F&W Star Chef
Chef: Michael Tusk
Restaurants: Quince, Cotogna (San Francisco)
Background: Stars; Chez Panisse; Oliveto (San Francisco)
Education: Tulane University; Culinary Institute of America at Hyde Park
Who taught you to cook? What is the most important thing you learned from them?
Paul Bertolli. I worked with him at both Chez Panisse and Oliveto, where I ran the kitchen for him for about six years. Working at the Chez was more about seasonality, building relationships with farmers. Working with Paul, he taught me more about cooking techniques. We also got to go to Italy together regularly. He taught me to be honest about food, the materia prima. When something’s naturally good and has a historic context, to respect the product, respect where the food came from, but at the same time realize we’re cooking in California, and to provide a little twist if needed, but to keep it as honest as possible, to search out materia prima and go from there.
You and Paul are both legendary sourcers of good materia prima; did he teach you any pointers on how to get the best stuff from producers?
No, I just think they respect you if you show passion for their products and their work, because at the end of the day, their jobs are probably even harder than any chef’s, whether it’s an artisan product or an organic farmer. It’s a relationship built on constant communication, finding out what’s around the corner, what may not be working out this year, what they’re going to try for next year. And then a lot of it is taste. You go to markets and taste things, and visit the farmers—it just happens. Ten years later these people become part of your family.
What’s the most important thing you teach your cooks?
Probably the number one thing is that you don’t have to settle for the best. Keep on reaching to find the best raw materials. Or if you have something good, stick with it. My squab farmer, I’ve been buying from him every week for probably over 17 years. It makes your job easier when you have a product that you love to use and look forward to getting every week.
What was the first dish you ever cooked yourself?
I was into more breakfast foods as a younger cook, basics like poached eggs and hollandaise. I also enjoyed making Thanksgiving dinner for my high school in ninth-grade home economics class.
And what is the best dish for a neophyte home cook to try?
Spaghetti carbonara. Dishes like that have stood the test of time for a reason: People like it. It also doesn’t have a lot of ingredients, so you can focus on what kind of spaghetti would be best, what kind of guanciale, black pepper, eggs, Parmigiano or Pecorino. It can all be made in one pan (along with the pan for boiling the pasta). The techniques are also educational. People make it so many different ways, whether they use whole eggs or egg yolk, with ground black pepper or crushed peppercorns, with all Pecorino or all parm. It’s a dish I like to make because it makes me think a lot. It’s got a lot of steps. It only takes 10 to 12 minutes, but a lot goes on in that ten-minute span. Sometimes I’ll test my cooks on it when they’re doing a tryout.
Favorite cookbook of all time?
When I was younger, I liked the la technique books by Jacques Pépin (La Technique and La Méthode) because they showed the processes step by step. I also love Le Ricette Regionali Italiane by Anna Gosetti della Salda. It goes through all of the regions and all of the categories of an Italian meal—antipasti, primi piatti, secondi, dolce. If I’m ever at a loss, I’ll look at a section to get the primary emphasis of a dish to get me started. Instead of photographs, it has these little black-and-white drawings that get your mind started.
What's a dish that defines your cooking style?
I like to design dishes based in tradition. When there’s a need to tweak them, I try to adapt them to where I am, to keep as honest as possible. If I’m making an agnolotti from Piemonte, I’ll use the meats that are more prevalent around here. I might focus on those squabs I mentioned to you earlier. If someone from Piemonte should order it, hopefully it will still transport them back to their homeland. But I’ve also made a few revisions to make it feel like it’s in Northern California.
One technique everyone should know.
How to make a good pasta dough. You only need flour and eggs, and you can go in so many different directions, whether it’s for a filled pasta, a ribbon or another shape, baked, with butter or another sauce, from this region or that. I think that’s why I gravitated toward it—it’s an everyday staple, but there’s the alphabet of pasta dishes to learn. It’s very therapeutic, too - making the well, putting the eggs in, the kneading, it’s just very satisfying from start to finish.
Is there a culinary skill or type of dish that you wish you were better at?
I’d like to go to Japan to learn some different Japanese techniques. I was at a Bocuse d’Or dinner at Melisse [in L.A.], and Josiah [Citrin] brought in a sushi chef to make some sushi for us for staff meal. Watching him work was very intriguing. The attention to detail and how gracefully he worked. That’s a big interest of mine.
What is your current food obsession?
I don’t think I have any one thing. I feel like as a chef you have to be pretty open-minded. I like to eat everything, prepare everything; I’m always open to new flavors and techniques. So in terms of an actual obsession, no. I’m always pretty happy drinking Champagne and eating caviar.
What are your talents besides cooking?
I collect all the art at the restaurants, including the large-format photography at Quince, so that’s definitely one of my passions. Vintage cookware is my other obsession.
If you could invent a restaurant for your next (imaginary) project, what would it be?
One that combines art and culinary artifacts, so you can come eat, purchase products and anything else to do with the culinary arts, whether it’s books, thermomixes, spoons, knives, anything from around the world.
Best new store-bought ingredient/product, and why?
I’m pretty fond of Acquerello carnaroli rice. It’s super-consistent; it’s pretty adaptable. I like its overall flavor; it’s something I never really get bored of making.
What's the best house cocktail, wine, beer and why?
For wine, I’m not at my house very often, but I would gear towards having large amounts of Champagne from different producers. For beer, I like the Pliny the Elder from Russian River, that’s pretty tasty. Hitachino’s beers, too. It’s all about variety for me— I’m always open to new things.
What do you eat straight out of the fridge, standing up?
Pickles, and smoked fish. Being from the East coast, I still order a pretty good amount from Russ & Daughters, like their Irish smoked salmon; I’m really fond of that. You can’t take the East Coast out of the West Coast chef, I say.