© Paul Elledge
F&W Star Chef
Restaurants: Frontera Grill, Topolobampo, XOCO River North, XOCO Wicker Park (Chicago); Tortas Frontera, Frontera Fresco (Multiple Locations)
Who taught you how to cook? What is the most important thing you learned from him or her?
My grandmother was a huge influence. I loved her and she taught me to bring more than just good food to the table. She taught me that being a great cook also meant bringing love and family together. Food-wise, I always loved her peach pie.
What's a dish that defines your cooking style?
I believe that a cuisine is always alive and growing, so I don’t think I can answer with a specific dish. I am rooted in authentic Mexican cuisine, but certainly with a twist. The great part is that I didn’t grow up with a Mexican grandmother, so I don’t have to be true to traditional recipes.
What was the first dish you ever cooked yourself? And what is the best dish for a neophyte cook to try?
I cooked my way through every recipe in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking and loved it.
For a newbie, I’d say go to my special guac recipes. The keys to doing it right are having ripe avocados, rinsing your white onions and keeping it chunky. It should not be too smooth. Finally, make sure to really keep it cold before you serve it for a party.
Who is your food mentor? What is the most important thing you learned from him/her?
I grew up idolizing Julia Child. I read everything about her, and when I met her I was star-struck. I learned one of the greatest things from her that I try to pass along to my staff: do your research and have fun.
What's the most important skill you need to be a great cook?
A sense of balance, and the ability to know when something is too sweet, too salty or too bitter. Good knife skills don’t hurt, either.
Is there a culinary skill or type of dish that you wish you were better at?
Not really. I try lots of stuff. I’m okay with not being great at everything; that’s why I have a great staff.
What is the best bang-for-the-buck ingredient and how would you use it?
Canned chipotle peppers, any brand will do. Throw the chopped chipotles into a salsa and use the canning liquid as a marinade.
What is your current food obsession?
Right now I’m all about vegetables: radishes, eggplants, tomatoes—you name it. I’m a big farmers’ market shopper and I’m so inspired by what I find there.
What do you consider your other talent(s) besides cooking?
Before I was a chef, I was a writer, and I still write a lot today: books and articles, and you should see some of the emails I send to my staff. I’ve also been known to do a little acting and dancing.
If you were going to take Thomas Keller out to eat, where would it be?
It’s not a restaurant, but I’d take Keller to El Popocatepetl Tortilleria, the masa factory that supplies the masa to my restaurants in Chicago. I think he’d appreciate their attention to detail.
What do you eat straight out of the fridge, standing up? What is your favorite snack?
I love doughnuts. My favorites are from the Doughnut Plant in New York City.
20. Five people to follow on Twitter and Instagram.
1. Scott Simon of NPR (Twitter: @nprscottsimon)
2. Dorie Greenspan (Twitter and Instagram)
3. Bang Bang Pie (Instagram: @bangbangpie)
4. Alexander Lobrano (Twitter: @aleclobrano)
5. Martha Stewart Living’s Instagram (@ms_living)
Do you have any food superstitions or pre- or post- shift rituals?
My ritual is my daily yoga practice. I am constantly posting my poses on my Twitter feed.