it with more urchin and lemon. It's just a really simple, straightforward dish, but every bite was pure and intense.
One thing that I like to do in my cooking is to start with something traditional and then take some liberties with it—keep the same flavors but work my own spin into it. Our shakshuka was a play on one of my favorite Israeli breakfast dishes. It was a spicy stew of peppers, tomatoes, onions and spices, with a poached egg inside it. On top we'd add some crispy sweetbreads, a yogurt emulsion and Aleppo pepper.
What was the first dish you ever cooked yourself?
The first real dish I can remember going after was a pumpkin soup. I was probably 11 years old and somebody had given me this CIA cookbook. It was around Halloween and I saw this recipe for pumpkin soup and really wanted to try it. I insisted on using a whole fresh pumpkin, but when I was done there was, literally, like two cups worth of soup.
What is your secret-weapon ingredient?
Aleppo pepper is definitely one of my go-tos. It's really mild for a chile pepper and it has a smoky, almost tomatoey flavor in addition to the heat. I use it during the cooking process and also as a finisher.
Name one indispensable store-bought ingredient.
Really good anchovies. Any ingredient that gives me that funky, fermented flavor will always be a favorite. I'll chop them up and sneak them into all kind of dishes. Anchovies give food this deep, unknown flavor. That salty funkiness works really well in heavier braised meat dishes.
You're planning a budget-friendly food trip—where would you go and why?
I just got back from Thailand and Vietnam and I think that's the most budget-friendly food trip you could possibly go on. We ate anything and everything from street vendors and restaurants. They are obsessed with freshness over there and it's incredibly cheap. You can eat like a king and it will cost you five bucks. A chef out there took me to this traditional Thai breakfast place where they serve a pork blood and offal noodle soup.
What is the most cherished souvenir you've brought back from a trip?
I am kind of obsessed with spoons, they are one my favorite tools in the kitchen. I spotted these antique silver spoons at a flea market in Italy and they are the perfect size. They come to a really fine point, with a perfect shape for saucing a plate. I only have two left: I gave one of them to my pastry chef, and I left another one with a [metal-worker] who is trying to replicate them.
Name three restaurants you are dying to go to in the next year and why.
Being outside and cooking really simple food over wood is one of the best things there is, so I'd love to check out Etxebarri in Spain. Victor Arguinzoniz is really masterful with wood-fired cooking. I'd like to check out Saison in San Francisco, I think Joshua Skenes has a really interesting approach to food. And anywhere Robuchon happens to be cooking.
If you were going to take Thomas Keller out to eat, where would you bring him?
I would probably take him to my favorite sushi spot. It is a place called Hirozen here in Los Angeles. They specialize in the smaller, oilier types of fish like mackerel, and the food is just pristine and straightforward, with no over-the-top embellishments.
What is your current food obsession?
I would say sea urchin. It has the perfect combination of flavor and texture that you always look for in food. It's creamy, it's briny, it tastes like the essence of the ocean. I just can't get enough of it.
What is your favorite cookbook of all time?
Probably Escoffier: Le Guide Culinaire. It is a classic reference book and the recipes in there never go out of style.
Who are some of your favorite people to follow on Twitter?
I followed the Dalai Lama for a while, but that seemed kind of silly. I like following Kobe Bryant because I'm a huge Lakers fan. As for chefs, Roy Choi is great. He has no filter, and he doesn't care what anybody thinks about him. He says a lot of bizarre, off-the-wall things that are pretty funny.