F&W Star Chef
Restaurants: Husk, McCrady’s, Minero (Charleston, SC); Husk (Nashville, TN); Minero (Atlanta);
Experience: Jefferson Hotel (Richmond, VA); Hermitage Hotel (Nashville, TN)
Education: Johnson & Wales University
Who taught you how to cook? What is the most important thing you learned from him or her?
I learned to cook from my mother and my grandmother. The most important things I learned from them were to cook with the rhythms of the seasons, and preservation techniques.
What's a dish that defines your cooking style?
That’s tough, because I have two styles. McCrady’s has a very modern point of view and is more refined, and Husk is more laid-back, casual and Southern. I think shrimp and grits is a good example, because I do a very casual version and a very modern version. The casual Husk version is an à la minute daily approach, cooking with whatever the farmers bring. McCrady’s is a more rehearsed dish and more refined in the technique. The Husk version is more vegetable-driven and more rustic. The McCrady’s version has more attention to the plating and the cooking of the shrimp.
What was the first dish you ever cooked yourself? And what is the best dish for a neophyte cook to try?
The first dish I ever cooked myself was biscuits, when I was 8 years old. For a neophyte, I’d say Hoppin’ John, because it’s such a simple dish, just rice and peas, but it holds an incredible story of culture. The key is to make sure you have excellent quality rice, cook it with care and get the most interesting cow peas you can find. The lesson of the dish is that something simple can be extraordinary.
Who is your food mentor? What is the most important thing you learned from him/her?
It always goes back to my mother and grandmother. The most important thing they taught me is respect for the ingredients, not wasting anything and celebrating the products that you have.
Favorite cookbook of all time?
The Unrivaled Cookbook and Housekeeper’s Guide. The author is unknown, but people called her Miss Jackson. It’s an old 19th-century cookbook and was one of the first published and written about Creole and Low Country Cuisine. It’s hard to get a copy. I’d been looking seven or eight years for one and just found it the other day.
What's the most important skill you need to be a great cook?
Vegetable cookery. It’s often overlooked, but cooking vegetables is probably the most difficult thing and it’s really a craft that takes forever to master.
Is there a culinary skill or type of dish that you wish you were better at?v
All of them. That’s the beautiful thing about being a chef. You’re never satisfied with your skill set and always trying to become better.
What is the best bang-for-the-buck ingredient and how would you use it?
I would say lemons. I put them in everything. If something’s not delicious, just add lemon juice. My favorite is a variegated lemon, which has very low acid, but they’re not widely available.
What is your current food obsession?
Appalachian cooking, the cooking my family did when I was a little kid. It’s at risk of dying and I’m obsessed with documenting it and celebrating it. It goes back to my great grandmother.
Name three restaurants you are dying to go to in the next year and why?
Etxebarri, in Axpe, Spain, because it’s a perfect example of someone mastering a specific craft, cooking with various types of wood and using pristine ingredients.
Mugaritz in Errenteria, Spain because it’s an extremely avant-garde, modern style of cooking that hasn’t stopped evolving since the early 2000s.
In de Wulf in Dranouter, Belgium because it’s a fantastic example of a young chef who’s really embraced his family’s traditions and cooking with enormous respect.
Best bang-for-the-buck food trip—where would you go and why?
Portland or Nashville for the ability to eat a lot of fantastic ethnic cuisines, which are affordable and extremely delicious. In Nashville, I love Chinese, Korean and Mexican. Portland’s really more about the food truck world. You can walk into a parking lot and there will be 100 food trucks, all different ethnicities, all dirt cheap and delicious.
What is the most cherished souvenir you've brought back from a trip?
A beautiful wooden mortar and pestle I brought back from West Africa at the Sendaga Market in Dakar. I’ve been twice this year. I use it at Husk to prepare my grilled catfish with Gullah fish head stew and Carolina gold rice.
What do you consider your other talent(s) besides cooking?
I’m a pretty good race-car driver, I’ve discovered recently.
If you could invent a restaurant for your next (imaginary) project, what would it be?
The world’s most amazing taco shack. I’d have it in Charleston, South Carolina, and we’d have à la minute tortillas, ground to order and amazingly prepared, high-quality meats cooked over open fires. We’d have seating, so you could drink tequila and Micheladas, but it would be very bare bones, like a cinder block building.
If you were going to take Thomas Keller, Anthony Bourdain or Mario Batali out to eat, where would it be?
Tony Bourdain, and we’d go to Tokyo. He’s the expert there. I’d been there once before with him, but it was really rushed.
If you were facing an emergency and could only take one backpack of supplies, what would you bring, and what would you make?
Rice, pickled sour corn, pickled cabbage and pickled green tomatoes, lots of dried beans, a nice chunk of Benton’s bacon, salt, lemon and corn meal. And that’s all I’d need. I’d cook the staple, dry ingredients, which were preserved, find as many fresh vegetables as I could, and use the bacon and lemon to make them taste delicious. And I’d have a big bowl of beautiful rice and dried beans and the condiments from the pickles, and then use the corn meal to make corn bread.
What ingredient will people be talking about in five years?
Wood, because it’s something a lot of people take for granted and don’t view as an ingredient, but each type of wood has a different flavor. And people will be embracing the wood of their region. A great example in Nashville is the flavor of hickory, the most abundant local wood; it’s a flavor that becomes embedded in your DNA when you’re a little kid.
What do you eat straight out of the fridge, standing up? What is your favorite snack?
I’m terrible. I love eating cold leftovers, especially Chinese food—anything with a noodle in it.
My favorite snack is the pimento cheese I make myself, and Saltine or Ritz crackers. Ruth’s Pimento Cheese is a brand I like, if I have to buy.
Best new store-bought ingredient/product, and why?
Artisanal vinegars, and real live vinegars. Bragg’s is a great brand, but I’m always looking for smaller, hand-crafted vinegars. At the restaurants, at any given time we are making between 40 and 60 types of vinegar.
Do you have any pre- or post- shift rituals?
I always have to have a notebook in my left back pocket, a black Sharpie on the right side of my apron and a felt tip Papermate pen on the left side of my apron. The pen is for inspiration and the Sharpie is for labeling food throughout the day.