F&W Star Chef
Restaurant: Tertulia, El Colmado (NYC); Sea Containers (London)
Experience: International Café (Kalamazoo, MI); Le Colonial (Philadelphia); Mecca (San Francisco); Mugaritz (Errenteria, Spain); Abac and Alkimia (Barcelona, Spain); Tabla, Crudo, Brasserie 8 ½, Boqueria, Suba, and Boqueria Soho (NYC)
Who taught you how to cook? What is the most important thing you learned from him or her?
My grandmother Mutti was my first cooking teacher. She went to the Cordon Bleu in Paris and lived with the famous knife-making family, the Sabatiers. She knew how to cook and eat really good food, and instilled that in me at a young age. The very first dish I remember cooking was pan-fried troutlings that I had caught in the stream by our house when I was 6. Mutti taught me how to clean them, dust them with flour, fry them in brown butter and finish them with lemon juice and capers. Delicious!
What's a dish that defines your cooking style?
The “Ensalada de Remolachas” at Tertulia. At first glance, this is a simple beet salad with a creamy, funky Spanish cow’s milk cheese, but once you dig in, it’s layered with nuanced flavors: some of the beets are thinly sliced raw, some are pickled, some are deeply smoked for an intense meaty flavor. There are some spicy baby mustard greens for a little spice, and candied pistachios. It’s a dish that seems very straightforward, but there is a lot of technique and depth of flavor behind it.
What was the first dish you ever cooked yourself? And what is the best dish for a neophyte cook to try?
That troutling dish was the first thing I ever cooked. I caught two six-inch brook trout with a spin caster rod and a worm on a hook. Then my grandmother Mutti helped me clean them, season them, dust them in flour and fry them in brown butter. We finished with a squeeze of fresh lemon and a spoonful of capers. I still love this dish.
A good dish for a neophyte? I always suggest something simple, with a little “wow!” factor like a lobster risotto. With a little bit of attention to detail, it’s actually not that hard.
Simply poach the lobster for four minutes in boiling water, remove to an ice bath to chill and separate the meat from the shells. Dice the meat and set aside for later. In a heavy-bottomed large pot, brown the shells over high heat with a little tomato paste. Deglaze with some white wine, add your fish stock or chicken stock and a pinch of saffron, and you’ve got a flavorful lobster stock.
When it comes to making the risotto, the most important thing is to add the stock little by little, allowing the rice to absorb the moisture. Add the cheese at the very end, once the rice is fully cooked and then stir in the butter and the lobster meat with the rice off the flame. Finish with some fresh basil, a few cherry tomatoes and a drizzle of fruity olive oil.
Who is your food mentor? What is the most important thing you learned from him/her?
I’ve had a few mentors over the years. One of the chefs that has had the most influence on my cooking is chef Jordi Vila of Alkimia in Barcelona. I remember the first time I cooked with him in his kitchen, he asked me to make family meal and we had dorade, fresh from the Mediterranean. I pan roasted it and threw in a ton of butter and basted the fish with herbs and whole garlic like I’d learned how to in French kitchens. When I asked Jordi if he liked it, he said it tasted like butter and that if he wanted his fish to taste like butter he would just eat butter. It was a valuable lesson about respecting ingredients and doing just the absolute minimum necessary to make an ingredient shine. Any time we got a new protein in, be it fish or meat, we always discussed what the best cooking technique would be to coax the most out of the specific ingredient. We’d discuss the merits of poaching versus braising, plancha versus pan, until we came up with something that we liked. Then we’d start playing around. In my kitchen, my chefs and I work together, collaboratively, to figure out the best way to approach a new dish. We treat it like a logic problem that we have to solve together.
Favorite cookbook of all time.
That’s a tough one! I gotta say Michel Bras’s eponymous cookbook. It’s one of the most beautifully photographed books of all time.
What's the most important skill you need to be a great cook?
I know this sounds really vague, but I would say work ethic. If you have a great work ethic—which means you’re responsible, willing to learn and work hard—then all the other skills will eventually fall into place. With a strong work ethic, it is only a matter of time before you master the technical stuff, like knife skills, or butchering. Without it, the rest doesn’t matter.
Is there a culinary skill or type of dish that you wish you were better at?
Pastry has never been my strong suit, and now that I am primarily gluten-free, I would love to explore new ways of thinking about dessert.
What is the best bang-for-the-buck ingredient and how would you use it?
Any kind of shanks or off-cuts. They are so much cheaper than the fancy cuts of meat and, if handled well, can be even more delicious.
What is your current food obsession?
Avocados. I’m obsessed with the relationship between food and health. Avocados are an amazing source of great fats that are very, very good for us. I absolutely love the color and texture, and the fattiness is a great foil to bright, vibrant spicy foods.
Name three restaurants you are dying to go to in the next year and why?
Manresa: I’m a big admirer of chef David Kinch and I’d love to go to his restaurant.
L’Antica Macelleria Cecchini. It’s not really a restaurant; it’s Dario Cecchini’s butcher shop in Tuscany, but I’m sure he would be happy to whip up some good, simple fare. I just met Dario in London recently and he’s a terrific character, extremely passionate and knows so much about good meat, specifically the elusive Chianina of Tuscany.
Takizawa in Tokyo. I don’t usually go in for modernist cuisine, but chef Takizawa is truly a master of his craft and his food looks like something to experience at least once in a lifetime.
Best bang-for-the-buck food trip – where would you go and why?
Bangkok, with one caveat: Don’t eat in restaurants! There are a few good restaurants in Bangkok—in fact, my favorite Thai restaurant, Nahm, is actually owned by an Australian chef—but for the real Thai experience, you have to eat in the street, in the markets or in someone’s home. It’s an amazing place to eat for cheap.
What is the most cherished souvenir you've brought back from a trip?
I had some beautiful, hand-crafted chef’s knives made for me in Sakai City, Osaka Prefecture, which is the cradle of Japanese knife-making. I got them in 2009. They are priceless to me, amazing tools with incredible memories.
What do you consider your other talent(s) besides cooking?
Not sure if this counts as a talent, but I’m a pretty good cyclist. I used to race mountain bikes competitively. Oh, I also play a mean ukelele.
If you could invent a restaurant for your next (imaginary) project, what would it be?
I would love to explore the idea of sushi in a non-Japanese context: a kitchen counter with a menu of expressive, fun, creative raw fish dishes that evoke the integrity of the Japanese tradition, yet transcend borders.
If you were going to take Thomas Keller, Anthony Bourdain or Mario out to eat, where would it be?
Tough one! These guys have eaten everything everywhere. I’d take chef Keller to this amazing tempura restaurant, Tenichi Ginza Honten, in Ginza, Tokyo. I think he’d appreciate the refinement of real tempura. I was blown away; it’s as revered as much as the highest temples of sushi, each piece of tempura made à la minute in front of you and served to you just like an omakase meal.
If you were facing an emergency and could only take one backpack of supplies, what would you bring, and what would you make?
A sharp knife, a fishing kit, a fire starter, some olive oil, a kilo of kosher salt. I’d catch my own fish, grill some over an open fire and salt the rest to preserve it for later.
What ingredient will people be talking about in five years?
Coconuts. I think that people are starting to really understand and value the nutritional quality of coconuts. I think over time we’re going to start to see different varieties, different coconut-based products and new cooking applications of the ingredient. Bring on the coconuts! I love ‘em!
What do you eat straight out of the fridge, standing up? What is your favorite snack?
I will eat kimchi straight out of the jar. My favorite snack is dark chocolate; I love Michel Cluizel.
Best new store-bought ingredient/product, and why?
Slant Shack grass-fed beef jerky from Vermont. Grass-fed beef is a superfood as far as I’m concerned. It’s a terrific source of nutrients, vitamins, omega-3 fatty acids and it just tastes darn good. The guys at Slant Shack allow you to create custom jerky seasonings to your liking and they ship them straight to you in about ten days. It’s terrific stuff and it’s very good for you.
Five people to follow on twitter, instagram, pinterest, facebook.
On Twitter: Aziz Ansari, @azizansari
Chrissy Teigen, @chrissyteigen
On Instagram: Fathom, http://instagram.com/fathomwaytogo
Do you have any food superstitions or pre- or post- shift rituals?
I always set up my station before starting. If my mise en place is not exactly the way I like it set up, my brain won’t actually function. I quite literally have to stop whatever I’m doing and completely reset and get things just right. I guess I’m a little OCD, but if everything isn’t where it belongs, I can’t work properly.