Robert McGee

F&W Star Chef

Restaurant: The Whole Ox Deli (Honolulu)

What is your signature dish?
Our burger, which is every chef’s nightmare. You work so hard to perfect your skill, and then it’s a burger that they love you for. We use grass-fed beef from Makaweli Ranch on Kauai and age it for 21 days. We grind the burgers daily, and our version hints at the flavors of beef tartare with an onion bun, caper aioli and grilled red onion.

What was the first dish you ever cooked yourself?
Beef stew, for a merit badge in Cub Scouts. I was 11.

What is the best dish for a neophyte cook to try?
A grilled cheese sandwich with a fried egg in it. You learn temperature control, caramelization and egg cookery. Make it with American cheese on white bread, not the artisanal stuff, because you’re a neophyte and you can’t waste good ingredients.

Who is your food mentor?
Greg Higgins from Higgins Restaurant and Bar in Portland. He taught me everything I know about charcuterie, which is the premise of what I do.

What is your favorite cookbook of all time?
Paul Bertolli’s Cooking by Hand, because of his perspective that everything matters.

What's the most important skill you need to be a great cook?
Knife skills and a sense of urgency.

Is there a culinary skill you wish you were better at?
Butchery. It’s an Old World skill. I do it for a living, but every day I wish I had done something better or been more efficient or profitable.

What are the best bang-for-the-buck ingredients?
Salt, which I use aggressively and judiciously, and vinegar. I’m a fan of nice aged sherry vinegars.

What’s your current food obsession?
Noodles. There are so many kinds of noodle shops here: Vietnamese, Thai, Japanese, Korean, cold or hot. My favorite is Korean chilled spicy noodles (bibim naeng myun), which are made with buckwheat or sweet potato noodles, then chilled and tossed with a Korean chili paste called gochujang and Asian pear. There’s nothing more refreshing.

What restaurants you are dying to visit in the next year?
Sean Brock’s Husk and McCrady’s in Charleston, because he’s brilliant, and I’ve been following him on social media for so long that if I don’t eat his food soon I’ll go insane. I feel the same way about Matthew Jennings at Farmstead in Providence. I’m also dying to eat at any of Ken Oringer or Jamie Bissonnette’s restaurants in Boston, starting with Clio, Toro and KO Prime. What they’re doing with meat is celebrating the Old World but at the same time moving forward aggressively.

Best bang-for-the-buck food trip?
Oahu, Hawaii. The population is so dense, and the noodle places offer great value, as do any of the izakayas. It’s amazing how full you can get from meat on a stick and some sushi rolls. The amount of money you need to get fed here is very low.

What’s your most cherished souvenir from a trip?
The laundry clip from the French Laundry. It makes me think of my honeymoon and the best dinner I’ve ever had in my life.

What do you eat straight out of the fridge, standing up?
I constantly eat kimchi, almost to a criminal level. It’s stuff that my wife makes or that we buy, with cucumber and radish and beets. In our kitchen, the rice maker is always on, and the kimchi is always there. We like things cold and spicy and white and rice-y.

The Dish
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