F&W Star Chef
Experience: Spago, Gordon, Charlie Trotter’s, Ambria, MK (Chicago)
Restaurants: Mindy’s Hot Chocolate Restaurant and Dessert Bar, aka Hot Chocolate (Chicago)
Education: Kendall College (Chicago)
Who taught you to cook? What is the most important thing you learned from them?
On the savory side, I taught myself how to cook. And to be honest with you, with pastry, I feel like I’m still learning how to bake, though I’ve been working on my craft for 30 years. Technique-wise, I got my foundation in pastry from Judy Contino, my pastry chef at Ambria. When I worked at Marché, Michael Kornick taught me how to run a business, how to be a chef.
What was the first dish you ever cooked yourself?
And what is the best dish for a neophyte cook to try?
How to roast chicken or how to braise anything. If you can braise or roast, you can do anything.
What's the most important skill you need to be a great cook?
When cooks start working for me, I give them a list with 26 things and tell them, “If these 26 things aren’t important to you, you shouldn’t be working in a kitchen.” One is “learn how to season.” Another is “own a copy of The Food Lover’s Companion.” Another is, “do you know the leaders in your field?” “Know your neighbor’s station.” “The fastest way to hurry up is to slow down.” “Prepare the night before.” “Know your ovens.” “If you’re starting out in this industry to be famous, take a real estate exam.” “Be a leader.” “Always give back.” “Can you carry the dishes that you cook with a beer or wine or cocktail?”
The point is, cooking is about so much more than just a recipe. It’s about how you think about how you work in a kitchen. Kids today coming out of culinary school are so ill-prepared. I wish I could get them earlier than culinary school, because I would tell them not to go to culinary school. I’d tell them to give the money that they give to these loan officers and put it in a fund for traveling and see the world.
Is there a culinary skill or type of dish that you wish you were better at?
Everything. Pastry cream. It should be luscious, and lovely, and wonderful, and rich and creamy, and not stiff and not eggy. But sometimes the easiest, most basic things to make are the hardest.
I have actually closed my restaurant for two weeks to revamp the menu. My plan was, “I’m not going to do plated desserts anymore. I’m going to do single desserts.” My menu was going to read, “cake,” “pie,” “frozen,” “cookies.” Let’s say we wanted to serve all-American chocolate cake. We would test different recipes to come up with the perfect version. When you put in your mouth, you’d say, “This was the best chocolate cake I’ve ever eaten.” I’d get to work on my craft every week. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.
But my customer base wanted plated desserts, because that’s what I’m known for. So I brought them back and decided to open a bakery to serve those baked goods there.
Name one restaurant you are dying to go to in the next year and why?
The Farm and Fisherman. It’s a BYOB restaurant in Philadelphia. I’ve actually already been and can’t wait to go back. I’m looking forward to going to any restaurant where the chef is actually cooking in his kitchen. At The Farm and Fisherman, Joshua Lawler cooks the food every night. And the food is at his whim.
What is the most cherished souvenir you've brought back from a trip?
Two or three years ago, I went to Italy with my boyfriend, now my fiancé, for his best friend’s wedding. We went to Rome for a few days before we met up with the wedding party. We ended up renting an apartment in the Trastevere that by chance happened to be above this amazing craft beer bar called Bir & Fud. We’re total craft beer people, so we fell in love with the place and went there every night. Our first afternoon, we bought a large-format bottle of sour beer by LoverBeer called BeerBera, made with fermented Barbera grapes. It was so good, we professed our love over it and decided that we would spend the rest of our lives together. We smuggled a couple of bottles home. Now they import it to America.
Favorite cookbook of all time?
All of Thomas Keller’s books, like The French Laundry Cookbook and Ad Hoc at Home. I love the way he talks about cooking and his approach—the importance of this salt, of family meal, the way he pares things down to their basics.
Marc Vetri also has a second cookbook called Rustic Italian Food with a foreword by Mario Batali. I love what Batali says about Vetri: how he’s genuine, how in this molecular-gastronomy age, it’s so important to have a chef cooking from his soul.
Name one secret-weapon ingredient.
My three secret weapons are honey, vanilla extract and salt. I put honey in all my bread. I’m superstitious, but I feel like honey makes my bread softer and happier. I don’t know how else to say it: The yeast gets something extra to feed on. But I’m really into old wives’ tales. I’m sure it doesn’t mean [shit].
Best bang-for-the-buck food trip—where would you go and why?
Philadelphia. We love Philly. We have friends there, I have old employees, so we go a lot. We love the entire Vetri Family of restaurants (vetrifamily.com). And Farm and Fisherman. For cocktails we always go to The Franklin Mortgage & Investment Company, one of the best cocktail clubs in America. We love to go to Village Whiskey. And we love all of Michael Solomonov’s restaurants—his empire, too, really (zahavrestaurant.com).
If you were going to take Anthony Bourdain out to eat, where would it be and why?
I’m in love with him—and who isn’t! I don’t really watch food shows, but I watch him. I would take him to my restaurant, Hot Chocolate. Why not be bold.
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 take eggs and a pot to cook my eggs in. Eggs are the superfood! I can do anything with an egg.
What ingredient will people be talking about in five years?
I just hope it’s not pork belly.
What's the best house cocktail, wine, beer and why?
We change our beers all the time. They’re hyperseasonal, obviously, but I love sour beers in particular. I’m a sour beer freak. In fact, at my new bakery, I’m going to have a signature bread that we bake fresh every afternoon with a beer that I collaborated on with Lauren Salazar of New Belgium Brewing Company. We made a sourdough starter from the bacteria Brettanomyces specific to sour beer. The starter is super-unctuous and noxious and warm and alive and lovely. But we’re still working on the bread.
What is your current food obsession?
Feel-good food. Made with great ingredients, peaking with the season and makes you feel good. I’m really into feeding your soul.
Name two or three dishes that define who you are.
When I was younger and used to go to New York a lot, we used to go to Babbo. Mario Batali cooks without ego. I’m sure he has an ego; I don't know him very well. But his mint love letters—I'm very romantic, but those sheets of pasta with the mint and the lamb were so simple and delicious and well-prepared. That was a big influence.
I love Marc Vetri; he’s my ultimate food hero. When Dan and I went to Philadelphia for our first time, we made plans to go to all three of Marc Vetri's restaurants (he did not have Alla Spina at the time). When we went to Vetri's, [executive chef] Jeff Michaud greeted us at the door with a handful of white truffles. They proceeded to shave white truffles on the rest of our meal.
About four or five years ago, I went to Boston to do a charity dinner. One of my old assistants was working in bakery and invited me there for breakfast. It was about a $20 cab ride, but I went. I want you to know that I am never moved to tears by anything. Nothing surprises me in this industry. But Sofra Bakery from Maura Kilpatrick and Ana Sortun made me cry. Every time I think about my bakery, I think, How can I be as genuine as they are? At Sofra, everything was laid out beautifully. You totally understood their story. Maura Kilpatrick is a native of Boston, an Irish woman, and she’s cooking American pastries with Middle Eastern flavors. And doing it well, with soul and with class. I ordered so many things; I was embarrassed. And I cried.
California inspires me to be a better chef—the entire state. Nancy Silverton’s grilled sourdough bread with either burrata or ricotta and the roasted tomatoes at Pizzeria Mozza, that made me want to change my menu. It’s something so simple and so good because it’s prepared well with great ingredients. Not that I’m not using great ingredients, but it made me want to refocus myself.
What do you eat straight out of the fridge, standing up?
Pickles. I ate one last night, one of my fiancé’s brother’s pickles. He lives in Chicago and has an alley urban garden, and he pickles his own stuff and makes his own salted stuff from his alley garden. But his mother, she gardens, too, and she makes great pickles as well. So we always have one of their pickles in the cupboard or somewhere.
Best new store-bought ingredient/product?
My friend Bill Kim of Belly Shack just came out with a line of sauces, including Belly Fire. My fiancé and I put it on everything. It’s got a great flavor and balanced spice and seasoning. We put it in our chili, eggs, everything. It’s embarrassing.