F&W Star Chef
Restaurants: elements and Mistral (Princeton, NJ)
Experience: Baystreet Grill (Edison, NJ)
Who taught you to cook? What is the most important thing you learned from them?
I started off as a line cook at sports bars and other fairly modest places, so I didn’t have a lot of high-end experience. Probably the person who put the finishing touches on me was Craig Shelton at the Ryland Inn. He got people to use their brains, to think about why things worked, rather than just doing what you’re told. His background was in biophysics and biochemistry at Yale. He got us to understand things at a—I don’t want to say molecular, but at a very minute level, like why emulsions work and how salts help stabilize an emulsion. He got us to dive into food.
What was the first dish you ever cooked yourself?
I think it had something to do with swordfish and pineapple. When I was younger and working at those sports bars, I’d always had a pretty good ability to manage people. At first, I was more of a kitchen manager before I knew how to cook. I got hired at this restaurant where they wanted me to run the kitchen and run nightly specials. I knew how to cook on the line, I knew how to cook what people told me to, but I wasn’t ready to create a special. They handed me swordfish, so I did what I grew up eating in South Florida: I made a jalapeño and pineapple salsa.
You also spent part of your childhood in Japan; how did that influence your cooking?
In more ways than I can explain. I spent a total of seven years there: From kindergarten to second grade, and again from sixth to ninth grade. I’d go to the vegetable and seafood markets with my mom, so I was always around food. But I was far too young to cook. I think it impacted me more on a stylistic and elegance level.
What is the best dish for a neophyte home cook to try?
A properly seasoned and cooked steak. A lot of people don’t season theirs well enough before it goes on the grill; they don’t know how to use their temperatures correctly and don’t choose the right cut of meat. I’d get a rib eye steak, season it liberally, make sure your grill’s extremely hot, cook it on high heat on both sides, then let it rest.
Favorite cookbook of all time?
Le Gavroche Cookbook by Michel Roux, Jr. He’s classically trained, yet when the book came out in 2001, he was doing some innovative things—certainly differently than his father and uncle, the Roux brothers. He stayed grounded in classic flavors, but was willing to try new things.
What's the most important skill you need to be a great cook?
Patience and organization. The one leads to the other. Organization allows you to accomplish more. You need patience to let things work out. A young chef will bring me a sauce or puree; we’ll taste it and think about it and I’ll say, “You know what? Let it rest. We’ll come back to it in a few hours.” They’ll say, “but I want it to taste right now!” But it’s not going to taste right now. The flavors need to get along in there. Like a tomato sauce—it tastes way better the next day. A lot of dishes just need time. A lot of young cooks try to force flavors when they need to pull back and let things hang out.
What is your current food obsession?
Whole dried allspice berries. Lately I just put a lot of them in everything. One example: I recently cured skate for about 30 minutes. The cure had salt, sugar, coriander, bay leaf and a handful of whole allspice berries. I love their unique floral undertones, how they translate to food.
Best store-bought ingredient, and why?
Jamaican Pickapeppa sauce. That might have sparked my curiosity with allspice, come to think of it. At home, I put it straight on everything—grilled cheese, scrambled eggs, steak.
What are your talents besides cooking?
I haven’t been out in the world in so long! I'm a fair fisherman, not fly-fishing but rod and reel—or redneck style, as I was once told.
Name one secret-weapon ingredient.
Shiro dashi, or white soy sauce. We’ve been trying to make different soy sauces in house, but we haven’t come up with a white one yet. It’s a highly concentrated dashi, with a lot of bonito and seaweed, yet it’s light in color. We use it to help out soup bases, certain sauces and marinades. Like today I made a shellfish custard: I cooked off mussels and clams in white wine and added an egg and tasted it. I had enough salt but I didn’t have enough middle palate, the umami. So I added a little bit of shiro dashi, and it worked.
What ingredient will people be talking about in five years? Why?
I think there’s going to be a resurgence of Central and South American ingredients. In the ’90s, there was a little push with Nuevo Latino cuisine. But I think chefs are going to branch out to use those ingredients without being cuisine-based. I love all the potatoes and different yams, the boniato and jicama and yuca. We have a farmer here in Jersey that grows a root vegetable related to a lily called yacón. I think if more people were introduced to the yacón, it would be very widely used. We use it in all kinds of forms: sometimes we boil and mash it; sometimes we puree it. It has some faint vanilla tones, and a little sunchoke, and a sweetness almost like it’s caramelized when it’s not.
If you were facing an emergency and could only take one backpack of supplies, what would you bring, what would you make and why?
My chef de cuisine and I are fairly versed in foraging, so I’d have to have my knives, something to help make a flame with and then a metal cup, or something to put food in. A clean pair of socks, maybe. And I’d do my best to forage for everything else.
What do you eat straight out of the fridge, standing up?
I eat most everything standing up, even when I go home. Because once I sit down, I am done. I eat Nutella like it’s going out of style, straight out of the jar.
Grilled cheese, with whatever’s meltable and on hand. If it had my druthers, it’d be a petit basque or a morbier.
Who's your chef idol and where would you take him or her to dinner?
I’ve met him once or twice, but I’d like to sit down and have dinner with David Kinch. I think we’re somewhat similar. I love his food; I think he’s got a great brain. I’d probably want to go somewhere in Japan, because I know he’s been there so many times. He’d be able to take me somewhere I’ve never heard of that was just awesome.
Name three restaurants you are dying to go to in the next year and why?
1. L’Astrance. I’m halfway through his book right now. I like his use of ingredients from all over the world. And it seems like he’s got a great sense of humor. For years, the French have cooked their particular way. I don’t want to say they lacked flavor, because everything they executed was pretty perfect. But you didn’t see a lot of Indian or Thai or South American ingredients in their food. The only thing he cares about is flavor and doing great food with as many ingredients as he can get.
2. I’d like to eat at Quique Dacosta’s restaurant. I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t.
3. I’d still like to eat at Pierre Gagnaire. I’ve never been to Paris.
If you could invent a restaurant for your next (imaginary) project, what would it be?
I want to do a barbecue joint. Where I grew up, South Florida, is not really the South. But I’ve been all through North and South Carolina, and Kansas City. I love eating barbecue. I cook it a lot at home—ribs and pulled pork. I’d like to feed some of the Yankees up here some of that.